Erosion, pollution: The secret environmental cost of the United States' ethanol policy

By Matt Apuzzo

Associated Press

Published: Tuesday, Nov. 12 2013 3:29 p.m. MST

The EPA, in a report to Congress on the environmental effects of ethanol, said it was "uncertain" whether farmers would plant on farmland that had been set aside for conservation.

The Department of Energy was more certain. Most conservation land, the government said in its response to the study, "is unsuitable for use for annual row crop production."

America could meet its ethanol demand without losing a single acre of conservation land, Energy officials said.

They would soon be proven wrong.

Before the government ethanol mandate, the Conservation Reserve Program grew every year for nearly a decade. Almost overnight, farmers began leaving the program, which simultaneously fell victim to budget cuts that reduced the amount of farmland that could be set aside for conservation.

In the first year after the ethanol mandate, more than 2 million acres disappeared.

Since Obama took office, 5 million more acres have vanished.

Agriculture officials acknowledge that conservation land has been lost, but they say the trend is reversing. When the 2013 data comes out, they say it will show that as corn prices stabilized, farmers once again began setting aside land for conservation.

Losing conservation land was bad. But something even worse was happening.

Farmers broke ground on virgin land, the untouched terrain that represents, from an environmental standpoint, the country's most important asset.

The farm industry assured the government that wouldn't happen. And it would have been an easy thing for Washington to check.

But rather than insisting that farmers report whenever they plow into virgin land, the government decided on a much murkier oversight method: Washington instead monitors the total number of acres of cropland nationwide. Local trends wash away when viewed at such a distance.

"They could not have designed a better approach to not detect land conversion," said Ben Larson, an agricultural expert for the National Wildlife Federation.

Look closely at the corn boom in the northern Great Plains, however, and it's clear. Farmers are converting untouched prairie into farmland.

The Department of Agriculture began keeping figures on virgin land only in 2012 and determined that about 38,000 acres vanished that year.

But using government satellite data — the best tool available — the AP identified a conservative estimate of 1.2 million acres of virgin land in Nebraska and the Dakotas alone that have been converted to fields of corn and soybeans since 2006, the last year before the ethanol mandate was passed.

"The last five years, we've become financially solvent," said Robert Malsam, a farmer in Edmunds County, S.D., who like others in the central and eastern Dakotas has plowed into wild grassland to expand his corn crop.

The price of corn is reshaping the land across the Midwest. In Wayne County, Iowa, for example, only the dead can stop the corn.

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 narrow path through the corn.

People have complained. It's too narrow for a hearse, too rutted for a wheelchair, too steep for the elderly. But it's legal, said Bill Alley from the board of supervisors.

"This is what the price of corn does," he said. "This is what happens, right here."

When Congress passed the ethanol mandate, it required the EPA to thoroughly study the effects on water and air pollution. In his recent speech to ethanol lobbyists, Vilsack was unequivocal about those effects:

"There is no question air quality, water quality is benefiting from this industry," he said.

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