It’s time to admit that one of the most consequential 'green' energy policies of the last two decades has gone terribly wrong – and Iowa is ground zero for the consequences.
In 2007, Congress authorized the Renewable Fuel Standard, a set of far-reaching mandates to increase plant-derived fuels in our fuel supply. One chief rationale was to mandate the adoption of environment-friendly alternatives to oil and gas. Another was to support farmers.
At the time, this vision was embraced by a bipartisan majority of lawmakers, environmentalists and agricultural interests who stood to benefit. But while the RFS has certainly padded the bottom-line of big agribusiness, the dramatic ramp-up in biofuel production has not had the intended climate benefits. In fact, most biofuels aren’t even better than oil and gas.
With the dramatic increase of corn ethanol and soy biodiesel, we are forced to convert more and more land to cropland. The biofuel lobbyists and supporters deny this reality, claiming that somehow we devote less land to corn and soy production after a huge growth in demand. Understanding of supply and demand would make this hypothesis questionable even if satellite data and academic research hadn’t already proven the opposite to be true. Between 2008 and 2016, the RFS drove a cropland increase of more than 2.8 million acres nationwide. Here in Iowa, nearly half a million acres were converted to cropland, much of that driven by the RFS. This expansion crowds out wildlife and accelerates the destruction of natural habitat.
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When we allow forests, prairies and wetlands to be converted to large-scale, input-intensive agriculture, the carbon stored in plants, roots and soil is released into the atmosphere, creating a large burst of climate-changing emissions. The recent, RFS-driven land conversion has unleashed emissions equivalent to those of more than seven coal-fired power plants, putting these conventional biofuels on par with, or worse than, fossil fuels.
The landscape impact is equally troubling. Natural areas serve as buffers for run-off, cleaning and absorbing water pollution before it makes its way into drinking water and waterways where it can cause algal blooms and dead zones. Uncultivated land also acts as critical habitat for wildlife and pollinators, which are both in steep decline. The widespread destruction of natural areas and native ecosystems for cropland exacerbates these problems without making a positive impact on our climate.
To add insult to injury, farmers still aren’t able the get the prices they need to make a fair living. Adding huge new markets for corn and soy is certainly the goal of big businesses like ADM, Cargill, and Monsanto, but when production grows with demand, farmers don’t get the benefit.
A far better outcome for farmers and the environment would be to encourage take-up of distributed, responsibly-sited wind and solar. These power types often bring larger returns to landowners than crop production. And from an environmental perspective, wind and solar are a far more efficient use of land. Solar alone generates more than 100 times more energy than biofuel crop in the same amount of space.
Increased funding for landowners who want to restore critical habitat and grow carbon sinks, like the Conservation Reserve Program, is also critical to increasing farm income. Natural solutions that help combat climate change – more forests, prairies, and wetlands, which act as carbon sponges – provide another way that land can be valuable.
For too long, the powerful, vested interests of Big Ag have dominated the debate around biofuels. But any responsible vision for biofuel policies requires a strong environmental vision – one that recognizes the critical importance of leaving areas wild and curbing climate change.
Iowans know how to identify that responsible vision. The people of Iowa help shape future presidents and their priorities. As candidates from across the political spectrum travel the state in the months ahead, I hope you will ask them about the failures of biofuels – and push them to adopt policies that will make a real difference in the fight against climate change.
Corinne Noonan is a Davenport-based field organizer with Mighty Earth, a global environmental campaign organization that works to protect forests, conserve oceans and address climate change.