Will there be more environmental damage from more ethanol production?

For the US biomass effort, corn is the new and major player.

The view for soil conservation is – maybe – as more land that would be in the government’s soil conservation program will come out for corn production. But not much when looks at the total change year on year for USDA’s Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) so far. Worldwide it isn’t known, as there is a distinct absence of comparable government departments in most countries around the world. That makes it a maybe. In the US it’s a maybe, but not much.

The next view would be for wildlife. The answer seems to be guided from the CPR changes. CRP provides for bird nesting and other provisions that impact wildlife so it will again be a maybe worldwide and in the US a maybe not much. The CRP programs made through the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) in each state require farm operations to adopt a land use plan in order to participate in other government programs. With so much financial interest at stake, farmer participation is very high. Over the past few decades the NRCS set aside a noticeable part of our land for terraces, waterways, and borders that offer a much larger base for wildlife to flourish.

Perhaps the most worrisome would be the impact of agricultural chemicals out in the environment. This would be fertilizers, herbicides and insecticides. As the previously discussed points show, it will more, maybe and maybe not much more. On the other hand the seed developers sell corn seed now that discourages the insects so very little nasty insecticides have been used in the past few years and it looks insecticide use will decline further. Roundup, Liberty and other well-known herbicides are commonly used now, and the overuse of decades ago is mitigated by the costs of the chemicals, equipment, fuel, and the professionalism of those doing the application. Rather the worry in the agricultural community is more about plants that have mutated and can not be eradicated with Roundup, Liberty and other control chemicals which means the concern is about what the side effects might be for the herbicides of the future.

Looking ahead there will likely be a migration from corn kernel use to whole plant use where the whole crop is removed just a few centimeters from the ground. Because the corn plant is an annual plant, (lives just the year planted) it wouldn’t be a desirable idea as the removal would expose the soil to a much higher exposure for erosion, and removal of much more total soil fertility. On the other hand, switchgrass or miscanthus are perennial (live for years with one planting) grasses that once planted have root systems that protect the soil and hold fertility in reserve. Additionally, these kinds of plants are “new” to the insects that put corn at risk so they don’t have enemies at any level of concern, yet. Which is not to say that in a few years’ time insects, disease and other threats won’t need addressed. It seems that good productivity will need some fertilization in the form of nitrogen or anhydrous ammonia. Yet corn does need fertilizer now, so the change would be in the amounts per acre and the question of whether the annual corn plant is better or the perennial grasses are better at keeping the fertilizer in the applied soil so as not to be a water contamination issue in wells, subsoil water tables, or in runoff into streams, rivers, and lakes.

It seems that small animals will benefit from a transition to perennial plants for producing ethanol because their nesting seasons will most likely finish before a harvest would occur and the early season disturbances will be markedly reduced. For large animals like deer the difference isn’t so well known. In the major corn production areas there are serious deer overpopulation problems now, making judgments very difficult, as most information is so badly biased it’s nearly useless if not wholly misleading. Switchgrass is an American native plant which makes one think deer might find it beneficial. Miscanthus is a much larger and denser plant that may make the deer over population even more dangerous to the crops, moving vehicles and the passengers, and improvements to the land. Time will tell, but more reliable information is needed about the size and health of the large animal herds. But the credibility of agencies that are delegated this work now is seriously, if still quietly, held in poor regard. There is a long way to go on this issue.

It just won’t be a big change. Biomass is and will remain a growing part of the world’s energy resources. It offers many changes, but the changes are looking more positive than negative for ethanol.


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