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Where Does All That Corn Ethanol Come From?

Thursday, March 7, 2013

In recent years, millions of acres of America’s native grasslands have been plowed under to grow corn for ethanol to blend into gasoline. And new research is clearly pointing to the federal ethanol mandate as a main driver of this tsunami of land conversion in the Midwest.

The latest evidence came last month (February 2013) in a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences by South Dakota State researchers Christopher K. Wright and Michael C. Wimberley, who wrote that “we found a net decline in grass-dominated land cover totaling nearly” 1.3 million acres.

The corn ethanol lobby is desperate to dodge the blame for the polluted water, soil degradation and destruction of wildlife habitat driven by this massive land use change. Consider its response to research confirming corn ethanol’s damage to the environment. Particularly misleading is the Renewable Fuels Association’s assertion that federal law prevents conversion of land for ethanol production:

… the provisions of the Energy Independence and Security Act require that corn and other feedstocks used to produce biofuels for the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) may only be sourced from land that was actively engaged in agricultural production in 2007, the year of the bill's enactment. Feedstock from lands converted to cropland after 2007 would not qualify for the RFS, and thus the program strongly discourages cropland expansion. 

The reality, however, is that this provision is largely a formalized shell game and has no meaningful effect on preserving grasslands.

Ethanol plants do not have to prove that their corn comes from eligible lands. The Environmental Protection Agency’s assessment of whether biofuels production is complying with the law is based simply on the total amount of existing agriculture acreage in 2007 for all crops – more than 400 million acres. Were this “baseline” to be exceeded, ethanol makers would be subject to actual record-keeping and reporting requirements. But because the baseline is set so high, the EPA is unlikely ever to implement these rules.

What’s left is a toothless excuse for a regulatory system based on an arbitrary number.

Case in point: In 2008, corn acreage dropped substantially, but since has regained close to the 2007 acreage. Although lower enrollments in the Conservation Reserve Program and conversion from other crops to corn are often cited to explain this increase, overall enrollment in all set-aside programs has remained steady during that period, and crop conversion rates aren’t high enough to account for the difference. So while the data clearly suggests that corn acreage is expanding onto previously unfarmed land, the EPA continues to deem ethanol producers compliant with the law.

Only one crop – corn – has expanded extensively in the last decade, in large part due to the misguided mandate for ethanol. Corn production for ethanol has increased by a staggering 300 percent since 2005, and every year, billions of bushels of corn end up in our gas tanks, but the question of where these crops were grown remains unanswered.

Without effective oversight, it is very easy for the corn ethanol lobby to shirk responsibility and claim that current policy “strongly discourages” corn ethanol expansion – when the opposite is true.

Take away common sense and fact and you’re left with half-truths and misleading assertions churned out by Big Corn to convince us that devoting more land and water to ethanol is a good idea. Americans know better. The current biofuels mandates are unworkable and must be reformed in order to roll back corn ethanol’s stranglehold on the market and stem the rapid conversion of our most precious lands to cornfields.