Putting the Policy Cart Before the Science Horse

More questions than anwers at land use meeting.

Farmers make land use decisions as a result of higher or lower crop prices. Every one seems to agree the increase in biofuel production in the United States has impacted prices.


But no one – scientists included – seems to be able to predict with any certainty how American-made ethanol might or might not provoke a farmer in Brazil to, say, chop down trees to plant corn to replace that ethanol corn in the food chain, thus causing more greenhouse gases to be released into the atmosphere.


That’s an extremely simplistic view of why the National Corn Growers Association gathered some of the greatest scientific minds on earth in St. Louis this week for its two-day Land Use and Carbon Impacts of Corn-based Ethanol Conference.


Disappointingly very little news came out of this meeting, other than this consensus: There is a lot of research that still needs to be done before we can even think about using the now infamous ‘indirect land use’ theory in public policy.


Unfortunately the Environmental Protection Agency, pushed along by an Obama Administration anxious to get its climate legislation passed, is putting the cart before the horse. We simply do not have enough scientific research to make the conclusions that EPA is reaching when it comes to indirect land use changes.


Speakers talked about offsets and emissions, life cycle greenhouse gas analysis, and the EPA’s take on the next generation Renewable Fuels Standard. We heard about molecules and modeling – not the model airplanes but rather "predictive analysis modeling" (yawn). No fewer than 36 distinguished individuals – everyone from University PhD researchers to CEOs –presented their take on the controversial theory we now know as indirect land use change and resulting carbon impacts on the atmosphere.


How it began How did we get to the point where we are holding a two day meeting on a controversial scientific theory most farmers find bewildering at best? It all began when a Princeton researcher named Tim Searchinger released a report in Science magazine in Feb. 2008. Here is what he found:


Most prior studies have found that substituting biofuels forgasoline will reduce greenhouse gases because biofuels sequestercarbon through the growth of the feedstock. These analyses havefailed to count the carbon emissions that occur as farmers worldwiderespond to higher prices and convert forest and grassland tonew cropland to replace the grain (or cropland) diverted tobiofuels. By using a worldwide agricultural model to estimateemissions from land-use change, we found that corn-based ethanol,instead of producing a 20% savings, nearly doubles greenhouseemissions over 30 years and increases greenhouse gases for 167years. Biofuels from switchgrass, if grown on U.S. corn lands,increase emissions by 50%. This result raises concerns aboutlarge biofuel mandates and highlights the value of using wasteproducts.


This is all still theory, mind you, but that didn’t stop regulators. This April the California Air Resources Board (CARB) concluded its meeting on its Low Carbon Fuel Standard (LCFS) regulation by voting 10-1 in favor of a resolution based on Searchinger’s land use change theory. Then the U.S. EPA picked up on the theory and incorporated it into their regulatory equation, introduced in May.


Since then all Hell’s broken lose in Farm Nation. Farmers are shocked that regulators would want to penalize ethanol or advanced biofuels based on the idea that an American bushel of corn that goes to an ethanol plant might provoke a farmer halfway around the world to chop down a tree in the rainforest in order to grow another bushel of corn for food. 


We’ve said all along this theory is flawed," says Geoff Cooper, director of research for Renewable Fuels Association.


If you used Stearinger’s logic, then it follows that an Iowa farmer who decided to plant corn after corn and not his usual corn-soybean rotation, would then incite a farmer in Argentina to plant more soybeans to make up for those lost bushels of soybeans in the food chain. The soybeans are shipped to China where they are fed to chickens, which are eaten by a nice Chinese family. Thus, the Iowa farmer is responsible for the carbon footprint of that chicken. If it weren't ludicrous it would be funny.


I came to the St. Louis meeting looking for clarity. Instead I heard a lot of people saying there is no way we can accurately measure global land use changes based on U.S. biofuel growth. NCGA CEO Rick Tolman told me he wanted to title his closing comments, "The unintended consequences of an unintended consequence." Makes sense.


In our regulator’s zeal to embrace a theory that might help ease greenhouse gases, we may also be shooting ourselves in the foot by dismantling the one weapon we have against Big Oil and the Mideast sheiks who would like nothing better than to keep us dependent on their energy.


More time Most of the speakers agreed: we need more time. "We’re trying to measure the immeasurable," says Iowa State ag economist Bruce Babcock, one of several opening day speakers.


There were a few farmers in this crowd, and one of them logically pointed out that landowners in Brazil have been making changes in how they use land for generations. At one point it was the rubber sector, at another it was cattle. In each case, trend changes surely impacted global prices in some way. But no one came along and pointed fingers at the American farmer.


Here are the questions I did not get answered this week:

-Why are we setting U.S. policy based on something that may or may not take place in other countries? As speaker and Texas A&M ag economist Bruce McCarl says, "If we want to get out of this indirect land use debate, we simply need to have Brazil institute some greenhouse gas emissions penalty for when it develops its land."

-What role does politics play in this? Clearly politics is the 800-pound gorilla in the room. President Obama has his people in place and a mandate from voters;  he wants to get something passed regardless of the flawed logic that is now floating around in EPA’s regulatory proposal.

Is this an Obama-driven apology to the rest of the world for eight years of George Bush unilateralism?

-Is this punishment for not agreeing to the Kyoto Protocol so many years ago?


I don’t want to sound like an American cowboy here, but I do think it makes no sense to base U.S. and perhaps global policy on an unproven theory. Your thoughts?

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