Biofuels, land-use and farmers

by Trudy Bialic, editor

This article was originally published in July 2006

Corn on the cob

(July 2006) — As oil reserves dwindle and the push for biofuels grows, the land-use issues of growing more crops for fuel gets lost in the hype. What does it mean for farmland and America’s farmers?

Today, corn is the primary source of biofuels in the United States; 18 percent of the U.S. corn crop already goes to ethanol production. But most experts say ethanol provides only a bit more energy than it requires to produce. Growing corn also is hard on the environment.

Agricultural scientist David Pimental of Cornell University says U.S. corn production is eroding soil 12 times faster than it can form and draining aquifers (for irrigation) 25 percent faster than the rate of recharge.

He also figures that running an average car for a year on ethanol (blended with gas) would require 11 acres of farmland — land that could grow a year’s supply of food for seven people. Using farmland for fueling cars, he says, amounts to “unsustainable, subsidized food burning.”

The big players in ethanol are the same as in the food sector, including agribusiness giants Archer Daniels Midland and Cargill. Cargill is in a joint venture with Monsanto to develop biodiesel as well, presumably using Monsanto’s genetically engineered canola or sunflower seed.

The plan to expand biofuel production depends on large-scale monocropping, a model that relies on petroleum-based fertilizers and pesticides, and doesn’t include small-scale, diversified farmers.

The National Family Farm Coalition warns that without good policy, the pressure for cheap energy will imperil farmers and the environment even more. The tension is bringing advocates for sustainable farming and clean energy together. They want specific protections written into federal policies, including incentives for more wind power and cellulosic energy (from switchgrass or crop residues), smaller-scale localized processing plants, and farmer-owned co-ops.

The 2007 Farm Bill will be one part of the federal framework for the next five years. Negotiations already are underway, and the battle is brewing between agribusiness’ push for cheap, monocrop commodities, and family farm advocates wanting a fair price and fair markets for their crops.

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