Guest Columnist

Biofuels: A bad use of Iowa's valuable land

Corn is harvested near Newhall, Iowa in the fall of 2013. (Gazette Archives)
Corn is harvested near Newhall, Iowa in the fall of 2013. (Gazette Archives)

Iowa is, once again, a battleground state.

Right now, well before even a single ballot is cast in the presidential race, Iowa is on the front lines of an ongoing fight over fuel. Specifically, presidential candidates are being called upon to endorse or reject the outdated and damaging ethanol mandate.

In the past few years, as the true effects of the ethanol mandate have become clear, the lobbyists and supporters of the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) have come out in force to defend what serves as a major giveaway to Big Ag. But Iowans — and the people who would lead us — should know better.

The cost of burning crops to power our cars includes environmental destruction, climate change and more. The RFS simply isn’t worth defending.

According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, native grasslands once covered huge swathes of the American Midwest, including parts of 14 different states and the vast majority — 85 percent — of Iowa. These prairies were home to large mammals like bison and elk; they were the home for the early settlers and the American Indians that preceded them. These rich grasslands helped define our vision of what America could be.

Importantly, these prairies are also critical carbon sinks. Huge amounts of plant matter, accumulated over generations, store carbon and lock it in the soil, creating carbon sinks that can be less vulnerable to drought or wildfires than forests. Responsible management of these landscapes must be a key part of any realistic strategy to fight climate change.

In Iowa, sadly, less than 0.1 percent of these tallgrass prairies remain. The chief driver of land conversion in Iowa has been agriculture. Now make no mistake: agriculture is a vital part of our economy. Iowans have helped make America a global power through our ability to grow the food the world needs, and that’s not going to change. But with so little natural habitat remaining, we need to think carefully about the choices we make. And converting some of our last remaining wild lands to agriculture for food-based biofuel production is wasteful and shortsighted.

Food-based biofuels are not a solution to climate change. They emit just as much carbon as the fossil fuels we blend them with. Further, they are an inefficient use of Iowa’s land; the conversion rates for energy from biofuels are shamefully low. We can easily surpass their meager standards with already-existing solar technology, for example, which can be anywhere from 30 to 200 times more efficient. And wind and solar energy, unlike biofuels, do not require the use of arable land.

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Despite these facts, however, Iowa has continued to invest its most precious resource — land — in biofuels. According to new research, the United States converted an additional 2.8 million acres to cropland, due solely to the RFS, from 2008 to 2012. Cropland expansion was especially rapid in southern Iowa.

Instead of food-based biofuels, we should fight to expand initiatives like the Conservation Reserve Program, which empowers farmers to earn money from their land while combating climate change and providing valuable habitat for birds, pollinators and more. As an added benefit, responsible land conservation helps improve both water quality and flood control, currently two of Iowa’s most pressing concerns.

But if you listen to the Big Ag lobbyists and their allies, you won’t hear any of this. Despite the evidence that has steadily accumulated over the last decade, they continue to claim that food-based biofuels are a responsible environmental policy. Presidential candidates traipsing through Iowa need to hear from real Iowans, not just the Big Ag advocates. I ask my fellow Hawkeyes to speak up for responsible land use the next time they meet a White House hopeful. Ask them to protect Iowa’s remaining wild places — and find real solutions to climate change.

• Mike Carberry of Iowa City is the director of Green State Solutions, an Iowa-based consulting firm specializing in advocacy, outreach and campaign organizing around climate change, renewable energy, energy efficiency, sustainability and other environmental issues.

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