There are a few rarely challenged observations about Iowa politics. Lyon County is red, Johnson County is blue and corn is king from the Missouri River to the Mississippi.
One national organization, however, hopes to challenge that third assumption in the lead-up to the 2020 caucuses.
Mighty Earth in Washington, D.C., is employing organizers in Iowa City, Des Moines and Davenport to raise skepticism about food-based biofuels such as ethanol.
The group is educating Iowans about environmental issues, with the hope they will pressure visiting presidential hopefuls to be more critical of the status quo in energy policy.
Organizers understand they face a difficult challenge in the nation’s top biofuel-producing state, where both Republicans and Democrats overwhelmingly favor government support for corn-based fuel.
“We realize that here in Iowa, whether it’s big ag or small ag, that’s something that influences a lot of the political establishment here,” Margaret Hansbrough, director of the organization’s national clean energy campaign, told me.
For more than a decade, ethanol has been heralded by farmers and some environmentalists as a cleaner domestic supplement to traditional transportation fuel. The Renewable Fuel Standard, first passed by Congress in 2005 and expanded in 2007, requires fuel to contain certain levels of renewable fuel, and has enjoyed bipartisan support.
A growing group of skeptics, however, say newer research shows the efficiency of ethanol has been overstated. They also worry government-induced demand for ethanol has led to risky land use, gobbling up more acres for corn production than the free market would dictate.
A University of Wisconsin study found a net increase of about 3 million acres of U.S. cropland between 2008 and 2012, the years after the Renewable Fuel Standard 2.0 was imposed, and corn was the most common crop planted on newly converted cropland. Overproduction, in turn, leads to other environmental hazards like the water quality woes Iowa has struggled to address in recent years.
Mighty Earth leaders insist their campaign is not intended to criticize Iowa farmers. Instead, blame lies with the bipartisan coalition that has propped up the biofuels industry.
Farmers “don’t even have a choice. They are really under the thumb of policies that dictate markets. If they don’t play that game, it’s very difficult for them to compete outside of it,” Hansbrough said.
Still, turning renewable fuel mandates away from corn would lead to significant declines in commodity prices, threatening an already fragile farm economy. Criticism of ethanol understandably generates anxiety for farmers and the government figures who rely on farmers’ tax dollars.
The political forces in favor of ethanol in Iowa are strong, but may be wavering. During the 2016 Republican nominating contests, U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz — who coincidentally represents the largest oil-producing state — famously opposed the Renewable Fuel Standard, drawing a fierce and hostile response from ethanol boosters under the banner “Farmers Against Cruz.”
Nevertheless, Cruz went on to win the Iowa Republican caucuses, suggesting allegiance to the biofuels cause is not a make-or-break issue for a significant segment of voters.
So this may be a difficult mission, but not an impossible one.
“We don’t think we’re going to have this wrapped up at the end of all this, but if we’ve been successful, we’ve educated, we’ve engaged, we’ve seen a lot more opinions changed,” said Anya Fetcher, a Mighty Earth organizer in Iowa City.
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