Industry reaction was strong and swift to an Associated Press investigative story published this morning concluding that the federal government’s ethanol mandate "has proven far more damaging to the environment than politicians promised and much worse than the government admits today."
The article, syndicated throughout the Midwest, and mistakenly published early by some media outlets last week, argues that "fragile and erodible" land better suited to conservation came into production to grow corn due to the ethanol mandate. It notes that 5 million acres has been taken out of the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) under the Obama Administration’s watch, though it doesn’t say how much of that land was used to grow corn that was ultimately converted to ethanol.
(Click to read: AP's ethanol story sparks strong reactions on social media)
The ethanol industry, in a conference call with reporters yesterday, disputed AP’s central finding that farmers wiped out millions of acres conservation land and destroyed habitat in a rush to produce corn for ethanol. The industry argued that the primary driver of the loss of conservation land was a decision by Congress to lower the number of acres allowed in the CRP.
Using government satellite data, the AP also attempted to estimate how much virgin land -- 1.2 million acres in Nebraska and the Dakotas alone –- has been converted from grassland to corn and soybeans production since 2006, the last year before the ethanol mandate was passed. The methodology was reviewed by an independent scientist at South Dakota State University, who has published peer-reviewed research on land conservation using the same data set.
"For decades, the government's Conservation Reserve Program has paid farmers to stop farming environmentally sensitive land," the story reads. "Grassy fields naturally convert carbon dioxide into oxygen, which helps combat global warming. Plus, their deep root systems prevent topsoil from washing away."
The ethanol industry also took aim at AP’s claim that farmers have been converting virgin land into cropland. The industry cited data from the USDA, also reference in the AP report, showing that in 2012, the first year it collected data, farmers placed into production only 38,000 acres of grassland that hadn’t previously been planted.
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, speaking to the editorial board of the Des Moines Register last week, said the article doesn’t consider other federal programs that have resulted in land conservation. He noted that, while CRP enrollment has declined, total acres in conservation stewardship programs, including the wetland reserve program, wildlife habitat incentive programs, and a program that helps farmers adopt conservation practices, has grown by 71.5%.
"I can confidently say over 500,000 producers are engaged in conservation practices of one form or another on record acres in excess of 350 million acres," Vilsack told the paper. "We will add another 24 million acres to that number this year."
The AP article highlights the environmental benefits of grassland. It cites a study published in 2008 by the journal Science concluding that plowing over conservation land "releases so much greenhouse gas that it takes 48 years before new plants can break even and start reducing carbon dioxide."
At the same time, the writers acknowledge the inconclusive link between ethanol markets and shifting land use patters. "It's impossible to precisely calculate how much ethanol is responsible for the spike in corn prices and how much those prices led to the land changes in the Midwest," the article states.
While noting the environmental detriments of growing corn for ethanol, the article doesn’t attempt to weigh them against the positive benefits of reducing oil and gas production. It notes that fertilizer used for corn production is made with natural gas, and that ethanol factories typically burn coal or gas.
"Nitrogen fertilizer, when it seeps into the water, is toxic," the article says. "Children are especially susceptible to nitrate poisoning, which causes ‘blue baby’ syndrome and can be deadly. Between 2005 and 2010, corn farmers increased their use of nitrogen fertilizer by more than one billion pounds."
The article dismisses comments by Department of Agriculture officials who "note that the amount of fertilizer used for all crops has remained steady for a decade, suggesting the ethanol mandate hasn't caused a fertilizer boom across the board."
The article references several environmental hot spots in farm country. It notes that high nitrate levels in the Des Moines and Raccoon Rivers threaten drinking water in Des Moines. And it cites a Minnesota government report this year concluding that making a significant dent in high nitrate levels would require "huge changes in farming practices at a cost of roughly $1 billion a year."
The writers also link corn farming to high nitrate levels that have resulted in a large dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico. Nitrates boost the growth algae, which consume oxygen when they decompose.
"This year, the dead zone covered 5,800 square miles of sea floor, about the size of Connecticut," the says the article, which doesn't mention that the size of this year's dead zone is smaller than some scientists predicted.
The ethanol industry also criticized AP’s claim that since 2010 more corn has gone to fuel than livestock feed, even though government statistics show that to be the case. It noted that some of the corn used to produce ethanol comes back to livestock feed in the form of distiller’s grain.
However, the USDA’s Economic Research Service, which doesn’t include distiller’s grain in its official data, says that in 2010 fuel surpassed livestock feed as the top use of domestic corn, and that the trend continued in 2011 and 2012.
Martin Barbre, president of the National Corn Growers Association, issued a statement saying that farmers do a better job every day meeting the dual challenges of productivity and sustainability.
"Land use per bushel is down 30 percent and soil loss is down 67 percent since 1980. Thanks to renewable corn ethanol, we’re using 465 million fewer barrels of oil each year….[T]he air is getting cleaner."