LONDON, Ohio – It seems like everyone these days is on the biofuels bandwagon: politicians, farmers, environmentalists and consumers. But do renewable fuels make sense economically? Is the idea of greater energy independence environmentally sustainable?
The United States has a long way to go to reverse its dependence on foreign oil, agreed three agricultural economists debating the issue Sept. 19 during the Farm Science Review.
“There’s no silver bullet that I see,” said Ohio State’s Fred Hitzhusen, who added that it’s time to start talking more about conservation and not just about alternative energy sources.
Ohio State colleague Matt Roberts and Purdue’s Otto Doering joined him on the panel.
25x’25 initiative. The trio weighed in on the 25x’25 coalition that is pushing the concept of meeting 25 percent of the nation’s energy needs from renewable U.S. sources by 2025.
The 25x’25 effort is a hot topic right now, with more than 275 organizations endorsing the concept, along with 18 governors, including Ohio’s Bob Taft and Pennsylvania’s Ed Rendell. And last Thursday, Sept. 21, the House Committee on Agriculture approved a resolution supporting the idea (H. Con. Res. 424).
To date, the resolution has more than 80 cosponsors in the House and 27 cosponsors in the Senate.
A lot more corn. Can it be done? Yes, says economist Matt Roberts, “but it’s not a trivial undertaking.”
If you’re talking ethanol, you’re talking a lot of corn. Roberts estimates the U.S. will need another 3.4 million corn acres to fill next year’s ethanol production demand.
That means a lot of soybean acres will switch to corn or marginal ground will come back into crop production to ride the corn wave.
And little is being done to ensure environmental practices are not wiped out in the process, he said.
“Conservation is seen as a dirty word in these conversations,” Roberts said.
Energy vs. environment. He wasn’t the only economist concerned about those acres of continuous corn and potential for increased nitrate pollution, or marginal acreage susceptible to erosion going under the plow.
Hitzhusen called the downstream impacts from soil erosion “hefty,” and Doering challenged the farm community to make the right decision when it comes to leading that corn acreage transition.
“We shouldn’t foul our own nest when it comes to biomass energy,” he said.
If the market alone drives that decision, at $3 or $4 per bushel corn, land will come into production that shouldn’t be farmed, the economist warned.
Lots of backers. But the 25x’25 push has friends in high places and brings a mixed bag of interests to the coalition, which will get the issue lots of attention.
“We are going to make it work; we’re going to have to,” said Bill Richards, Circleville area grain farmer and former chief of the USDA’s Soil Conservation Service. “We will figure it out.”
Richards is co-chair of the 25x’25 initiative with J. Read Smith of Washington state, former president of the National Association of Conservation Districts.
Political package. The issue of energy and biofuels has as much to do with politics as it does science and economics, the panelists said.
The policies set in the 2007 farm bill will direct the country’s energy, food and fiber resources over the next decade.
And energy is as much on the minds of legislators as food and fiber: U.S. Rep. Ron Kind, D-Wis., introduced “The Healthy Farms, Food and Fuels Act of 2006,” Sept. 13, the first hint of one coalition pushing for greater energy language in the next farm bill.
On the Senate side, Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, recently introduced the Rural Energy for America Act, which expands the current farm bill’s renewable energy and energy efficiency program.
Unintended consequence. The demand for corn for ethanol production, and investment in cellulosic ethanol, however, could increase feed costs for livestock producers in the long run, the economists said.
A 100 million gallon ethanol plant will take 10,000 railcars of corn per year, Doering said. That corn is now going into the livestock feed market, particularly the poultry markets in the South.
“Those people are becoming unglued” at the prospect of losing their corn feed supply, he said.
Missing from equation. Doering, who called Indiana the center of the “ethanol feeding frenzy,” said logistics are the key to making ethanol or other biomass-to-energy facilities work.
A biomass like switchgrass or corn stalks is not as easy as corn to harvest, transport, store or handle. Inputs for cellulosic ethanol production will have to come from a small 30- to 50-mile radius of the processing plant, he said.
And those higher-priced logistics costs aren’t being figured into the cost of that biomass energy, Doering added.
(Farm and Dairy Editor Susan Crowell can be reached at 800-837-3419 or firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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