On April 28, 2010, the U.S. Coast Guard was mulling a desperate “controlled burn” of a giant oil slick then bearing down on the Louisiana coastline. For nearly a week, 42,000 gallons of oil a day had been gushing uncontrollably from BP's Deepwater Horizon rig in the Gulf of Mexico. There was no longer any doubt that the U.S. faced one of the worst environmental disasters in its history.
Depressed as they were, however, many environmentalists saw a silver lining. If ever there was a teachable moment in which the president could drive home the need for conservation and green technology, this was it. Mindful of his chief of staff's famous advice to “Never let a serious crisis go to waste,” they expected Obama to speak out forcefully on the need for more investment in mass transit, wind and solar power, electric cars — and maybe even to visit a “walkable” community to showcase the obvious lessons of the disaster. But instead, on April 28 President Obama traveled to an ethanol plant in Macon, Missouri.
During his speech he didn't mention the Gulf spill. Instead he used his time to remind the plant workers that his administration had devoted $800 million in stimulus money to the production of corn ethanol and other biofuels. And he also boasted of a new Air Force fighter jet, “the Green Hornet,” that could break the sound barrier burning fuel made of corn. “I believe in the potential of what you're doing right here to contribute to our clean-energy future, but also to our rural economies,” he summed up.
In the eyes of many environmentalists, Obama might as well have just flown to Alaska and exclaimed, “Drill, baby, drill!” Thought leaders in the environmental movement and progressives generally have formed a strong consensus against crop-based biofuels in recent years, holding that biofuels, whether derived from corn or any other row crop, are doubly diabolical for seeming to be “green” while in reality being polluting. Far from reducing greenhouse gases, goes the charge, biofuel production adds to global warming while also eroding topsoil and exacerbating all the other environmental harms caused by industrialized agriculture.
Yet here was our supposedly very progressive president out championing biofuels — as, it turns out, he has done since his days as the senator from Illinois. Cynics will say that Obama is just making the same calculation his predecessors have: he knows that while subsidies for biofuels will never deliver energy independence, they are exceedingly efficient at producing votes in key races like the Iowa caucuses, or for winning over key farm-state senators to the cause of health care reform. This fall, with Obama's blessing, influential farm-state legislators are pressing to extend one of the industry's major subsidies, the so-called Volumetric Ethanol Excise Tax Credit. It has cost U.S. taxpayers $20 billion since 2006 and would run an additional $31 billion by 2015. The administration is also smiling on renewing another key biofuel subsidy brought to you by Bush: a fifty-four-cents-a-gallon tariff on imported ethanol, which virtually eliminates foreign competition. And it's likely Obama's Environmental Protection Agency will soon increase the maximum mixture of ethanol allowed in gasoline from 10 to 15 percent.
Maybe political calculation is indeed what ultimately drives Obama to cuddle up to biofuels. After all, due largely to the way our Constitution and electoral primary system favor scarcely populated farm states, saying no to ethanol could cost the key support you need for your own legislative agenda. Taking the world as we find it, perhaps we just need to accept the reality that one way or another elected officials will always have us paying large subsidies to American farmers.
But this raises a question: If eliminating agricultural subsidies is a political nonstarter, what if we used those subsidies in ways that truly benefited most farmers while also achieving other important public purposes? As I discovered on a recent reporting trip through Iowa, many farmers there would welcome a way to break free of the ethanol-industrial complex. The people I met said they'd rather cultivate crops using ecologically sound methods, if they could do so and still earn a decent living. It's not as if midwestern farmers don't know — better than the rest of us — that growing crops for biofuels damages their soil and keeps them at the mercy of predatory multinational corporations.
Fortunately, there are policy choices the country could make that would preserve the heartland while also advancing other important public goals, from reducing the amount of carbon in the atmosphere, to stanching the flow of nitrogen-laden topsoil down the Mississippi, lowering our energy use, and producing an American diet that doesn't leave so many of us both overweight and undernourished. But to achieve such a generative result we will have to work hard to overcome deep prejudice and cultural divides that leave most farmers today feeling scapegoated by blue state elites. We'll also have to make sure to get the basic science straight — to honestly assess whether any part of the biofuel project should have a place in this future too.
Today, biofuels come in two basic varieties. By far the most common is ethanol, an alcohol-based product usually distilled from corn and less often from sugarcane. It can be used as a substitute for gasoline. The other is biodiesel, which derives from oil-producing crops such as soybeans and canola. Neither is new. Henry Ford designed a version of the Model T to run on ethanol, and Rudolph Diesel's original engine burned peanut oil. But the economics of biofuels have always been challenging.
A century ago in places like Texas, if you so much as scratched the dirt crude would come bubbling to the surface. Biofuel production, on the other hand, was costly, thanks to all the land as well as labor required for sowing, fertilizing, cultivating, harvesting, storing, transporting, and processing. And the energy embodied in the fossilized material that spews out as oil and natural gas contains eons of stored solar power. By contrast, biomass, plant-based material used for fuel, contains only the solar energy it absorbed over its lifespan. In the case of annual crops such as corn, that's just a single growing season. Current research indicates that a refinery operating at the height of efficiency will produce as little as 1.3 gallons of corn ethanol while consuming as much as one gallon of fossil fuels.
Add to this the market power and economies of scale achieved by the Standard Oil monopoly and its more recent oligopolistic offspring, and it's easy to see why biofuels have never had a chance in the marketplace without steep subsidies. In addition to expanding ethanol's reach, today's subsidies continue the decades-long tradition of U.S. farm programs that enable a bushel of corn to sell for less than it costs to produce.
What's wrong with these subsidies? For one, as many biofuel critics argue, money we spend subsidizing biofuels is money we can't spend investing in truly green technologies and conservation measures. In 2007 almost 75 percent of all taxpayer dollars spent on renewable energy went to corn ethanol. Wind, solar, geothermal, and other renewables had to divvy up the leftovers. This is not even counting all the private-sector capital diverted into biofuel research and production by the availability of federal subsidies.
Worse, many thinking people now believe — and with good reason — that using more croplands to produce biofuels drives up the cost of food. Though speculators played a significant role in inflating the cost of all commodities just before the Great Recession, booming ethanol production also contributed to a spike in food prices that caused much misery around the world. This year, more than a third of the U.S.'s record corn harvest will be used to produce corn ethanol, and we are on course to using 50 percent for biofuels within five years.
Nor do biofuels offer America energy independence. In 2007, Congress adopted the ambitious mandate to triple overall U.S. biofuel use to 36 billion gallons per year by 2022. We are already far behind that timetable, but even if production increases were achieved they would amount to just a fraction of today's annual diesel and gasoline use, which is around 170 billion gallons and climbing.
With corn ethanol now established as part of the U.S. transportation fuel mix — almost 80 percent of all gasoline contains some fraction of ethanol — we see more clearly the environmental and social impact it brings. Industrially farmed crops like corn require large supplies of water; currently agriculture accounts for 70 percent of human water consumption. Ethanol refining also churns through lots of water. And maize crops need plenty of plant food to grow, especially nitrogen. In today's world that means applying huge doses of chemical fertilizers made from hydrocarbons. These chemical fertilizers, in turn, often run off fields and pollute waterways, as do the herbicides and pesticides used in corn production. In recent years some farmers have made progress in mitigating this problem, but enormous volumes of nitrogen and phosphorus from midwestern fields still wash into the Mississippi, eventually flowing into the Gulf of Mexico and creating one of the world's largest aquatic “dead zones.” So while the Gulf would benefit from our drilling fewer holes to extract oil, growing more midwestern corn to make ethanol could well leave Gulf fisherfolk even more imperiled.
In the early 2000s, some environmental and social justice groups supported limited production of ethanol as a substitute for MTBE, a gasoline additive designed to cut smog that turned out to be uncontrollably polluting groundwater. But the idea was never to stake the country's energy future on biofuels. In today's progressive view, the only reason ethanol is a growing business is because the Bush administration, eager to give a sop to red state agribusiness giants like Monsanto, lavished it with subsidies.
Modern corn cultivation also causes massive soil erosion. When settlers first broke Iowa's primeval prairie sod, fields typically contained sixteen inches of topsoil; more than half of it is now gone. Talk to any agronomist, agricultural economist, or farmer, and he'll tell you soil is even more crucial to our civilization than oil. If we don't have fertile ground we can't grow food, never mind biofuel.
Nitrogen from synthetic fertilizer also works its way into the atmosphere in the form of nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas 296 times more damaging than CO2. The vast monocultures of corn grown for ethanol production also reduce biodiversity, making all our crops more vulnerable to pests, disease, and climate change. Nearly all corn grown for ethanol is raised from genetically modified seed, which many experts warn could well lead to the evolution of “super weeds” and other baleful unintended consequences.
Until several years ago, environmentalists could see at least one benefit that might come from ethanol production: since plants absorb carbon from the atmosphere, increased ethanol production would theoretically contribute less to global warming than burning hydrocarbons like coal and oil. But if the U.S. makes fuel from corn that would otherwise be sold for feed and food, then how is the world going to respond? By chopping down rainforests and converting grasslands into row crops is, unfortunately, the most logical answer. As Princeton scientist Timothy Searchinger and others pointed out in their seminal paper from 2008, the net effect of such land use change would be to double greenhouse gas emissions in thirty years.
More recent studies that factor in possible land use effects find ethanol to be no worse, or marginally better, than gasoline in terms of net carbon output. These varying conclusions mostly reflect different assumptions about how much technology can further boost corn yields per acre, or how humans around the world will respond to increasing competition for food production. There is no precise scientific way to ascertain such things; eventually, one has to rely on common sense in determining which assumptions to use. And common sense strongly suggests that in the face of continuing global population growth (expected to rise by 2 billion within forty years) we cannot turn much more of our corn harvest into ethanol without plowing under large expanses of native ecosystems to make way for new farmland. And even if we could, all the energy required to grow, harvest, transport, and refine corn ethanol would still emit substantial greenhouse gases, not to mention sidelining emission-free forms of energy such as wind, solar, or hydro to power electric vehicles, including for mass transit.
As you've probably heard, proponents of biofuels have a ready answer to this charge. Sure, some will admit, corn-based ethanol has all these problems. But it is merely a stepping stone to a rapidly approaching technology that will allow us to refine biofuels from non-food feedstock. Switchgrass is a commonly cited example. So are other plants humans don't normally eat, such as cellulose-rich cornstalks, corncobs, and wood for ethanol, and algae, which can be used to make biodiesel. These alternative feedstock are easily grown on land less fit for food crops and require comparatively little irrigation, energy, and fertilizer.
We're not there yet, however, even though scientists have been working on the necessary refining technology for more than eighty years. To be sure, if the promised advances ever materialize it might be possible to produce biofuels in less harmful ways. Lisa Schulte-Moore is a scholar conducting advanced biofuel research in a collaboration between Iowa State University and the University of Minnesota. Along with Ryan Atwell and Lynne Westphal she is working on a plan of how and where these crops could be grown. Key to their vision is creating a balanced agro-ecosystem so that “each part of the landscape is seen as performing a valuable function based on its soils, topography, and hydrology.”
For example, algae for biodiesel would be propagated in reconstructed wetland systems, with bogs providing the added service of filtering out agricultural pollutants. Low-lying areas and sloping fields unsuitable for raising grains would be dedicated to woody crops such as hazelnut and poplar for ethanol.
But there is still a big problem with this vision. How are we ever going to collect and transport the massive amounts of low-energy biomass that would be needed to make any real dent in America's energy needs? Two years ago, Virgin Airlines scored a burst of free publicity by announcing that it had flown a Boeing 747-700 from London to Amsterdam using a biofuel mix of 20 percent coconut oil to power one of the plane's four engines. But there was a hitch not mentioned in the press release: to make just that small amount of coconut oil requires growing, harvesting, transporting, shucking, and refining 150,000 coconuts. Similarly impossible quantities would be needed to make a short journey using jet fuel refined from Jatropha beans, or soybeans, or any other oil-producing plant known to man, let alone from less energy-intensive biomass such as switchgrass.
We often hear that refining oil from algae might not be as logistically cumbersome. And it's true that some modest environmental benefits could result if production were small scale and used algae ponds that could filter agricultural runoff or wastewater. Theoretically, smokestack emissions could also be captured to provide the CO2 that algae need to grow quickly. But once we bump up to the volumes needed to make a dent in America's current oil consumption, the logistical and environmental problems, to say nothing of the capital requirements, become overwhelming. To meet domestic fuel needs, assuming still-unrealized breakthroughs in technology, we're probably talking covered slime ponds that would take up the equivalent of the entire landmass of Maryland.
More to the point, nobody has figured out how to harvest and refine that much pond scum without incurring impossible costs. According to U.S. Department of Energy, algal biofuels produced in large volumes with current technology would cost more than $8 per gallon.
It is easy to see why we all want biofuels to work as advertised. If only they did, then no one would have to cut back on driving, or drive smaller cars, let alone take mass transit. We'd get to stick it to the likes of BP and stop blowing $300 billion each year on oil imported from other countries. Instead we could pour that money into low- and no-carbon fuels as well as conservation, all while creating jobs here at home. And to be sure, biofuels can play a limited role in achieving this vision. For example, it makes sense to produce biofuels from organic material that would otherwise become waste or worse, such as nitrogen running off farms. But these are only niche applications, which leaves us, and the president, with a giant political problem: how to craft a working coalition to overcome the burgeoning ethanol-industrial complex and enact more sensible food and energy policies.
The landscape skirting the small town of Iowa Falls, population 5,200, is expansive and flat as a pancake. It is also some of the most productive soil in the world. I travel here in the middle of a stretch of bad weather, so the fields are muted with snow perforated by the blond stubble of dead corn stalks.
Many farmhouses are abandoned, but among them are people still making a living off the land. One is Kent Picht, who has been cultivating his land for thirty years and currently works 850 acres. Using genetically modified seed, chemical fertilizers, and synthetic herbicides he produces a monoculture of corn year after year, which he sells to the local ethanol refinery, Hawkeye Renewables. From the perspective of a blue state progressive all read up on Michael Pollan and local farming, Picht might seem to fall neatly into a stereotype. But that would be a gross misapprehension.
Picht asks me to leave my shoes in the mudroom as we walk inside his farmhouse. One of his daughters is sprawled on the sofa in the living room — she's a high schooler and it's Saturday morning — watching a large TV. He hands me a cup of tea and we go to the family room, where it's quieter. Picht is in his late forties with sandy blond hair, mesh cap, jeans, and is thin but not skinny. When we start talking about ethanol he seems guarded, as are so many people I meet in Iowa. Many farmers and locals I contact or try to contact either don't get back to me or say they'd rather not talk. No one at the Hawkeye refinery will take my calls — not even their PR guy. Initially Picht tells me ethanol's been nothing but good. It's a line I hear many times while I'm in Iowa.
Defensiveness has become a feature of the ethanol trade. Farmers like Picht want to protect ethanol because unlike any other option in a generation it has enabled them to earn a living. While the rest of the country was booming in the 1980s, Iowa farmers were pioneering the foreclosure crisis, with the number of the state's farms shrinking by nearly 50,000. But for the few farmers remaining, and for the dying rural towns that depend on their income, the ethanol boom has offered at least a chance at dignity. For many family farmers the rise of corn ethanol means they only need a fraction of the government payments they once maxed out to cover their annual debts.
In 2007 Picht bought his first new truck ever. Before ethanol he could never justify the expense. He went to a dealership, test drove a few models, sat across the desk from a salesman, and inked the paperwork. This time he wasn't filing forms for a government check to squeak by for the year. This time he was using his own money to purchase a brand-new, cherry-red Ford pickup.
Picht bought the truck in the heady days of the ethanol boom, when in a span of two years per-bushel corn prices surged from just over $2 all the way up to $7, even $8 on some days. At first profits were fat because production costs hadn't changed. By mid-2008, though, bills for fertilizers, pesticides, gasoline, diesel, seeds, equipment, and land rents caught up. Earlier this year when I met with Mike Duffy, an economist at Iowa State University, he showed me a graph charting farm production costs and income over that time. The zigzag of profits crest and then drop like an Alpine peak as margins during some months fell into negative territory thanks to the spike in input costs. “When there's money on the table everyone lines up to get a share and farmer profits go back down,” Duffy told me.
Nevertheless, with revenues and federal, state, and local subsidies flowing, more farmers got into maize, forgoing rotations of soy, wheat, alfalfa, and other crops. That means relying on ever more chemical fertilizers to replenish sapped soil, and synthetic herbicides and genetically modified seed bought at monopolistic prices to manage pest-prone monocultures. Landowners have cashed in too, shifting acreage from pasture to row crops and taking additional land out of conservation. “Farmers have made some money in the last few years,” Duffy explained. But the notion that the family farm has been reinvigorated by ethanol is wrong. “Corn farmers handle more money today than they used to, but margins are back down to about what they were before the boom,” he noted. In other words, even though Picht's red pickup is now scratched and dented, he won't be replacing it anytime soon.
Meanwhile, new farmers such as twenty-four-year-old Jeff Burkley can't get onto the land because ethanol has driven rents sky high. Instead Burkley, who grew up on a farm and has long lines of farmers on both sides of his family, must hold off. For now he's working full-time at a biotech seed firm to save up money so that one day he can afford to be a farmer. Burkley's not alone in his struggle: only a quarter of all farmers in the U.S. are below the age of forty-five, and corn ethanol, with its inflationary effects on farm land prices, equipment, and chemical inputs and seed, reinforces the pattern. Today, just to get into the business a new farmer must produce full tilt. This happens in one of two ways: through expansive production using lots of acreage (Iowa dirt now sells for about $5,600 per acre) and heavy equipment (a new combine harvester can easily run over $200,000); or intensive production using less land worked in a labor-intensive manner. Either way, new farmers will quite likely spend the rest of their life in debt.
Corn ethanol's shortcomings are certainly not lost on Keith Kuper. A conventional corn farmer and small-time commodity broker in Iowa Falls, he's one of just a few people I meet in Iowa who is candid about the subject. “I've been a beneficiary of ethanol. Is it good public policy for the country? No, it's terrible,” he says. Kuper knows ethanol puts more farmers at the mercy of agribusiness and that it forces them to plunder the soil and pollute the water and air. He knows it makes everyone even more dependent on fossil fuels. And he knows the much-hyped promises to revitalize the heartland were bunk. “Farmers benefited during the first couple years [of the boom] but now we're right back to where we were before — we're just pushing more money around.”
Picht, Kuper, and Jeff Burkley's father all spoke frankly about their disdain for the distant corporations that increasingly control their lives. At least in the days of prairie populists farmers didn't have to pay royalties to biotech firms like Monsanto that had patents on nature itself. Farmers always had to deal with the vagaries of weather, pests, and transportation fees, but the cost of growing a crop, and the sums they received for it, did not swing wildly based on the bets of Wall Street traders speculating in derivatives.
Back in Picht's family room he tells me he considers himself an environmentalist. Depleting the soil and using chemicals that pollute water supplies and create hypoxic zones in the Gulf of Mexico make him mad. “I'm a fisherman, I want the water to be clean,” he says. Then our conversation turns to food. He doesn't shop at the supermarket chain store in Iowa Falls. Instead he gets meat from area farmers who raise their livestock on pasture, and freshly laid eggs from another farmer down the road.
The same is true with some of the other locals I meet. Iowa is the country's number one egg producer, thanks to its giant factory farms, but Picht doesn't need a Berkeley foodie to tell him he's better off trading with his neighbors for eggs. I ask why. “I don't want to eat chemicals!” he says, his hands raised in exasperation.
As we talk about possibilities for change he vacillates between excitement and worry. “There's other alternatives to Big Ag. There's farmer's markets — they're big out here, every town has them.” A few minutes later, though, he expresses anxiety: “I hate to think what this place would look like without ethanol plants. I imagine it would be like Detroit on a smaller scale.” Then, not long after that, he ventures that if all Americans drove Priuses, “we'd probably solve our energy problem.”
In talking to Picht and other farmers, I realize that once you scratch the surface their allegiance to ethanol doesn't run deep. They understand it's part of the same industrial farming system that's been undermining the American farmer's independent way of life for generations. And so they live with the constant push-and-pull of not liking the industrial farming that comes with widespread ethanol production, but liking life on the land; not liking how they have to work harder each year, but feeling gratified they are not wage slaves. Farmers like Picht want to protect ethanol not because they believe in it but because under today's circumstances, they have no other reasonable options. If I were in Picht's shoes I'd probably feel the same way.
Imagine another possible world. It is a world in which we still offer bountiful subsidies to American agriculture because politics dictates that we do so. But these subsidies go not toward the false promise of large-scale biofuel production, but for ends that are technologically feasible and broadly desirable for farmers and nonfarmers alike.
Let us suppose, for example, that we paid growers like Picht to minimize deep plowing and to plant winter-cover crops so as to prevent erosion, filter pollutants, and build up the soil; to practice rotations of alfalfa, clover, vetch, peas, and other nitrogen-producing plants to minimize the need for chemical fertilizers and pesticides; to grow not just monocultures of corn and wheat and soybeans, but more fresh fruits and vegetables, which currently receive almost no subsidies.
What would be some of the consequences? We are not talking about encouraging every American farmer to go “organic” (if by that we mean no synthetic chemicals, no genetically modified organisms, ever). We are talking about compensating farmers for specific agricultural practices that would deliver tremendous public good for which taxpayers should properly pay.
Consider carbon sequestration. All arable soils contain some fraction of slowly decomposing organic material known as humus. What some farmers don't know, along with most city folk, is that building humus in the soil also sequesters immense amounts of carbon. This CO2 would otherwise hang in the atmosphere, since it is exorbitantly expensive to reduce by other means.
What's more, humus is enormously beneficial to plant life. A soil rich with humus acts like a sponge, so less irrigation is needed, and less fertilizer runs off into waterways. Humus also slowly releases nitrogen and other nutrients it contains, so overall fertilizer use drops. If undisturbed by heavy plowing and applications of pesticides and herbicides, humus helps maintain a complex, finely balanced ecosystem of microbial life in the soil that over time will raise fertility and help protect plants from pathogens and pests.
Farmers know this, and have known it for about 10,000 years. But under our current system of subsidies and industrial-scale production, few can afford to take much advantage of these elemental principals of agronomy.
Here's where an opportunity for a new win-win politics of agriculture enters — one that serves both struggling farmers and the broader public. Today, most agricultural land in the U.S. is severely depleted of humus; decades of heavy tilling and excess applications of chemical fertilizer have caused it to decompose or wear away. Not only do today's standard agricultural practices deplete soil fertility, using large amounts of chemical fertilizer to compensate for the gradual sterilization of the soil adds still more to greenhouse gas emissions. Yet because of market forces and the way our farm subsidies work, farmers are nonetheless compelled to, in effect, “mine” what natural humus they have left in their soils just to stay in business. All they can do to make up for declining soil fertility is add more and more chemical inputs and increasingly rely on expensive, genetically modified seed.
It's a classic short-term/long-term tradeoff. The current path most farmers are on maximizes short-term yields, but leads to ongoing economic dependence and, for most farmers over the last generation, eventual bankruptcy. And of course it means that carbon once safely and beneficially sequestered in topsoil is now released into the atmosphere. What's wrong with the picture?
According to research conducted by the Rodale Institute, up to 40 percent of the world's emissions of CO2 would be sequestered if farmers made greater use of such proven soil-building techniques as composting, no-till planting, and cover crops in winter grown without use of herbicides. Rodale has also shown that over time such techniques will build soil fertility to the point that crop yields are the same or better than those achieved by today's more common and unsustainable techniques.
Yet farmers receive virtually no compensation for cultivating in ways that cut CO2 emissions, reduce runoff, or otherwise help “save the planet.” Says Iowa State University economist Matt Liebman, this way of farming can't go on — we have to shift our agricultural system to prioritize stewardship. That means creating what he calls a “portfolio of payments.” “We can pay farmers for just the products they provide” — such as corn for ethanol — “or for their products and their stewardship. It's our choice, but either way farmers have to earn a living.”
Paying farmers to sequester carbon is sound public policy, but it's also, and just as importantly, good politics. By helping to preserve farmers economically while also allowing them to be the stewards of land most want to be, it peels farmers away from the agribusiness coalition that is pushing the Obama administration to bet the country on a failed biofuels energy strategy.
Yes, this proposal does not in itself achieve the colossal task of restoring America's energy independence and getting the country off fossil fuels, though it would help considerably by allowing farmers to cut their petrochemical use. To the extent that this proposal would foster more local production, it would also shorten supply chains in food production and distribution, thereby realizing further energy savings. Achieving full energy self-reliance, of course, requires conservation and increased energy efficiency throughout the economy; farm sector reform alone can't accomplish that. But this proposal would fully achieve other goals that are just as important, if not more so — above all not leaving the next generation as desperate for imported food as we are for imported energy.
Research support for this article was provided by The Investigative Fund of The Nation Institute.