Ethanol critics playing it both ways can’t see beyond their own nonsense: is corn dirty or is it food?

Our take:
Here’s coverage of the ethanol industry by environmental reporters who feel no apparent need to support their arguments with anything even vaguely resembling a fact. They state for instance that the growth of corn ethanol has led to deforestation. If this is so the why has the rate of rainforest destruction in Indonesia and Brazil slowed down at precisely the time that the US ethanol industry has undergone major expansion. A representative from Friends of the Earth in one breath says corn is “very dirty” – meaning apparently that it has a detrimental impact on the environment, and a moment later states that using corn for fuel interferes with the ability of people to put food on the table. Well, which is it?

And why aren’t we surprised that C. Ford Runge’s name pops up here—he has become a darling of the environmental groups through his thinly-veiled support for the use of petroleum products. How do environmental groups square their anti-ethanol position with its resulting de facto support for using oil, when the Gulf Oil spill and the strip mining of Canada’s tar sands are regarded around the world as two of the worst environmental disasters in human history. The anti-corn folks here don’t even go into the details of their argument, though elsewhere we have seen them argue that nitrogen levels in the Mississippi River and Gulf of Mexico, and sediment loading in the river system are the crux of agriculture’s “dirtiness.”

What they fail to acknowledge is the fact that farmers and farm groups are actively seeking means to reduce nitrogen and sediment loading, and they are having some success, though there is still far to go. In the meantime, American farmers each produce enough food to feed 155 people—including the critics of corn, who presumably eat food every day. They provide this food while also producing energy and actively improving environmental conservation in the agriculture industry. The oil products the environmental groups are favoring by default are produced by an industry that has no such compunction and no such record of trying to develop lower impact means of delivering their product to the public. In fact the carbon intensity and the environmental havoc wreaked by fossil fuels are only growing.

Ultimately we want to know if C. Ford Runge, Michael Rosenoer, the writer of the article Rob Lever or any of the supporters of these anti-ethanol organizations happen to enjoy milk, eggs, chicken, turkey, pork or beef in their diets—if they do then they are enjoying protein-rich food made possible by the production of corn, and by the production of high protein distillers grains—an animal feed co-product made by ethanol plants. Ethanol has not threatened the food supply and has only marginally impacted its price (at most a ten percent share of retail cost increases, according to the United Nations and other sources that have studied biofuels’ impact on food production).

We challenge the environmental groups to stop calling agriculture dirty until they can come with a way to feed all the people that the current agricultural model is feeding and to do so in some way that reduces the environmental impact. If all of agriculture utilized old-fashioned mechanical earth-turning methods that organic farmers use, it would create a dustbowl the likes of which would dwarf the Oklahoma dust storms of the 30s.

On the other hand, development of pragmatic methods that keep more soil on the fields and reduce the need to apply nitrogen would win support of a lot of farmers. Because that’s what farmers do already—they look to land grant university research to inform them of better ways to farm and make changes to how they do it each and every growing season.

It’s easy to engage in name calling if all you are really interested is using scare tactics to raise money. But if you want to save the earth, you have to join the farmers instead of just calling them “dirty.”

Dear reader, if you can bear to read their drivel, here’s a sample of environmental “reporting” on ethanol.

US looks ahead after ethanol subsidy expires

By Rob Lever (AFP)

WASHINGTON — After a series of bitter political fights, the US Congress allowed a subsidy for ethanol fuel to expire at the end of 2011, ending a program harshly criticized by environmentalists and others.

By taking no action, US lawmakers ended the credit of 45 cents per gallon refiners get for blending ethanol, which in the US market is made mostly from corn, into gasoline. Also terminated was a tariff on imports of 54 cents per gallon which was criticized by Brazil, a producer of sugar cane-based ethanol.

The programs were in place since the 1980s as a means of curbing US use of imported petroleum.

But over time, criticism grew that growing ethanol use diverted too much corn from food to fuel, and led to environmental and land use problems, by adding to incentives to plant more corn. The program also cost taxpayers some $6 billion annually.

“The end of this giant subsidy for dirty corn ethanol is a win for taxpayers, the environment and people struggling to put food on their tables,” said Michal Rosenoer of Friends of the Earth.

“Corn ethanol is extremely dirty. It leads to more climate pollution than conventional gasoline, and it causes deforestation as well as agricultural runoff that pollutes our water.”

“I’m gratified that these two subsidies were terminated, I’ve been advocating this for five to six years,” said C. Ford Runge, an economist specializing in agriculture policy at the University of Minnesota.

“I think the reason they were ended is that the industry concluded they were of no particular utility. Otherwise they would not have given them up without as much as a squeal.”

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