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Corn Lobby Reaps Crops of Trouble

Monday, August 29, 2011

Last week, the corn lobby posted a blog that abruptly declared its independence from so-called “advanced biofuels.”  This announcement made it painfully clear that corn ethanol will never gain America independence from our dangerous oil addiction and that the evolution of advanced biofuels is near non-existent.

Apparently, the corn ethanol lobby is sick of sharing the lavish government support it enjoys with any other fuels – something we’ve known for a while. It stabbed the advanced biofuels industry in the back even though the heavily-spun yarn about corn ethanol being a bridge to a sunny future of advanced biofuels enabled support for corn ethanol in the first place.

However, as the National Corn Growers Association missive gained attention, it appeared that the corn lobby had second thoughts and tried to sweep the spilled kernels under the carpet by quietly deleting the post.

Jim Lane, editor of Biofuels Digest found the banished post. He also published this reaction from National Corn Growers Association chief executive officer Rick Tolman:

Blog posts by definition are meant to be “edgy” and create and stimulate discussion and, to some degree, controversy. Bloggers are generally given a lot of latitude to do that. The National Corn Growers Association blog and our bloggers are no exception.

Lane wasn’t buying it.  “We reject the idea that blogs are, by definition, meant to be edgy and to create controversy, “he wrote.  “We believe that the NCGA has lost institution control of its communications.”

He went on:

After all, this is not correcting a spelling error, or a thought written in the heat of the moment and quickly regretted. It stood for nine days on the internet, and went viral on Twitter. Isn’t anyone in management reading the NCGA blog? If it was good enough to delete in day 10, it was good enough to delete the day it was written, or simply not be published in the first place. The stakes are high, and characterizing allies with disdain is bad for industry, and for the movement it represents. CEO Tolman could give some deep thought to cleaning house.

The advanced biofuels industry has cause to tongue lash the corn lobby for the sharpened corncob sticking out from between its shoulder blades. But Tolman’s interpretation of blogs and online skirmishes over policy is quite different than that of Bart Schott, the president of the National Corn Growers Association.

On August 9, Environmental Working Group researchers Andrew Hug and Becky Sutton released an analysis debunking corn lobby denials that toxic farm chemicals used on corn crops had caused water pollution and contributed to the Gulf of Mexico Dead Zone.

Schott sent a statement to DTN/Progressive Farmer reporter Todd Neely  that complained,  “we do not understand why [EWG] felt the need to punctuate it with personal attacks in social media on NCGA staff or outside researchers. Likewise, we also do not understand why they did not come to us directly with their concerns or questions as they were working on their article.”

I contacted the corn growers’ media staff and asked for evidence that EWG staff had engaged in “personal attacks in social media on NCGA staff or outside researchers.” While you do need to buckle your chinstrap in the sharp-elbowed world of Washington policy debates, personal attacks should not be tolerated.

In the two weeks since my request, however, I’ve received absolutely no evidence from NCGA to support its assertion that EWG’s conduct had crossed the line into personal attacks.

So according to the corn lobby, when its spokesmen go on the offensive against their partners in the advanced biofuels world, it’s “edgy.”  But when EWG releases a detailed analysis of the corn industry’s misguided environmental claims, it’s a “personal attack.”

The NCGA communications confusion doesn’t end there. Schott told DTN/Progressive Farmer that EWG did not take into account the corn lobby’s 2010-updated report.

That makes no sense.  If  you go to the National Corn Growers Association website and download  the document Schott claims has been modified,  you’ll see it still displays the same date as the original. And an extended tour of the group’s website doesn’t turn up a press release or other document announcing that the study has been updated.

The update changes a single assumption. It changes the percentage of protein in corn from 10 percent to  8 or 9 percent.  This small alteration reverses the report’s findings.  Instead of finding that corn plants soak up more nitrogen than is applied in fertilizers, the report now concludes that 1.2 million tons of nitrogen are left over and available to pollute rivers, streams and the Gulf of Mexico.  Yet the corn lobby STILL claims that nitrogen pollution is coming from golf courses, people’s lawns and sewerage plants.

The modified report asserts that “In recent years, as corn production has become more efficient and yields have increased, the nitrogen removed from corn fields in the grain may equal or exceed the amount of nitrogen applied in the fertilizer.”  That’s the same conclusion reached by the earlier version.   And page 23 of the updated report says, “The conclusion then is that any change in N entering the Gulf via the MARB, over time, is probably not related to the use of fertilizer N for corn.”

The authors of the report altered their assumption, which fundamentally changed their results.  Yet they chose not to alter the conclusions based on those data. Maybe their next move is to quietly delete their contradictory research and hope for the best?

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