Later this week state and regional agribusiness leaders will gather at the World Food Prize Hall of Laureates to cheerlead for corn ethanol. The agenda for this “Hearing in the Heartland” is to rail against a proposed update to the Renewable Fuels Standard (RFS) by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The bipartisan entrenchment against the update suggests corn ethanol is being somehow threatened, but despite the fanfare it really isn’t.
The EPA’s update to the 2007 law deals mostly with 2nd and 3rd generation biofuels. The proposed volume requirements don't hinder corn ethanol; the grain mandates shifts a few percent as business models tend to do when they are updated after 7 years. The long-term prospects for next generation biofuels also remain strong. So why an update? Projections for next generation biofuel have not panned out, yet. Simply put: science & engineering need to catch up to ambitious policy.
Corn ethanol was always meant as a stepping stone to “advanced” biofuels. The RFS update only seriously impedes corn if convoluted math is done to figure corn as the stop-gap filler for our old overestimates for next generation biofuels. Vested interests want to double-down on endless growth in corn ethanol, but they have lost sight of the long game amidst a tangled web of conflict-of-interest.
Corn ethanol already outperforms the current mandate and will unquestionably provide the bulk of the renewable fuel into the near future, RFS update or not. However, America’s fuel appetite is too large to pretend we can feed all our cars on corn. The number of acres where corn can be done right is limited. This reality is precisely why the original RFA recommends that corn ethanol production plateau—eventually, now.
Iowa has experienced a “second plow down” since the turn of the millennia, driven in part by expanding markets for corn ethanol. Innumerable fence lines have disappeared and stream buffers are shaved just a few feet more every time the plow passes. 48,000 acres of Iowa woodlands were demolished last year, much of it converted to row crops. While the conservation success stories are all true—Iowa has some of the most stewardship-minded farmers in the Corn Belt—in the aggregate the trends are undeniable: increasing annual erosion, loss of habitats, impaired waters and landscape simplification.
The Governor will tell you that the RFS update will send Iowa’s economy into a “tailspin.” Iowa Farm Bureau president predicts “very detrimental” impacts. Iowa’s history of innovation in agriculture and science suggests quite the opposite. Rather than the ruin our representatives predict, I posit an updated outlook will only intensify our resolve to find 21st Century solutions for renewable biofuels.
Cellulosic- and biomass-based fuels offer the opportunity for bringing alternative perennial crops, including trees and prairie plants, to Iowa agriculture. Getting this diversity of land cover back on our agriculture landscapes is critical to cleaning up our water and regenerating our soils. This is the sort of innovation in agriculture that will bring opportunity and positive change to Iowa (jobs, energy security, clean water, recreation).
The RFS should be updated as proposed. It’s an adjustment based on current information—such as the status of the science and the infrastructure on the ground—and much of the resistance is disingenuous and overstated. Our leaders should stop wasting their time and our tax dollars in assaulting the RFS update and focus on the real challenges facing Iowa agriculture.