RFA Response to San Francisco Chronicle “Dead Zone” Article

July 07, 2010

RFA Response to San Francisco Chronicle “Dead Zone” Article


San Francisco Chronicle
Submitted via e-mail

Letter to the Editor,

After reading the article on July 6th entitled “Dead Zone in Gulf Linked to Ethanol Production”, it is clear the San Francisco Chronicle has a dead zone of its own where facts die and science is buried.

Let’s start with what the scientists say. Those scientists who served on federal agency panels convened in recent years to examine hypoxia issues concluded that the hypoxia zone has many causes and it is difficult—if not impossible—to positively isolate any one cause. Interesting that a city paper wants to pick on rural agriculture yet fails to mention the urban contributions to the Gulf hypoxic zone. Southeast Missouri State University professor and soil scientist Michael Aide says that “credible evidence shows that [excess] nutrients [in the Gulf] may also be derived from atmospheric deposition, sewage and industrial discharge and fertilizer runoff from residential areas. Nutrient runoff from suburban areas roughly equals that of agriculture lands.” Why isn’t the finger of blame pointed at golf courses, lush grassy lawns, and office parks?

Now let’s revisit this fictitious notion that ethanol is to blame for Gulf hypoxia. The facts dispute the very basis of the article. U.S. cropland has not expanded because of ethanol. There are fewer acres of corn today in the U.S. than there were in the 1920s-1940s. Corn acres topped 100 million acres several times in the late 1920s/early 1930s. Compare that to this year’s corn acreage of 87.9 million. In fact, corn acres have fallen 6% since 2007.

As for pulling acres out of the Conversation Reserve Program, the author failed to mention that CRP lands have actually increased in the last year. Further, the amount of land currently enrolled in CRP is higher than the average CRP levels in the late 1990s/early 2000s.

When discussing the Renewable Fuel Standard, which requires ethanol production to triple in the next 12 years, it should have been noted that corn acres and total U.S. crop acres have fallen since the enactment of that piece of legislation. Don’t believe the other anxiety-ridden statements either about a boost in ethanol blending leading to higher prices and less conservation land. Again, somehow missing from the article is mention of a recent University of Missouri analysis that found corn acres would increase a mere 0.7 percent and corn prices would rise just 1.1 percent per bushel if 15 percent ethanol blends are approved. Hardly a painful investment for increased energy independence, a cleaner environment, and more good paying, quality jobs here at home that can’t be sent overseas.

Innovation in farming is constant and rapid, often hard to appreciate without taking a step back and looking at the big picture. Since 1980, U.S. farmers are applying 41 percent less nitrogen and 53 percent less phosphate per bushel of corn produced. According to a 2006 Conservation Tillage Information Council survey, 77 percent of farmers are engaged in crop residue management practices that conserve and enhance the soil. The conservation tillage practices employed by 55 percent of farmers today reduce rainfall runoff by more than 60 percent and soil loss by more than 90 percent.

The West Coast may be the center for technology innovation, but rural America is the center for agriculture and energy innovation. Make no mistake about it. And those advances are made with the environment in mind….that’s more than you can say for Big Oil which seems to have gotten a free ride in this article. And speaking of innovation, it was a mistake to print that cellulosic ethanol is a pipedream. Cellulosic ethanol is being produced today on a pilot scale; all that’s missing is the investment to scale up. As long as myths and urban legends scare off investors, the next generation of biofuels will struggle to become a reality. Fiction, not facts, are its only restraint.

Bob Dinneen
President and CEO
Renwable Fuels Association

Please read the originial letter here.