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Published April 08, 2013, 09:48 AM

Ethanol destroys prairies

Land increasingly given over to corn production to meet fuel mandate

By: William F. Shughart II, Agweek

America’s prairies are disappearing at the fastest rate since the 1930s’ Dust Bowl.

Given the pace at which U.S. farmers are converting grasslands into corn fields for ethanol production, this should hardly be surprising.

Driven in large part by government biofuel mandates on oil refineries, U.S. farmers converted more than 1.3 million acres of grassland into corn and soybean fields from 2006 to 2011, according to a newly published study by scientists at South Dakota State University in Brookings.

In Corn Belt states such as Iowa and South Dakota, about 5 percent of pastureland is being converted into cropland every year.

This pasture destruction not only will almost surely lead to higher beef and milk prices but to serious environmental harm.

Grasslands are key breeding grounds for ducks and other wildlife. Moreover, studies show that grassland soil captures carbon better than cropland. If farmers are digging up these grasslands to grow more corn, ethanol production thus loses its carbon advantage over gasoline.

Grassland to cropland

The shift from grasslands to corn fields is part of a more troubling scenario, though, because corn growing requires more fertilizer and pesticides, which seep into groundwater systems.

Corn, moreover, is one of the most profligate water-using crops on the planet. Under drought conditions, as experienced across the Midwest and Great Plains in recent years, groundwater levels are plummeting, falling by 6 feet or more in some parts of the Corn Belt.

The roots of this looming environmental disaster can’t be traced to the board rooms of ethanol manufacturers or to the headquarters of the farm lobby. The culprit is Washington.

Congress passed the Renewable Fuel Standard in 2005, anticipating that there would be considerable production of cellulosic ethanol made from switchgrass, wood chips and other plant materials by 2010. But the industry today is still in its infancy and there’s no sign that production will increase measurably any time soon.

Yet the RFS mandates that ethanol production ramp up from 13 billion gallons this year to 36 billion gallons by 2022. Even now, ethanol production consumes 40 percent of America’s total corn crop. Production in substantially larger volumes will mean removing even more cropland from food production, which will drive up consumer prices across the board, harming millions of people in poor countries who rely heavily on U.S. corn exports.

U.S. dependence on imported fossil fuels has declined dramatically in recent years, primarily owing to added domestic oil and natural gas production. Last year, America imported 40 percent of the oil it used, compared with more than 60 percent at its peak in 2005, the year the RFS was adopted.

We now know that the U.S. has abundant oil and natural gas right here at home, which can be exploited with technologies such as hydraulic fracturing and deep-water drilling that make them accessible and economical to produce.

With every year that passes, with every new ethanol plant built, and with every increase in the ethanol mandate, the wrongheadedness of the RFS becomes more apparent.

We can only hope that the light bulb will turn on for Congress and the White House before the ethanol mandate destroys the American prairie and drives food costs even higher.

Editor’s Note: Shughart is the J. Fish Smith Professor in Public Choice at Utah State University.

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