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.