Sunday, February 14, 2010

Ethanol--It's About More Than Oil

I just received my Annual Report from The Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, which was organized by the Iowa Legislature in 1987 as part of the Iowa Groundwater Protection Act. It's an organization that does valuable, high quality work, and they produce very informative publications.

We've had an ongoing water quality problem in the Gulf of Mexico, alarmingly called a "dead zone," which is a fairly wide hypoxic area that is being studied by the EPA and by a number of academic and quasi-governmental institutions, like the Leopold Center. The sad fact of the matter is that we know why the dead zone exists, and it's based on good science, not goofball, second hand citations.

One participating organization stated, "The most intensively cultivated watersheds of the Mississippi River Basin have been found to be sources of nutrients that create the dead zone and have numerous other detrimental environmental and social effects." Intensive corn monoculture has produced hockey stick growth rates of yield per acre since the 1950's, but the yields have been driven by intensive use of nitrogen-based fertilizers. Those yields has been relatively flat for the past decade, according to one of the working groups.

We also know that about 80% of the nitrogen applied to farmers' fields dedicated to animal production, that is planted with corn and soybeans, are lost to the environment. The nitrogen is released to the air as ammonia and oxides of nitrogen, and partly to the groundwater, rivers and estuaries as nitrates. So, we know a large part of why the dead zone exists.

Growing corn to fuel our vehicles is not a viable answer to our energy problems, neither to import dependency nor to the environmental problems. Going deeper, corn monoculture itself is a deeper part of the onion that needs to be peeled back.

Since 80% of the nitrogen applied is lost to the environment, that means that only 20% is captured by humans in their meat, as the bulk of corn grown is feeder corn for cattle and hogs. Our system of captive animal, meat production on huge feedlots is itself energy inefficient and harmful to the environment. Manure and animal waste being dumped into canals and rivers is another source of excess nutrients that accumulate downstream in areas like the Gulf. I'm certainly not a vegetarian myself, and I'm not proselytizing for compulsory diet change. However, our system of production--and it is a huge, industrial, low cost system--makes little sense when the externalities are made visible and the system boundaries are pushed out to include these costs that are now invisibly borne by the public.

Now, the Leopold Center does lots of fine work on land use conservation measures like conservation tillage, crop rotation, reduced inputs, stream widening, and plantings of grasses and hays to increase infiltration. The problem is that most of the programs are voluntary, and the farmers that have the greatest impact on the environmental measures are generally not participating.

Under a "business as usual" scenario, the number of farms continues to decrease, and the average farm size increases to about 360 acres. Just as in other industries, we get a concentration among producers, and the larger producers are the ones tied into the large, industrial model for agricultural production.

Corn-based ethanol makes as much sense as moonshine (which it is) does for a dinner table beverage. However, the larger question is how we start to politically look at our food system. We need to connect people to the land and food, and to understand how things are grown and who grows the food. We need to produce a wider variety of crops on a sustainable basis, and we need to internalize costs associated with the rehabilitation and conservation of our air, land and water resources.

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