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Corn-Based Ethanol

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  • In 2007, Congress passed a law requiring gasoline to be mixed with ethanol, to reduce dependence on foreign oil and promote environmentally friendly biofuels
  • Corn is the primary source of ethanol in the United States, and this, ironically, has turned out to have devastating consequences for the environment
  • In response to rising demand for corn, American farmers are converting environmentally valuable grasslands into corn fields
  • In 2010, for the first time, fuel was the number one use for corn in America, which means agricultural subsidies are now in large part being used to subsidize our energy needs rather than food
 

The Environmental Costs of Corn-Based Ethanol

November 26, 2013 | 190,009 views
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By Dr. Mercola

I've written extensively about the high price of genetically engineered (GE) crops on human health and ecosystems, and these ramifications are becoming increasingly well-known.

I've also railed against the flawed agricultural subsidies that promote the propagation of GE corn and soy, both of which can now be found in most processed foods. But the problems with corn, and GE corn in particular, do not end there.

In 2007, Congress passed a law requiring gasoline to be mixed with ethanol, ostensibly to reduce dependence on foreign oil. Ethanol was also a major part of Obama's presidential platform for "green" energy, which he touted as the answer to global warming.

While the pesticide producers and junk food manufacturers continue to pound their purpose to 'feed the world', they seem to completely dismiss that we've destroyed millions of acres of wildlife to accommodate our federal mandate to grow 'fuel' instead of food.

I think we all understand quite clearly that most nutritional needs have nothing to do with the capacity to grow food, we already have resources to grow plenty of nutritional food for the planet if that's what we were really trying to accomplish.

The US agriculture policy ensures our failure, designed by the interests of pesticide and junk food corporations to produce profits and not nutrition. What better example than burning food for fueling our engines? How does this help feed the world?

Corn is the primary source of ethanol in the United States, and this, ironically, has turned out to have devastating consequences for the environment. Converting food into fuel is also a facet of the "green" movement that even communist dictator Fidel Castro warned against:1

"With the Iowa political caucuses on the horizon in 2007, presidential candidate Barack Obama made homegrown corn a centerpiece of his plan to slow global warming.

And when President George W. Bush signed a law that year requiring oil companies to add billions of gallons of ethanol to their gasoline each year, Bush predicted it would make the country 'stronger, cleaner and more secure,' the featured article2 states.

"Historically, the overwhelming majority of corn in the United States has been turned into livestock feed. But in 2010, for the first time, fuel was the No. 1 use for corn in America. That was true in 2011 and 2012.

Newly released Department of Agriculture data show that, this year, 43 percent of corn went to fuel and 45 percent went to livestock feed." [Emphasis mine]

Needless to say, the more corn is used for ethanol, the more corn our farmers have to plant in order to meet demands for food and animal feed. In response to this rising demand, American farmers are converting everything from environmentally valuable grasslands to critically important pristine virgin lands into corn fields.

The Environmental Consequences the White House Didn't Account for in Its Green Plan

The ethanol boom has come at a far higher price than the US government is willing to admit. Millions of acres of conservation land has been destroyed—converted into corn fields.

According to the featured article in the Star Tribune, five million acres of conservation land have disappeared while Obama has been in office. To put that into perspective, that's more than the Yellowstone, Everglades and Yosemite National Parks combined.

More corn acres also mean more fertilizers being spread over greater areas and a further decimation of our valuable top soil along with continued mismanagement of dwindling water resources.

In just five years, (between 2005 and 2010), American corn farmers increased their use of nitrogen fertilizers by more than one billion pounds. As a result, many areas now have to address increasingly polluted drinking water.

In Minnesota, for example, about a dozen communities so far have spent millions of dollars to clean toxic nitrogen from their water supplies, and according to a recent government report, reducing the high levels from the state's water supplies would require massive changes in how farmers grow their crops.

Implementing these changes could cost upward of $1 billion a year. According to executive director of the Minnesota Environmental Partnership, Steve Morse:

"We're doing more to address water quality, but we are being overwhelmed by the increase in production pressure to plant more crops."

Industrial monoculture farming practices as a whole pose a tremendous threat to water supplies, in multiple ways, whether through contamination or by depleting what little fresh water is available. And far from being a solution, GE crops make matters even worse, as they end up needing more agricultural chemicals than other crops, and typically require more water.

Fresh Water Reserves Also Depleted by Agricultural Irrigation...

Besides contamination by crop fertilizers, fresh water reserves are also being outright depleted by agricultural irrigation. An article in Harper's Magazine3 published in the summer of 2012 highlighted the rapid depletion of the Ogallala Aquifer—the largest subterranean water supply in the United States.

"Until the Second World War, the Ogallala went almost entirely untapped... It wasn't until the 1940s, when a variety of new technologies coalesced on the plains, that large-scale irrigation sprang up for the first time—but from there, the transformation was quick.

Within a decade thousands of wells were drilled, creating a spike in productivity as unprecedented as it was unsustainable... 
[D]uring the early 1990s, farmers throughout the Great Plains began to notice a decline in their wells. Irrigation systems from the Dakotas to Texas dipped, and, in some places, have been abandoned entirely."

According to Kevin Mulligan, a professor at Texas Tech University who leads the effort to monitor the Ogallala, available water in the aquifer has gone down by about 80-100 feet in just the past 15 years, and none of the water is likely to be replenished. A mere 20 years from now, it's unlikely that any irrigated agriculture will be possible on the high plains—the water will be all gone.

Rivers and Gulf of Mexico Suffer from Toxic Agricultural Runoff

The billions of pounds of fertilizer being used on all of these corn fields are also contaminating rivers, and contribute to an ever-expanding dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico—a zone, currently the size of Connecticut, that is too toxic to support aquatic life.

"The consequences are so severe that environmentalists and many scientists have now rejected corn-based ethanol as bad environmental policy. But the Obama administration stands by it, highlighting its benefits to the farming industry rather than any negative impact," Star Tribune4 reports.

"The government's predictions of the benefits have proven so inaccurate that independent scientists question whether it will ever achieve its central environmental goal: reducing greenhouse gases. That makes the hidden costs even more significant. "

Upon closer analysis, it seems the White House "green" agenda amounts to little more than another gift to the pesticide industry, spearheaded by Monsanto. It's certainly not saving the environment. Instead, Monsanto is rolling in dough courtesy of increased sales of its patented genetically engineered Roundup Ready corn... According to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, ethanol is "good for business." He claims it's good for farmers, which from a financial perspective, it might be. But overall, the corn-for-ethanol agenda is nothing short of an ecological disaster that is costing us far more than money.

The World Is Running Out of Topsoil

A decade ago, farmers were paid about $70 annually per acre to enter the conservation program, which meant leaving their farmland idle and improve the soil fertility with cover crops. From an environmental perspective, this is important, as conservation lands trap carbon in the soil and prevent topsoil erosion. Grasslands also naturally convert carbon dioxide into oxygen, which is what you might call a "staple" for human life on Earth. The world may in fact be running out of usable topsoil, the layer that allows plants to grow.

According to an article in Time World,5 soil erosion and degradation rates suggest we have only about 60 remaining years of topsoil. Forty percent of the world's agricultural soil is now classified as either degraded or seriously degraded; the latter means that 70 percent of the topsoil is gone. Our soil is being lost at 10 to 40 times the rate it can be replenished, and our agricultural systems are to blame, which epitomizes the term "unsustainable."

It takes decades or even centuries to regenerate significant levels of soil. This is the exact converse environmental effect an environmentally friendly biofuel is supposed to contribute to... Strategies like using rock dust powders, biochar, no till farming, and biological inoculants can help reverse this trend if they are started soon enough.

Agriculture as a whole also accounts for 70 percent of our fresh water use. When the soil is unfit, water is wasted—it washes right through the soil and past the plant's root system. We already have a global water shortage that's projected to worsen over the next 20 to 30 years, so this is the last thing we need to compound it. Soil degradation is projected to cause 30 percent loss in food production over the next 20 to 50 years—while our global food demands are expected to increase by 50 percent over this span of time. All of these things considered, should we really keep growing so much corn to fuel our cars?

Many don't realize that soil is alive and has an incredible diversity of microorganisms. One handful of soil contains more microbes than the number of people who have ever lived on our planet.

These organisms create a powerful synergy with the plants and recycle organic material, making the soil more resilient and better at holding water and nutrients, and better at nurturing plants. Microbes need carbon for food, and we're depleting our soil of this element by using chemical fertilizers, overgrazing, over-ploughing, and burning stubble in fields to accelerate crop turnover. Add to this genetically engineered crops, and our soil—which is crucial for growing nutrient-dense foods—is dealt another deathblow. In fact, reduced soil fertility could lead to famine on a scale never previously seen.

Ethanol—The Green Alternative That Demolishes the Environment

By law, biofuels are supposed to be at least 20 percent greener than gasoline. Ethanol, based on corn, didn't meet this criteria at first. As reported in the featured article, certain assumptions were made about the price of corn, the number of acres planted, and the yield from each acre, in order to squeeze ethanol into the green category.

"The most important of those assumptions was called the yield, a measure of how much corn could be produced on an acre of land. The higher the yield, the easier it would be for farmers to meet the growing demand without plowing new farmland, which counted against ethanol in the greenhouse gas equation," Star Tribune writes.

This is where genetically modified seeds really gained a stronghold. Pesticide producers like Monsanto and DuPont Pioneer stepped in, promising yields could be dramatically increased by using genetically modified corn. If each farmer could produce more corn on less acreage, environmental effects would be reduced. Inept (if not outright corrupt) politicians bought this line of nonsense hook line and sinker. In the end, yields per acre didn't increase, but the price of corn did, more than doubling between August of 2010 and this year, thanks to ethanol now being added to gasoline. The dramatic rise in price per bushel spurred farmers to exit the conservation program. As stated in the featured article:6

"America could meet its ethanol demand without losing a single acre of conservation land, Energy officials said. They would soon be proven wrong. Before the government ethanol mandate, the Conservation Reserve Program grew every year for nearly a decade. Almost overnight, farmers began leaving the program, which simultaneously fell victim to budget cuts that reduced the amount of farmland that could be set aside for conservation. In the first year after the ethanol mandate, more than 2 million acres disappeared. Since Obama took office, 5 million more acres have vanished."

Virgin Land, Air and Water—All Is Being Contaminated by Corn-Based Biofuel Needs

As reported by Mother Jones7 earlier this year, this conversion of grasslands to crop fields is the exact opposite of what might be in our best interest.

"...to get ready for climate change, we should push Midwestern farmers to switch a chunk of their corn land into pasture for cows. The idea came from a paper8 by University of Tennessee and Bard College researchers, who calculated that such a move could suck up massive amounts of carbon in soil—enough to reduce annual greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture by 36 percent. In addition to the CO2 reductions, you'd also get a bunch of high-quality, grass-fed beef...Turns out the Midwest are doing just the opposite."

What's worse, farmers started sacrificing virgin land to grow even more corn. According to the Department of Agriculture, an estimated 38,000 acres of previously untouched land vanished below a sea of corn rows in 2012 alone. The Associated Press, using government satellite data, estimates at least 1.2 million acres of virgin land has been converted since 2006 (the year before the ethanol legislation was passed)—and that's just in the states of Nebraska and the Dakotas!

The ethanol legislation requires the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to study the effects of the ethanol initiative on water and air pollution. Alas, such studies have not been done. Despite the complete lack of investigation, Vilsack9 recently stated that "There is no question air quality, water quality is benefiting from this industry."

What's the Answer

While I normally suggest you combat the broken agricultural system by purchasing organically and locally grown foods, the answer is more complex when it comes to avoiding corn-based ethanol. If you drive a car that runs on gasoline, you're supporting the ethanol industry whether you really want to or not. One answer might be to invest in an electric hybrid, but the rare earth minerals that must be mined for the batteries are something to be considered in this decision.  In many areas, you may also be powering your "electric" car from a power plant using coal.

I believe we must all become more involved in the political process that permits these poorly thought-through policies to go through in the first place, and combat the political inertia that keeps them in place once it becomes obvious that they're doing more harm than good.

 

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