Renewable fuel standard benefits more than farmers

Renewable fuel standard benefits more than farmers

By Chris Hausman

If you've been reading these editorial pages lately, you would immediately recognize that it's open season on ethanol. As a farmer, I'd like to try to set the record straight.

The critics of renewable fuels fall into three groups — the oil industry, dyed-in-the wool environmentalists, and free market think tanks.Even the "unbiased" Associated Press (AP) has participated in ethanol bashing. While each of these groups has aligned against renewable fuels for a different set of reasons, none of them seems terribly interested in the facts.

A quick review of independent studies and information readily available from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and several universities shows the misinformation pumped out by Big Oil, the Environmental Working Group (EWG), and the AP misses the mark when it comes to accuracy.

Late last year, an AP reporter published a story claiming that enactment of the Renewable Fuels Standard (RFS) single handedly caused corn prices to soar and resulted in farmers plowing up conservation projects to plant more corn for fuel.

The truth is that when the RFS rules took effect in the summer of 2010, corn prices were substantially lower than they were through much of the record-setting price year of 2008, despite the fact that ethanol production in 2010 was 40 percent higher than it was in 2008.

What's more, a study last year of historical land use patterns across seven Midwestern states — including Illinois — showed little evidence of farmers plowing up land to plant more corn.

The study showed that from 2007 — the year Congress acted to expand the amount of ethanol to be blended — only three percent of the total land area in the seven Corn Belt states shifted away from grassy habitat into crop production.

In a recently published News-Gazette editorial, the leader of a local environmental group suggested a rapid turnover in conservation lands is driving up greenhouse gas emissions, increasing the use of fertilizers and damaging water quality. Again, a quick look at actual numbers tells a different story.

When all greenhouse gas emissions related to producing corn and converting it into a fuel additive are tallied, scientists at Argonne National Laboratory say ethanol reduces those emissions by 34 percent compared to unleaded gasoline.

Argonne's calculations not only take into account all emissions related to fertilizer and crop protectants used on the farm, but also account for the diesel fuel needed to prepare a field, plant a crop, harvest and transport a crop, and the energy used to produce the ethanol and transport it to market.

As a farmer, I am proud of agriculture's record of sustainability. In a recent period covering a quarter century, USDA says farmers used 1 percent less nitrogen, 10 percent less phosphate and 28 percent less potash — despite producing a corn crop that was 40 percent larger in 2010.

In fact, the nitrogen required to produce a bushel of corn has fallen 43 percent since 1980, while phosphate requirements are down 58 percent and potash requirements are down 64 percent.

That drop in fertilizer use, coupled with programs like Illinois' Nutrient Research and Education Council and Council on Best Management Practices, have helped to improve water quality across the state.

For each ton of bulk fertilizer sold in the state, 75 cents is used to support projects and programs that address the role of nutrients in enhancing Illinois crop production while minimizing the environmental impact. With more than $2 million in funding, that means plenty of research into keeping water safe and clean.

This year alone 15 research projects will be funded, totaling more than $2.55 million.

When you review the numbers, it's easy to see that RFS is working for both farmers and the environment, and should be kept in place.

Chris Hausman of Pesotum serves as the District 12 director for the Illinois Farm Bureau. He serves on the National Affairs and Marketing Committee, the Audit Committee, and on the Gardner Chair Policy Advisory Committee. He also serves on the COUNTRY Trust Bank Board and the IAA and COUNTRY Governance Committees, and is the interlocking member on the Council for Best Management Practices. He and his wife, Evonne, operate a grain farm, producing corn and soybeans.