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Do we need ethanol more than topsoil?

By Dennis Avery
web posted May 15, 2006

I cringe when the urban newspapers casually say we can make "lots of our auto fuel" as ethanol from cornstalks and wheat straw.

It ain't so.

If we turn the crop stalks into ethanol, we'll have the only problem that could be bigger than an energy shortage—a topsoil shortage. That would throw the First World's societies into the same sort of downward hunger and erosion spiral that bad farming has already forced upon Africa.

The good news is that American farms are fully sustainable for the first time in history--precisely because they're putting their crop residues back on the soil surface in no-till farming systems. The corn stalks and wheat straw form billions of tiny dams on the soil surface, which prevent howling winds and explosive raindrops from carrying soil particles away.

The stalks left on the soil surface in no-till farming also guarantee a year-round supply of food for subsoil microbes and earthworms. Thus the subsoil critters proliferate, aerating the soil and permitting rainfall to sink in rather than running off. That protects the crop roots from drought, even as it protects the streams from silt and pollution.

In 1999 Hurricane Floyd lashed crop fields in Virginia with up to 19 inches of rain in 24 hours—and without any runoff or erosion on no-till fields. In the highly erodable Loess Hills of the upper Mississippi, soil erosion today is only 6 percent of what it was during the "black blizzards" of the 1930s Dust Bowl days, thanks largely to fertilizer, crop rotation, and low-till farming.

If we turn the crop stalks into ethanol, however, it's back to serious erosion problems.

The current energy bill mandates the production of 7.5 billion gallons of ethanol per year. That would force America to use 22 percent of its corn crop to supply 4 percent of its auto fuel—without bringing down the price of gasoline.

The current subsidy is 51 cents per gallon of ethanol. However, since ethanol contains 15 percent less energy than gasoline, the real subsidy is 77 cents per gallon worth of gasoline.

More to the point, America's farmers sold record amounts of corn last year for corn flakes, tacos and livestock feed. With both population and incomes rising, world demand for these items will more than double in the next 40 years.

The world is already farming one-third of the Earth's land area, including almost all of the land worth planting to crops.

If we burn the corn in our cars, what will we and the livestock eat?

In the long run, every gallon of ethanol produced in America is likely to mean more soil erosion if it's made from crop stalks, or more forest cleared if it's made from corn. We could cut the deforestation in half if we made the ethanol from sugarcane, which produces ethanol far more efficiently. But America can't grow sugarcane, except in the Florida Everglades.

Let's face the environmental truth.

Humanity at the moment has only two ways to environmentally satisfy our need for cost-effective energy. We can either burn fossil fuels, or burn uranium in nuclear power plants. One produces CO2, the other doesn't.

If you believe CO2 causes global warming, you'll want to buy nuclear power.

If you doubt the safety of nuclear power plants, then you may want to buy coal-fired electricity.

Please, please, however, don't use your vote or voice to support the production of ethanol from crops and crop biomass. That would simply cause more soil erosion and more deforestation across the broad expanse of the Earth—without easing your crunch at the gas pump.

Dennis T. Avery is a senior fellow for Hudson Institute in Washington, DC and the Director for the Center for Global Food Issues. He was formerly a senior analyst for the Department of State. Readers may write him at Post Office Box 202, Churchville, VA 24421.

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