Corn Commentary

High Productivity Agriculture Necessary For Sustainability

The emcee for the Global Farmer to Farmer Roundtable conducted by Truth About Trade & Technology was Bob Thomson. He says the participating farmers were looking at what it’s going to take to thrive in the next several years. High on their list is modern technology. He says they realize that to feed the projected population equivalent of two more countries the size of China in the next forty years it will take very high productivity agriculture. The alternative will be massive destruction of forests and that will lead to a lot of undesirable results.

Bob says a real concern and frustration expressed, especially by European participants, was the extent that some activist organizations have dominated the debate and how little their governments are doing to help them. It’s hard to be competitive when you’re overburdened by regulations. Participants from countries like India said that biotechnology products will be critical for them. They weren’t so much interested in subsidies as being on a level playing field. A need to communicate their stories was also expressed.

You can listen to my interview with Bob here:

TATT Global Farmer To Farmer Roundtable Photo Album

Ethanol…Pinata or Juggernaut?

For years ethanol opponents have beaten on the fuel like a piñata but a funny thing keeps happening…it survives and after each attack the fuel’s reputation grows as does its market.

Ethanol’s reputation grows because the fuel is getting greener. Each new look shows increases in production efficiencies, less water and energy use, more gallons per bushel of corn and even previously estimated projections of greenhouse gasses are proving to be wrong as the science gets better.

A new report out by the US Department of Agriculture today “indicates the net energy gain from converting corn to ethanol is improving in efficiency.  

  • The net energy balance of corn ethanol has increased from 1.76 BTUs to 2.3 BTUs of required energy.
  • Ethanol has transitioned from being an energy sink to a “substantial net energy gain in the present. And there are still prospects for improvement.
  • Ethanol yields are up 10% in the last 20 years.
  • Corn yields have increased 39% in the last 20 years, requiring less land to produce ethanol. 

Titled  2008 Energy Balance for the Corn Ethanol Industry the report surveyed ethanol producers about ethanol yield per bushel of corn and energy used in ethanol plants.

While we are rolling out the good news on ethanol keep these statistics in mind too:

  1. For the 1st time, DDG availability will displace more than 1 billion bushels of corn in livestock rations this marketing year, providing a high-quality, high-value feed product for livestock producers, both in the US and abroad. 
  2. In the U.S., corn production has more than doubled since 1980, on only 3% more land. That’s an impressive move from 6.6 billion bushels o 13.2 billion bushels, pushed by yields gorwing from 91 bushels an acre to 163.5 bushels per acre today.

E85 Comes Out on Top in High Tech Competition

Automotive designers and race car mechanics and engineers from around the world ended their quest to create a 100 + mile-per-gallon vehicle today with an interesting development; the winner was powered by ethanol, E85 to be exact.  While many of the competitors chose to pursue the electric-battery option it was corn squeezings that ruled the day.

However, it is worth noting that the extensive coverage of the $10 million X Prize competition often referred to it as an internal combustion gasoline vehicle. Kudos to the New York Times for getting it right, although I would have liked to have seen E85’s prominent role higher in the story.

Teams from Virginia, North Carolina and Winterthur, Switzerland, with roots in the world of auto racing  won the first Progressive Insurance Automotive X-Prize but it was Edison2′s “Very Light Car No. 98” that took the top prize of $5 million.

The media dismissal of the ethanol connection begs the question “when did ethanol become the Rodney Dangerfield of fuel?”  We don’t get no respect.” From the Toledo Blade to Wired Magazine online to even autobloggreen , they missed the American fuel angle, the green angle, the tested and proven angle of ethanol made right here,  right now.  With a host of flexible fuel cars capable of using higher ethanol blends like E85 this deserved to be a key component of the announcement.

Having alternatives to imported petroleum is a great idea because consumer choice (such as the BYO blendyourown initiative) and competition in the marketplace is always a good thing.

On a positive note E85 did win the competition and it offers another example that we don’t lack for solutions to our problems but rather the vision and drive to make them reality.

Dead Zones Grow in Non-Farming Areas

Do any other nations contemplate their navels as much as government and business in America? I know of nowhere else on the planet where people will spend precious time and millions of dollars to do studies related to previous studies. If it does exist, I don’t think I want to move there.

With that observation aside…on to the latest study on Hypoxia and this one happens to be serious in nature, better than many and related to an issue we must understand better. Hypoxic Zones - a condition in which oxygen levels drop so low that fish and other animals are stressed or killed - are often better known in the environmental community and mass media by the stage name of “Dead Zones” for its shock value.

What makes the latest look at Hypoxia interesting is the diverse list of folks involved in the study and several very public observations that would seems to show the wisdom of what many experts have said for years; hypoxia is real, a growing risk, and complex to the point of still largely evading current science.

The study compiled by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration had significant inputs from the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Agriculture, the U.S. Geological Survey, and the Virginia Institute of Marine Science. It shows a growing body of thought that climate change is a big factor in these zones, urban contributions are significant and most of the zones are in places with little intensive farming or fertilizer use.

The study provides a comprehensive list of the more than 300 U.S. coastal water bodies affected by hypoxia. This alone is interesting. Much of what the public has heard about hypoxia in the past is related to the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico and the finger pointers saying agriculture, and specifically growing corn production and fertilizer use, is the culprit. This continues despite static acreage, better soil and water management, and reduced fertilizer use.

The new report at least points out nutrient delivery to coastal waters throughout the nation come from urban and suburban landscapes (golf courses & your lawn), city water treatment sewage discharges and even air pollution. The non-Ag sources get a serious look in this study - and they should - given most of the 300 affected waterways have little corn production or intensive use of commercial fertilizers in agriculture.

“This report makes it clear that there are many causes of hypoxia and that the causes vary based on location of the affected areas. Some are agriculture-related, and many are not. We support further research into all the causes of hypoxia because only then can we seriously develop and implement solutions that are workable and sustainable,” said Darrin Ihnen, National Corn Growers Association president of South Dakota.

One big red flag is the largest and fastest growing zones are in the Pacific Northwest which they are attributing to an emerging link to changing climate. Despite this revelation and better balance than many hypoxia papers, this one still singles our corn and growing demand for ethanol as a key culprit.

The study mentions increased corn acreage from 2006 to 2007 but does not mention the acreage drop from 2007 to 2008, and that the acreage planted in 2010 is more than 5 million acres fewer than in 2007.

The hit on corn overshadows the more interesting findings of the geographic diversity of these zones and the emerging link to climate change. These zones have increased 30-fold since 1960 despite advances in agricultural technology and have been located in many areas of the world where no fertilizer is used. Hopefully, this study will broaden the debate and open some minds on the hypoxia issue.

Virginia Corn Farmers Practice Conservation In Action

Conservation in Action TourLast week’s Conservation in Action Tour in Virginia included several farms where Chesapeake Bay area farmers have a rich history of good conservation practices, most notably no-till. In fact, many farms in the area have been in continuous no-till for decades! The tour is conducted each year by the Conservation Technology Information Center. I participated and spoke with Wayne Kirby, Virginia corn farmer and Chairman of the Virginia Corn Board. Wayne says a lot of people are interested in agriculture in their area and especially what’s happening with the Chesapeake Bay restoration effort.

The restoration effort is very important to corn growers since regulations and policies are being set that have direct impact of farming. Wayne says corn growers been working diligently to improve their production practices and the tour provided an opportunity for them to show what they’re doing to other farmers as well as farm policy makers who also participated. In my interview with him he describes how much of what area farmers are doing is not being taken into account in the models used for watershed management.

You can download (mp3) and listen to my interview with Wayne here:

Black Gold, Texas Tea or Carbon Crack…it’s all Crude

 In our recent series discussing ethanol a lot of the information has been more philosophical in nature and has focused on some of the critics and their motivations. The idea was to get you thinking in a skeptical way rather than beat you up with statistics. That ends with this installment which will discuss petroleum. (Skip to the end for the stats).

Black Gold, Texas Tea, or carbon crack…at the end of the day there is a reason they call it crude.  Even in its refined form it remains crude. This stew of dead, decayed plants and animals we call oil is nothing but another anachronistic fossil fuel that is little removed from cavemen rubbing sticks to keep us warm.

We may have become highly technical and efficient in finding oil and getting it out of the ground but the final product remains, well…crude.

Over the years more than 200 ingredients have been put in gasoline to try to make it burn better, make your engine knock less, and sometimes just because it was a convenient way to make unpleasant chemical waste products from the petroleum industry disappear out your exhaust pipe.

And all of us gonzo gas mavens would ignore the obvious imperfections and hideous social costs because it was abundant, cheap and made our powered toys sing. Cars, boats, motorcycles, weed-whackers, generators, power washers, etc…..Yikes, the list does go on.

Today, I would gladly trade in my heated seats, directional headlights, and GPS for a modern fuel (hopefully domestic) and new engine technology that moves us away from the oil-fed internal combustion dinosaurs we depend on today.

If we can have cell phone technology that changes daily, digital television technology sharper than the human eye can even see, and tractors that steer themselves we surly should be able to market a functional, fuel efficient and more environmentally friendly car that runs on a cleaner, renewable fuel source. (more…)

Corn Ethanol Upheld to Soil Sustainability Provisions

California is attacking corn ethanol again. The newest affront is complements of the California Air Resources Board (CARB) who has created a new working group to study soil sustainability provisions of biofuels. The current crops under review include corn ethanol, sugarcane ethanol, wood based fuels, palm oil, and soy biodiesel. The ultimate goal is that biofuels’ greenhouse gas emission (GHG) reductions will be measured by both indirect land use and also soil sustainability to be given a final GHG reduction number.

So what factors are considered to impact soil sustainability?

  • Carbon content
  • erosion
  • crop rotation
  • nutrition/chemical use
  • productivity
  • crop expansion

I believe that several recent events have led to these new proposed biofuels provisions, the biggest one being the ongoing attack of environmental organizations, such as Friends of the Earth, who are opposed to all things corn ethanol and commodity farming. What I find interesting is that many environmental groups seem to oppose everything - fossil fuel use, alternative energy and production farming. It’s almost like they oppose all things energy.

Similar to the same path CARB has traveled regarding indirect land use, a theory light on scientific support, this new path is also one with little to no scientific support in terms of how to “categorize” biofuels based on soil sustainability. You simply cannot create effective policy this way.

The other issue I take with these types of provisions within California policy making, is that they don’t include any provisions for gasoline. What are the indirect land use effects of oil production? No one asked until University of Nebraska finally studied them and found that they are even greater than originally estimated.

What are the ‘soil sustainability’ or should we say, ‘environmental impacts’ of oil production? Drilling impacts soil. Spills impact soil.

Until more people become educated about the benefits of corn ethanol, we continue to have a fight on our hands, one that the agricultural industry is taking very seriously. I encourage people to reach out to organizations like CARB and enlighten them regarding the errors of their ways through the sharing of facts.

No matter how hard the anti-ethanol factions continue to fight, we still have one truth on our side: corn ethanol is a more environmentally friendly fuel at its worst, than gasoline is at its best.

Little is Sweet About Sugar Cane Ethanol

A recent study attempted to make the case that if the U.S. government allowed the ethanol tax credit to expire it would have very few adverse consequences for the U.S. industry. The fact the study was funded by the Brazilian sugarcane ethanol industry was dutifully avoided.

Anti-ethanol folks, who have been receiving a lot of attention on this blog of late, made sure the study got plenty of media splash because it helped them further their own causes. Interesting they didn’t showcase the source of the funding for the study or point out how badly Brazil’s sugarcane ethanol industry lusts after access to the world’s largest ethanol market…the USA.

And in today’s budget conscious environment in Washington, DC their efforts are getting some traction. The direct cost of the ethanol incentives is being reviewed independently without any comparative assessment to savings in farm bill costs, how much we spend militarily on protecting our petroleum shipping lanes, or the economic fallout from depending on foreign oil. Federal tax revenue generated by the production and use of U.S. ethanol totaled more than $8 billion in 2009, $3 billion more than the value of the tax credit.

It is amazing how quickly some of our elected officials have forgotten the core rationale for putting the US ethanol tax credit in place. President Ronald Reagan, who was not exactly a political Dove, regularly noted it is in America’s best interest to reduce the world’s dependency on oil from unstable regions of the world.

That’s why Reagan and virtually every president since has asked domestic alternative energy producers like ethanol to step up. He also noted the expense related to America’s foreign oil addiction and how helpful bringing these energy jobs and the billions of dollars ($1 billion day) we send overseas could be for the U.S. economy.

Despite this clarion call the aforementioned detractors, which mysteriously enough include some environmental groups, like to preach the benefits of sugarcane ethanol; sometimes called “slash-and burn ethanol.”(See attached photo). It’s even more amazing some U.S. regulatory agencies actually tout Brazilian ethanol as an “advanced biofuel over the American made corn product.  In case you were wondering the photo shows a burning cane field in Brazil. The Sao Paulo area alone burns 8,000 sq miles of field producing incredible amounts of volatile compounds and particulates.

To make harvesting easier, which reduces manual labor costs, sugarcane fields are burned prior to harvest to remove the plants’ leaves. Considering the near slave labor conditions in some cane fields I guess this burning might seem a gift for the machete wielding masses, despite the obvious environmental costs of the massive burning.

If critics are truly concerned about our fuel needs and specific environmental and economic consequences consider the following:

Data from the Brazilian sugar organizations clearly shows they are planning, by 2020, to export 63% more sugar and export 336% more ethanol – all at the expense of increasing the land area required for sugarcane by 78%. Corn based ethanol is being provided with increased corn yields on the same acreage and using modern production processes throughout the production chain.

Sugarcane ethanol provides primarily ethanol, with some electircal cogeneration. Corn based ethanol provides ethanol, high protein feed for livestock, corn oil, and even captured CO2 from the fermentation process to carbonate soft drinks.

Sugarcane ethanol provides jobs that don’t meet subsistence level incomes, while jobs in the ethanol production chain are highly skilled jobs that provide long term employment and taxable income for local schools etc…

And the next time you want to get on a soapbox promoting sugarcane ethanol consider the following items below which are being ignored to make Brazilian product look better than it is:

  • Ignoring direct and indirect emissions from crop residues;
  • Use of inappropriately low fertilizer rates;
  • Failure to account for energy inputs for dehydration of hydrous ethanol;
  • Failure to accurately assess transport of ethanol from Brazil to U.S.
  • Failure to assess actual cane harvesting practices and processing in Brazil

At the end of the day if the U.S. ends up importing more ethanol, then we will once again lose a domestic growth industry, export American jobs, and become dependent on foreign energy producers.

Environmental Issues at CUTC

cutc geoff cooperIndirect land use change and DDGs quality were two of the ethanol-related topics that were featured at the recent 2010 Corn Utilization and Technology Conference (CUTC) in Atlanta.

Geoff Cooper with the Renewable Fuels Association took part in the event and chaired one of the technical sessions. Geoff used to work for the National Corn Growers Association, so he has been involved in this conference before, and he says it has definitely changed over the years. “Five or six years ago if you had come to this conference, you would not have heard many mentions of greenhouse gases and carbon footprint and things like that, but those issues are front of mind with the industry today and those themes really permeated a lot of the sessions this year,” he said.

Cooper says there was also some discussion at the conference about an environmental group lawsuit over the Renewable Fuel Standard that claims EPA did not account for the “Global Rebound Effect.” “In essence, what the theory suggests is that by using more biofuels in the United States, we’re driving down oil consumption, which results in oil prices decreasing, and because oil prices are lower then people in other parts of the world start using more oil,” Geoff said. “So they’re suggesting that would occur as a result of the RFS 2 and that those emissions should be attributable to biofuels like ethanol.” Since the goal of the RFS2 is to reduce oil consumption, Geoff says they “find it a little questionable that now they would be suggesting that it’s a bad thing that we’re reducing our oil consumption in the U.S. as a result of that policy.”

The theme of the Corn Utilization and Technology Conference was “Corn: America’s Renewable Resource” and Geoff says since this year’s crop is expected to be another big one, increasing markets continues to be important. “Corn is a great crop with a lot of utility, let’s put it to work,” he said.

Listen to an interview Chuck Zimmerman did with Geoff Cooper at CUTC here:

Don’t forget to check out the CUTC Photo Album

Give Me Corn Ethanol or Give Me…?

 Dear New York Times…Your editorial today regarding corn-based ethanol is superficial, either uninformed or malicious, and a disservice to the citizens of this nation looking for real energy solutions we can implement today.

Before addressing some of the onerous points in your piece, please take a look at the attached photo. This is not from the BP spill in the Gulf but rather the latest incident in Michigan which has dumped a million gallons of oil into a river and is now 80 miles from polluting Lake Michigan. Oil is and always has been a loaded gun from an environmental perspective.  From leaking tanks at service stations to oil tankers grounded on coral reefs in storms. No more explanation needed on this one.

However, perhaps the biggest point you fail to address is wind, coal, and geothermal don’t make your car go. Natural gas can be used as an automotive fuel but it too is not renewable and has other issues I won’t go into here today. Solar….I’ll race you with my bicycle.

Will ethanol be made from other sources some day?  Undoubtedly. Other biomass sources show real potential and will come with the proper research and development, but corn-based technology and infrastructure is the very launching platform for this effort. Yet opponents would have us build our domestic energy house without a foundation.

Ethanol…dubious environmental benefit? Line up the hundreds of studies regarding ethanol, look at the funding sources and consider what is left. What you will find is a long trail of reputable scientists and institutions public, private and governmental that clearly shows the environmental benefits of ethanol.

When compared to petroleum especially, ethanol is a rock star in regard to cleaning the air, maintaining water quality, and soil management. On the oil side think tar sands.

Your reference to the land use issue is also comical. Incredible productivity on our existing corn acres is easily supplying the growing ethanol industry while also meeting the needs of other markets. And yield growth is accelerating.

And finally, I think we must aggressively pursue all forms of renewable, domestic energy given the finite nature of petroleum and do so in good conscience because of the legacy we stand to leave future generations. To suggest we put our entire energy investment in “maybe someday” sources while ignoring a viable and tested source like ethanol is shortsighted at best.

Page 2 of 111234510...Last »