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Corn Ethanol and the Great Dust Bowl
Mindy Lubber, 28 Nov 07
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The current corn ethanol meltdown -- a dual economic and environmental problem -- is history repeating itself.

The parallels between the events leading up to the Great Dust Bowl and today's ethanol mess are unnerving. Each is revealing on what can go wrong when long-term sustainability measures are not taken Into account and how poorly-conceived government subsidies can thwart the best of good intentions.

The origins of the Great Dust Bowl began nearly a century ago when the government exhorted settlers to take their dreams west to the Great Plains. Backed by zero interest loans, free train rides and price guarantees, hundreds of thousands flocked to Texas and Oklahoma to cast their lot as wheat farmers. In less than 10 years, millions of acres of native grassland were plowed under and transformed into vast carpets of gold-tinted wheat. And gold it was: farmers were guaranteed $2 for every bushel they produced. The slogan at that time -- "Health, Wealth and Opportunity" -- was as accurate as it was optimistic.

Of course, nobody remembered then that the Great Plains had once been listed on U.S. maps as the Great American Desert, or that American explorer Stephen Long once described the dry, windswept region as "almost wholly uninhabitable by a people depending upon agriculture for their subsistence."

We all know what happened in the end. A double whammy of exhausted soil and a prolonged drought triggered the Great Dust Bowl of the 1930's, perhaps the biggest environmental catastrophe in the nation's history. Entire communities were literally swept under by the uprooted black dust that blew as far away as Boston and New York and halfway across the Atlantic Ocean. So great was the devastation that New York City in 1934 had to turn on its streetlights midday due to the dark clouds.

The corn ethanol boom is creating its own dark clouds over New York -- this time over Wall Street and companies that have invested billions to take advantage of generous government subsidies to expand ethanol's use in the U.S.

But painful truths about corn-based ethanol are now emerging. Rather than being an oil-reducing environmental panacea, corn ethanol provides little or no environmental benefit, is not reducing our dependence on oil and has caused corn prices -- translate, food prices -- to soar through the roof.

Unfortunately, this outcome was all too predictable to many in the environmental community, who recognized the limitations of the misguided subsidies when they were announced.

Don't get me wrong: I'm all in favor of boosting bio-fuel production that reduces oil dependence and greenhouse gas emissions at the same time. But corn-based ethanol likely isn't the answer. Cellulosic ethanol made from switchgrass and other non-edible plant materials seems to hold greater promise for achieving these goals, but the jury is still out. Let's hope the government gets it right so that subsidies and incentives create long-term sustainability instead of more long-term problems.

Mindy S. Lubber is president of Ceres, a coalition of investors, environmental groups and other public interest organizations working with companies to address sustainability challenges such as global climate change.

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Comments

The Ethanol prescription is the next big boondoggle. It can't work and the parties involved know this but in the meantime they'll soak the taxpayer for a bigtab and in the end have nothing but shame to show for it.


Posted by: Joe Michaels on 28 Nov 07

The Ethanol prescription is the next big boondoggle. It can't work and the parties involved know this but in the meantime they'll soak the taxpayer for a bigtab and in the end have nothing but shame to show for it.


Posted by: Joe Michaels on 28 Nov 07

The most likely path for cellulosic ethanol in the corn regions is to use the corn stover - husks and stalks. Poet already has plasn in the works to do this at it Emmetsburg, IA plant. Tremendous reductions in water and energy use are expected, along with signficantly greater production of fuel per acre. Meanwhile, most of the food price increase is energy price related. Corn ethanol ain't the greatest, but it is a doorway to the next generation.


Posted by: Patrick Mazza on 28 Nov 07

I don't think we should 'hope that the government gets it right.' We've got to do more ourselves by making this obvious situation obvious to those with power to correct it. You know, petitions and phone calls, petitions and phone calls. Anyone know of an organization that is attacking this problem by bringing it to Washington? If so, leave a link and we can all get a little more involved.


Posted by: The FB Crew on 29 Nov 07

Sounds more like oil-industry scaremongering as usual. Biofuels do work as renewable fuels. The vegetable (biodiesel) oil fuels aren't exactly carbon-emission free, but they're still better than using fossil fuels since the plants grown (as long as they're grown naturally - which they should be) are going to be using up CO2 to grow.

We already know also that even used cooking oil can be used as biodiesel fuel. There's an article on that at this very site.

When it comes to ethanol - the real cover-up of data there is similar to the cover-up of hemps use as a fuel; it's more prohibition echos.
How easy is it to make moonshine - as suggested above, it can be made from the spent unused parts of the crop plants - corn husks, potato peels....ethanol is just alcohol.

Subsidies shouldn't be specific as to what crops are grown - so that's easily solved. In this case it'd be what they are to be used for that's important.

As for the clearing of forests and suchlike to plant any crops - that is ridiculous and needless. Crops can be planted for fuel uses that do well in poor soils, and at any rate there should be ongoing efforts to renew and make healthy the topsoils where they have been overplanted & overused - practices such as green manuring and applying rock dust and lava rock are proven methods of creating rich healthy crop planting soils.

There seems to be a great deal of attitude in some of the green areas, that's like some spoilt brat making up lame excuses for why something they were told to do didn't work - it's like it's controlled by people doing it wrong on purpose, and deliberately ignoring all of what's known to work and already exist.


Posted by: zupakomputer on 29 Nov 07

This article is featured on the front page of The Issue in the Issue of the day section. Check it out!


Posted by: Stephen Puschel on 6 Dec 07



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