This past year, the USDA produced a couple of lengthy research reports (here and here) concluding what others have also documented: The federal government’s drive to increase ethanol use has created an environmentally hazardous production cycle in the name of renewable energy that is neither affordable nor clean.
The Renewable Fuel Mandate inflates demand for corn, which also receives a variety of agriculture subsidies. The result is that farmers plant more corn on more acres. So why exactly is this a problem?
For one thing, rapidly rising commodity prices and crop subsidies encourage farming practices that may stress farm land and undermine the government’s own conservation efforts. For example, based on 2010 crop yield averages, one acre produced 152.8 bushels of corn. At an average $5.18 per bushel for 2010–2011, a farmer could earn around $790 per acre, compared to only $45 per acre for land enrolled in the federal Conservation Reserve Program, which pays farmers to not farm their land.
These high commodity prices have encouraged farmers to plant corn on more and more acreage, regardless of whether or not that land is entirely suitable for farming. Darwyn Bach, a farmer in St. Leo, Minnesota, told The New York Times: “I can farm on low-quality land that I know is not going to produce and still turn a profit.”
Moreover, marginal crop land may require more fertilizer or pesticides. Corn is by far the most nitrogen-intensive crop. According to the USDA reports, from 2006 to 2011, corn accounted for 65 percent of the 8.7 million tons of nitrogen applied to crops. Nitrogen is not an inherently bad thing; it has greatly increased production abilities in nitrogen-poor areas. However, it may create problems if farmers do not apply it appropriately.
The USDA estimates that 70 percent of corn crops fail to meet “best management policies” for the use of nitrogen in fertilizer. Consequently, USDA has concluded that “growth in corn demand due to the biofuels mandate…could increase reactive nitrogen emissions to the environment.”
In effect then, the federal government, by mandating ethanol production to solve the supposed problem of global warming and oil “dependence,” has actually increased environmental risk. Crop subsidies increase the financial incentive to farm on marginal lands, but a farmer’s planting decisions should be influenced by consumer demand, not government dictates and handouts.
Aurelian Braun is currently a member of the Young Leaders Program at The Heritage Foundation. For more information on interning at Heritage, please visit http://www.heritage.org/about/departments/ylp.cfm.