AP Trashes Ethanol Mandate: “Raping the Land.”

The (Corn) Wasteland: Unprotected fields like this, the soil laced with leftover fertilizer and pesticide, will wash away with their toxic contents come spring. Yet we must have more corn! (Photo by Perry McKenna/Flickr)

The (Corn) Wasteland: Unprotected fields like this, the soil laced with leftover fertilizer and pesticide, will wash away with their toxic contents come spring. Yet we must have more corn! (Photo by Perry McKenna/Flickr)

A major, meticulous study by the Associated Press published today concludes that the government mandate for corn ethanol to be mixed with gasoline has brought none of the promised benefits and a raft of unintended consequences. When President George W. Bush signed the law he said it would make America “stronger, cleaner and more secure.” Instead it made industrial agriculture stronger, dirtier, and more secure while accelerating the destruction of the natural systems from which all food comes.

Industrial agriculture is so apoplectic about the report that it launched full-throated attacks on it before it was published, with the result that most industrial-journalist headlines today are highlighting the response, not the content, as in “Industry Takes Aim at AP Report.” (By the way, can we just take a moment here to recognize the fact that complex, long-form, intricate investigative journalism such as AP has practiced here is very nearly extinct in the world?)

Talk to an American corn farmer or ethanol-plant operator and you will no doubt be regaled with keep-the-government-off-our-back, free-enterprise-made-America-great oratorios. But the ethanol bidness is hardly free enterprise; it could not have been born in its present form if the government had not forced the refiners to add a gallon of ethanol for every nine gallons of gas. (Compared to that kind of massive intervention, making people buy health insurance seems like pretty small small beer. The health-insurance mandate has convulsed the country; the ethanol mandate? Eh.)

What the AP report says is that the demand for corn spurred by the ethanol mandate, and the higher corn prices that ensued, drove industrial ag into a frenzy of opening up new land for corn cultivation. In the process, they converted five million acres of land that had been set aside for conservation, such as wetlands and grasslands, to petro-chemical-intense corn monoculture. In the process of drenching these additional acres with synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, the industry significantly worsened land erosion and water pollution.

The US Department of Agriculture reports that fertilizer use increased by a billion pounds between 2005 — the dawn of the Age of Ethanol — and 2010. When it finishes counting the beans, it will likely report another billion-pound increase since 2010.

In the words of an Iowa county official, referring to the vast expanses of that state’s lush pastureland that has been converted to corn cropping, “They’re raping the land.”

The report, and the hysterical criticism of it by the ethanol industry (“more dumpster fire [?] than journalism.”) comes as the Obama Administration is about to announce a downward revision of the ethanol mandate. The battle over this prospect has pitted the lobbyists for Big Oil against the lobbyists for Big Ag — the political equivalent of a disagreement between hyenas over who gets the ham.

President Obama has been a steadfast friend of the Republican-authored ethanol mandate, on the grounds that it could somehow slow global warming. Now that that ground is washing out from under him, he seems to be having second thoughts. If he reads the AP report, third thoughts will ensue.

See Also: Biodiesel: Not Sustainable if it’s Industrial


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2 Responses to AP Trashes Ethanol Mandate: “Raping the Land.”

  1. Rebecca Redfield says:

    Sometimes I think your blog should say, “Brace for MORE impacts,” since so many of these problems – eroding soil, poisoned land and water, ocean dead zones – are already hitting us. But we can take a bit of satisfaction from cheering on the fight between Big Oil and Big Ag. I recently remarked to my brother on the struggle between developers of ocean front property (and climate change deniers in general) and the insurance industry, which faces escalating losses from weather disasters. He replied, “I love it when big corrupt corporate interests are pitted against other big evil corporate interests!” Kinda like watching the Republican party internal struggles over Tea Party extremists vs. the old-guard, “moderate” business-oriented types who worry increasingly about nut case electability. Very satisfying.

    • Tom Lewis says:

      Yes it is. But it’s also a lot like watching the crew of the Titanic get in a brawl over whose fault it all is. Gratifying, yes, but we’re watching it, after all, from the deck of the Titanic.

      This is also, it seems to me, a case of being careful what you wish for lest you get it. The Koch Brothers et al set the Tea Party in motion and are now desperately trying to stop it from bringing the mansion down around their ears. Strident worshipers of free enterprise hate free enterprise — hate it! — when it’s applied to things such as flood insurance and the ethanol bidness.