Guest Columnist

Pull the plug on ethanol

Corn is harvested on Thursday, September, 26, 2013 in Newhall, Iowa. (Adam Wesley/Gazette-KCRG TV9)
Corn is harvested on Thursday, September, 26, 2013 in Newhall, Iowa. (Adam Wesley/Gazette-KCRG TV9)

The incoming Biden Administration is stating they will engage US agriculture in an effort to fight climate change. This is an interesting paradox for Iowa: an enormous amount of fossil fuel is currently burned to produce the livestock feed and fuel ethanol that are the primary products of farming the state’s land. It’s fortunate that the Biden plan exists now only as broad strokes; this gives us time to think about how we would repaint our landscape in ways that would benefit both nature and our fellow citizens.

Technological improvements may soon allow renewables (wind and solar) to blow past fossil fuels for efficient electricity generation. Combined with the emergence of electric vehicles, this will erode demand for ethanol, the production of which requires more than one-half of Iowa corn and one-fifth of our land. The ethanol people have known this day was coming all along. Even Monte Shaw, now executive director of the Iowa Renewable Fuels Association, stated clear back in 2005 that grain ethanol was a merely a “bridge,” or transitional fuel, that would not last forever. With the failure of cellulosic ethanol to become a reality, it’s time to pull the plug. Unfortunately for Iowa’s environment, the industry never signed the “do not resuscitate” form.

Imagine for a moment an area the size of 20 Iowa counties, more than 11,000 square miles, producing renewable electricity, without the soil erosion, water pollution, pesticide drift, habitat loss, and greenhouse gas production that results from growing corn. This gigantic environmental upgrade is within our grasp. Bear in mind that land used for wind and solar generation can simultaneously achieve other important environmental objectives, such as restoration of the tallgrass prairie that would provide habitat for native animal species including the Monarch butterfly, recently found to qualify for endangered species status by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The deep roots of perennial prairie plants anchor our soil, capture and imprison greenhouse gases, and bring biodiversity back to a landscape dominated now by only two species — corn and soybean. It’s within our power to make Iowa land walk and chew carbon at the same time: generate usable energy while mitigating global warming.

We call on our leaders to develop creative policies that would catalyze this transformation.

For this vision, why not first take a look at the more than 50 percent of Iowa farmland owned by people who aren’t farming? Presumably investors don’t care how the land generates revenue — a dollar from electricity spends just as easily in West Des Moines, Bettendorf, Minneapolis, or Phoenix, where many of our farmland owners live, as a dollar from growing and distilling corn.

While the policy details are perhaps best left to others, we can imagine creative taxation or tax abatements driving such a transformation, where cornfields are replaced with reconstructed prairie surrounding wind turbines or solar arrays. Yes, property taxes do help sustain our small towns and their schools, but Iowa farmland is already not heavily taxed and it benefits from favorable inheritance tax policy. Land leases with energy companies are or could be made to be competitive with rents for row crop production, and steps could be taken to sustain our rural towns. And don’t forget that historically, Iowa land has been a sink for federal tax dollars in the form of various farm subsidies: since 1995, about $1200 per acre in Iowa, more than $35 billion in total. Is this the best our land can do? We think it is not.

And yes, we can imagine the ag-industrial complex objecting strenuously to such a change in land use. After all, not much seed, fuel, equipment, chemical, fertilizer or insurance is needed for land repurposed to electricity generation. They’ll likely cry us a river. Or a lake. Too bad for Iowans they haven’t cared more about either one up to this point. Take a close look with your own eyes at what they’ve done for rural Iowa over the last 50 years. Is this the best a powerful and politically-connected industry can do for small town Iowans? We think it is not.

Renewable energy could renew rural Iowa: better jobs, better air, better water, and a better climate. And Monarchs.

Let’s do it.

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Erin Irish is an associate professor of biology at the University of Iowa and an advisory board member at the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture. Chris Jones is a research engineer at IIHR-Hydroscience & Engineering, University of Iowa.

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