Friday, October 16, 2015

Ethanol mandate fails to help the environment

A report (.pdf) this week from the University of Tennessee Institute of Agriculture argues that over-reliance on corn-based ethanol in the Renewable Fuels Standard (RFS) has caused environmental problems.

The authors, Daniel G. De La Torre Ugarte and Burton C. English, found that the RFS not only fell short of goals for current-generation biofuels technology, it may also have failed to serve as a stepping stone to environmentally superior approaches. Dr. De La Torre Ugarte said:
“Our analysis shows that the RFS has created more problems than solutions, particularly with regard to hampering advancements in biofuels. Corn ethanol was presented as a ‘bridge’ to advanced biofuels and a means of reducing GHG emissions. However, the reality is clear that this policy has been a bridge to nowhere.”
Corn-based ethanol increases global food prices by diverting an important food source to fuel. USDA data show that ethanol for fuel now uses more than 40% of all U.S. corn production.

The RFS is the topic of a new video advertisement by opponents who encourage faster progress toward more advanced biofuels technologies.


Anonymous said...

This is the problem with naive contemporary activist crusades forcing simple interventions to complex situations.

The dreamy promises of ethanol were many: it would wean us off petroleum and make us energy independent; it would eliminate our carbon footprint; it would reverse climate change; it would create high paying green industry jobs for all; it would restore rural economies to the imaginary boom times of yesteryear; it would divert grain from the livestock industry and at long last we all would become practicing short, it was the rosy path du jour to that holiest grail; sustainability. Many an expert was certain of this. And then, of course, there was the urgency -- the sky is falling and there is no time to think -- don't just stand there, do something...and ethanol was something to do.

Trouble was, ethanol production was not new. The fundamental technology goes back to before the Whiskey rebellion. Oh, sure, we were made to believe modern magic was near at hand, a breakthrough to easy and profitable fermentation of cellulose into ethanol. A piece of cake they kept telling us, just a few minor tweaks and we will be awash in ethanol made from wood, grass, paper, rags, just any old stuff. Something for nothing, you just wait a few months and see. Then a few more months. Then a few years. And we are still waiting for that bit of magic. We don't even hear about it any more. In the meantime moonshiners have carte blanche to do their time honored thing on an unprecedented scale. So much for new age environmental technology - white lightnin is what we got.

Our so-called experts in sustainability, climate reversal and so forth suffer from tunnel vision. And too frequently from hallucinations. And night sweats. Too many earnest dreamers and too few with practical vision. None with real experience. Too much Chicken Little, too much P.T. Barnum and too little Norman Borlaug.

For all the alarmism and all the brilliant scheming and all the over-confident talk and all the generous grants and the lavish seed money the only certain outcome is a massive economic cost to "do good". And the considerable risk of unintended environmental consequences. Simplistic notions fail because environment is complex, it is dynamic, it is evolving, it is not nearly so simple and manageable and controllable and malleable as our so-called experts like to believe. This ethanol episode proves the point, but will we take any lessons to heart from it? Apparently not. Why just this year we had so-called experts who would save the planet by injecting a dose of magic into the USDA dietary guidelines. Get the ball rolling quickly to a final solution to sustainability generally and climate change in particular. Yep, it was a sure fire approach. Simple. Fool proof. Urgent. Righteous. Easy peasy preliminary to another set of unintended consequences negatively impacting our food system.

I Wonder if we shouldn't be funding these so-called experts to stop naively tampering with our stuff, stop launching these massive trial and error boondoggles. You know, don't do something, just stand there. Maybe pay them to go back to writing science fiction thrillers and folksy human interest essays on subjects that are not so menacing to our agriculture and our food system, systems that are not so hopelessly broken as activists like to claim, instead very responsive and progressive. We can't have armchair mechanics fixing stuff that's not broken, stuff they do not comprehend. If they must have a green diversion, let them sort recycling - save the planet and do it safely.

usfoodpolicy said...

Thanks for your long and thoughtful comment!

Though time does not permit me immediately to respond at length, your comments remind me how difficult it is to build a trusting conversation between scientific experts and people who work in the field in agriculture and the food economy.

You may be interested in my next post.

Anonymous said...

I would agree trust is lacking from conversations between a minority of scientific experts and people who work in the field of agriculture and the food economy. However most scientific experts are well respected by most ag/food economy people, a few of whom are, themselves, scientific experts in their own right.

Where trust is lacking it is by no small measure because rich conversations are lacking; sincere meaningful informed respectful conversations intended to foster agreement and collaborative progress, capable conversations dressed in work clothes that produce positive results and build lasting trust. Instead, people who work in the field of agriculture and the food economy are too routinely bludgeoned with accusatory rhetorical monologue that falls far short of any definition of honest, trusting conversation. No trust is earned. This has gone on so long and is so virulent I suspect trust is no longer possible. A healthy skepticism prevails.

I appreciate your kind invitation to consider the subject of your new post. A fine gesture you have proposed there, to be sure. Always advisable to look within and root out the most visible symbols of hypocrisy. I am at a loss, however, to understand how that will heal the deep rift between sustainability activists and ag/food people. Our modern ag/food people are routinely accused by spokespersons for Sustainability Etcetera, Inc. of willfully destroying the planet out of slothful ignorance, diabolical technocracy and rampant greed. The resulting rancor and distrust will not be salved by a pretense of academics possibly sacrificing some air miles in return for regressing modern agriculture and food systems back to the wooden wheel and stoop labor of medieval times.

Again, a noble goal and a worthy effort on your part to reform your colleagues but certainly one not in proportion to sacrifices being demanded of food producers and consumers in the name of sustainability. The rich conversation still evades us.