An article tying erosion to corn production for ethanol has caused commotion in the heartland. The AP article was front page on the Tuesday, November 12, Des Moines Register and the story jumped to two full pages inside. The corn growers and Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack are furious. Why? The AP story points out that high corn prices and a lack of regulation on how farmers farm has caused some bad effects on the land. The story blames ethanol and the Obama administration for mandating we use more and more of it in our vehicles.
It is true that ethanol takes much of the U.S. corn crop (44 percent, according to the story). That is one factor in high corn prices. It is also true that high corn and bean prices can cause more erosion, more Phosphorus into streams, more Nitrogen in the water — so much that Des Moines must treat its river-source water to make it into a drinkable supply.
One example in the story is notable. “In Wayne County, a gravel road once cut through a grassy field leading to a hilltop cemetery. But about two years ago, the landowners plowed over the road. Now, visiting gravesites means walking a path through the corn.” I have no doubt that happened. You can see bad land practices everywhere.
More land that used to be seeded down, and somewhat safe from erosion and chemical runoff, has become corn and bean fields. The Farm Bureau organizations in seven Midwestern states did a recent study on conversion and found that about 8 million acres changed from being seeded down to producing row crops. Of that, 1.2 million acres in Iowa were converted from grassy habitat to corn and beans. For six months of the year, row-crop ground is bare and subject to rainstorms that cause erosion and chemical runoff.
But the AP story goes after the wrong question. The mandate that more of our automobile fuel must come from ethanol has certainly had something to do with high corn prices — but so do the recent droughts and the fact that more people in the third world are eating better. Yes, the price of corn matters. But so does the lack of regulation. Growers can wreak destruction at will in their drive to plant more acres.
We often hear that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” And the ethanol industry is the enemy of the oil and gas industry, so I want to be on the side of ethanol, not Big Oil. Talk about destructive practices. Fracking. Deep Water Horizon. Do I have to remind you?
But how can we have economic development in Iowa and become less dependent on oil? Ethanol doesn’t have to be a problem. We can do something about how the land is farmed. We could mandate buffers along every stream and lake in Iowa. Pass a law and mandate it. Industries cannot legally dump waste into a river, so why should farmers be able to farm the land in a way that soil and agricultural chemicals go into the same river?
However, we don’t have to go that far. The five-year renewal of the U.S. Farm Bill is now in a conference committee between the House and Senate. The Senate version requires any farmer getting a subsidy on crop insurance to comply with certain environmental restrictions. The House version takes the position that this is just more regulation and the American people should shut up, give farmers $10 billion per year in insurance subsidies and let them plant over roads to cemeteries as they choose.
The issue is simple. If you want ethanol from corn, ask our government to make sure the corn is grown responsibly.
Hear Osterberg discuss this issue with KVFD-AM’s Mike Devine on “The Devine Intervention.”