A recent article by the Associated Press attacks American agriculture by blaming biofuels for harming our natural resources. Unfortunately, the story recycles the same tired arguments, and overlooks several facts that deserve to be highlighted.
The article’s main conclusion is that biofuels have incentivized farmers to plant corn, and this increased corn production has led to environmental destruction and decreased enrollment in conservation programs. The truth of the matter is that two main factors have led to the proliferation of corn plantings: improved seed technology and climate change.
First, new technologies in the agriculture space are allowing farmers to produce corn where they were unable to only a few years ago. Hybrid seeds and drought-resistant traits have spread corn acreage into arid regions in the West, such as Colorado.
Second, climate change has pushed corn into the northern United States. Corn, a crop best suited to warmer climates, can now be planted in the upper Great Plains thanks to longer growing seasons and warmer average temperatures.
Critics love to beat up on biofuels for taking acres out of the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP). What is not often mentioned is that Congress has continued to lower the total acreage cap for CRP, so by law fewer acres will be enrolled. Farmers are eager to enroll in the program and there is currently more demand for the program than there are acres available under law. A bipartisan poll conducted by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research and Public Opinion Strategies found that conservation programs rank as the second-highest priority for inclusion in the farm bill with 86 percent of farmers saying the level of conservation funding should be maintained or increased.
The truth is that biofuels remain the only viable, environmentally friendly alternative to oil. In fact, if we want to help solve the climate change problem, let’s not demonize the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS), America’s only real climate change policy. A recent study by Argonne National Laboratory found that corn ethanol reduces greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 34 percent compared to gasoline. This even includes a life-cycle analysis taking into account emissions related to fertilizer and chemical production, diesel use on the farm, transportation of the corn, energy used by the ethanol plant, transportation of ethanol to the market, and land-use change emissions.
If this year is any indication, we are likely to see the takeoff of an advanced biofuels sector that will reduce GHG emissions even more than corn ethanol, and create new market opportunities for farmers. This year has seen the launch of our nation’s first commercial-scale cellulosic biofuel plants, with more plants coming online in 2014. However, this fledgling industry is dependent on a stable policy environment. So, any indecision on the part of Congress or the administration will spook investors and likely drive investment dollars to countries such as Brazil.
The attacks against biofuels are perpetuated by Big Oil. Given the recent success of the renewable fuels industry, Big Oil has finally realized that its market share is under threat. The oil industry refuses to give consumers a choice at the pump, and will not tolerate the expansion of the environmentally sustainable alternative to its product.