The massive crop loss from Midwest floods has again laid bare the political power of the corn-ethanol lobby. The US Agriculture Department may soon help keep ethanol plants running by letting farmers plow up land set aside for wildlife.
Such a move, being pushed by Sen. Charles Grassley (R) of Iowa, would put birds such as ducks, sage grouse, meadowlarks, pheasants, and bobwhites in jeopardy. It would also chew up millions of acres of trees and endangered prairie that now probably do more to absorb carbon and curb global warming than the expanding corn-ethanol industry can claim for its dubious enterprise.
Under a 1985 farm law that started the federal Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), about 35 million acres of marginal farmland are now purposely idled by USDA to create wildlife habitat, curb soil erosion, and prevent runoff of pollutants from farming. The CRP was originally intended to boost grain prices by idling land during bumper crop years. But it has since turned out to be America's biggest conservation program, becoming a main reason to continue it and similar programs.
The amount of potential farm land set aside surpasses the total area of the National Wildlife Refuge System and most state wildlife areas. It is as big as 16 Yellowstone National Parks.
The many benefits from this idled land should not be diminished to further feed the delusion that the oil-based production and distribution of corn ethanol actually reduces greenhouse-gas emissions. Too many studies now point to the industry's false promise.
Under CRP, farmers are paid for up to 15 years not to cultivate land that may be better suited for other purposes. About 3 million acres of native tallgrass prairie have been restored with the program. Such land gone wild also creates stopover areas for migrating birds. Some 2 million more ducks have been added to annual fall migrations because of CRP, according to the US Fish and Wildlife Service.
Such benefits, however, are up against the 2005 mandate set by Congress that Americans be required to use 15 billion gallons of ethanol by 2015. (By 2022, it would be 36 billion gallons). So far, about a quarter of the US corn crop now goes to make ethanol, raising food prices worldwide and putting pressure on land use coast to coast.
This government rush to impose an energy solution also has raised the cost of grain for animal feed, upsetting livestock producers. USDA decided this spring to open up 24 million acres of conservation land for hay and grazing this summer. Now, after the Midwest floods, it is considering a bolder move to open more CRP land. Many farmers who are being paid to conserve land are eager to make more money by planting corn, which is commanding record prices.
A better step would be to loosen (if not abandon) the federal mandate on ethanol usage. Under pressure from a few states, such as Texas, the Environmental Protection Agency is now considering such a move.
Before farmers plow up every fence row, wetland, and prairie to join the gold rush to corn, government needs to reverse this biofuels mania. The trade-offs are too high.
Just as levees often contribute to floods downstream, corn ethanol may end up drowning a big portion of the nation's most successful conservation effort.