Do we understand the impact of switching to ethanol?

With America more eager than ever to rid itself of its foreign oil addiction, efforts have increased in finding an alternative. In fact, our impeachable leader has set a timetable to reduce America’s use of gasoline by 20% in ten years. (1) While there are countless alternatives that can help achieve and even beat this goal, one that is gaining in popularity is ethanol as it integrates well with our current personal transportation infrastructure.

In reaction to supplying America with more ethanol, ethanol production plants have more than doubled in the last decade. To supply these plants with corn grain, US farmers have ramped up the planting, growing, and harvesting of corn, causing a 533% increase in corn production since 2000. In fact, so much corn has been planted by US farmers, that the percent of acres planted increased 18% from 2006 to 2007, while other grains decreased 8%. (2) Clearly, America is taking the production of ethanol seriously.

A recent article in Agronomy Journal, published by the American Society of Agronomy, discusses the impact of growing corn on the sustainability of our soils. While everyone refers to ethanol as a “renewable” energy source, the truth is that without proper care, soils can only grow so much corn. The process is this: 1) farmer plants corn, 2) corn grows 3) farmer harvests corn and leaves behind corn stover. While the act of growing corn removes 30%-50% of nutrients from the soil, the leftover stover acts to replenish the soil, supporting needed microbial life. These nutrients and soil quality are referred to as soil organic carbon (SOC). (3) So, if farmers aren’t careful they can deplete the soil and corn yield would go down. In fact, a worst case scenario, and perhaps an exaggeration, would be the dust bowl that occurred during the Great Depression.

This begs the question: How much stover is needed to replenish the soil so that there is no decrease in SOC? Well, no one knows exactly. (that can’t be good!) The standard practice in determining sustainable harvest levels is to measure the crop residue needed to keep soil loss above the tolerable loss, without regard for soil quality.   Researchers tried to compare crop yields and SOC to gauge their relationship, there isn’t enough data available to be conclusive.  Researchers argue that it is more important than ever to begin collecting quality, duplicable data before we can make smart decisions on the amount of stover needed to keep corn production sustainable.  They expect to have reliable data to measure stover and SOC by 2017, which is the same year that we should be celebrating our 20% reduction in gasoline consumption. (3)

But today, in general, proper soil management is correlated to high crop yield.  This is why it is more important than ever to develop clear guidelines on sustainable ethanol production, before it is too late.   SOC is usually slow to respond to improved soil management, meaning that depleted soil can take a decade before it is ready to be planted again.

One point I want to make here is that we need to be careful about being reactionary to the cost of oil.  While we may get off one addiction, improper management of soil can put us in a dire situation later. Ridding ourselves of foreign oil might, at the same time make us dependent on foreign corn.

Another point I would like to make is that diverting corn to ethanol production may be causing an increase in US inflation. Jeff Rubin in Fueling Inflation, sees two indicators that will have a such an impact.  First, grain stocks are at their lowest levels in 20 years as they struggle to keep up with demand and, second, a 60% increase in grain prices in the last two years, both indicate that the cost of producing food will rise (3), possibly causing the end of the $0.99 hamburger.  As you might expect, people in the lowest income quantile will be affected the most, as they spend up to 40% of their monthly budget on food.  This combined with rising gasoline prices, will mean that the FED will have a harder time than ever controlling the American economy.

What I hope everyone takes away from this post is just an open mind.  Let’s think about the situation we are in before we react and accidentally put a noose around our necks.  With exponentially increasing corn production and without the ability to track the quality of soil and maintain sustainability,  I think now is the time to look at other alternatives, including expanding hybrids and biodeisels.  But, I will remind everyone that there is something that can be done today that can have a huge impact on America’s oil consumption; simply drive slower and smoother by connecting your brain to the gas pedal.  Be conscious of wasting gas by speeding on the freeway or accelerating hard only to beat everyone to the next red light.

References:

1) Bush, G.W. 2007. 2007 State of the Union Address. 23Jan2007.
http://www.whitehouse.gov/stateoftheunion/2007/initiatives/

2) Jeff Rubin and Benjamin Tal. “Corn For Ethanol: An Inflation Crop” CIBC World Markets StrategEcon, 22 October 2007, p4.

3)  W. W. Wilhelma, Jane M. F. Johnson, Douglas L. Karlen and David T. Lightle.
Corn Stover to Sustain Soil Organic Carbon Further Constrains Biomass Supply

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