Thursday, May 1, 2008

Ethanol havoc reaches far

Corn-based ethanol, at least. The proof? Just how much it has affected Iowa farmers, and the defenses people throw out for it.

U.S. farmers investing in Brazilian soybeans because they’re planting former soybean areas with corn.

U.S. farmers giving soil conservationists nightmares and migranes by repeated tilling of their fields.

U.S. farmers pulling more land out of the Conservation Reserve Program. (That also affects wildlife, especially migratory birds, but also other critters.)

U.S. meat-addicted consumers refusing to adjust their dietary practices, so far.

U.S. ranchers refusing to address their grain-feeding of beef, so far.

And, Big Ethanol getting in bed, or in line at least, with Big Ag:

Don Endres, the chief executive of VeraSun and owner of 20 percent of its shares, grew up on a farm in Watertown, S.D., where his father and grandfather raised corn. His brothers are still farmers.

Endres says ethanol plants aren’t to blame for high corn or food prices. He notes that the corn used to make ethanol isn't the kind that people eat anyway. Moreover, he says, ethanol plants like VeraSun's extract the starch in corn for fermentation while producing a dry feed that contains protein and nutrients. Piles of it are collected from industrial dryers at the plant. VeraSun then sells that feed, known as dried distillers grain, back to farmers who raise animals. Much of it goes to Texas, Mexico and China; it accounts for about 15 percent of VeraSun's revenue. When the grain is mixed with inexpensive starch, such as alfalfa, farmers can save money, Endres says.

Finally, he says, yields on corn will continue to increase so that the current acreage will be able to meet both food and fuel demands. His grandfather got 40 bushels to an acre, his father got 80, and his brothers get 160. Someday, Endres says, farms will get 300 bushels an acre.

First, that last graf is ridiculous, and emblematic of the heads-in-the-sand “salvific technologism” (the more wonky phrase for the belief that “technology will always bail out America”).

Second, while beef may out the distillers’ grain, chicken farmers say their birds can only take it in limited quantities.

And, even beef, you can’t feed straight grain for too long; it ulcerates their rumens.

Third, the only way you got to 160 bushels was through massive use of fertilizers, which produce runoff, estrogen mimics among frogs, dead zones down south of New Orleans, etc. It’s environmentally irresponsible to think you can grow 300 bushels of corn an acre, as well as highly unlikely.

Fourth, your fertilizers are made from natural gas, as are many of your pesticides. U.S natural gas production peaked at the start of this decade; production for all of North America peaked a couple of years ago. As it is right now, developing nations are having their food problems in part because of soaring fertilizer prices.

But, that doesn’t stop more nuttery, including from an agriculture professor:
“From Washington where Lester Brown is sitting, agriculture can’t do enough to satisfy the nation's energy needs and meet all the demands put on it for food and feed,” says Matt Liebman, an agronomist at Iowa State University. “But from agriculture's point of view, (ethanol) enhances market opportunities. So it really depends on your perspective.”

Ahh, the old GOP answer — the market. That’s the result of the Iowa caucuses.

And, that’s setting aside the fact that corn-based ethanol is no better than carbon neutral and increasingly appears to be carbon-negative. It also appears to have a negative energy return on energy investment.

Which means? Given our current government, ethanol is the perfect symbolic fuel.

Beyond that, we can’t afford ethanol.

For more about the atheism Henry loves, including a link to Carnival of the Godless, and for my Friday SCATblogging which Blue Girl knows about, see SocraticGadfly.