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Choosing Corn Over Conservation:

It looks like the USDA is going to allow farmers to plant crops on land that was set aside for conservation purposes.

"We need more corn. That's all there is to it," said Dave Warner, spokesman for the National Pork Producers Council, one of many agricultural trade groups pressuring Agriculture Secretary Ed Schafer to change the rules of the conservation program to release land into production.

Industry observers expect Schafer to announce his decision imminently. Whatever he decides is certain to be controversial. Environmentalists are decrying the idea of renewing farming on the land, saying that the program represents a huge taxpayer investment in conservation and that expanded cultivation might exacerbate future flooding. . . .

This week, Schafer issued an order allowing livestock to graze on millions of acres of recently flooded CRP land in the Midwest. The emergency action didn't satisfy the food industry. Robb MacKie, president of the American Bakers Association, sent a letter to Schafer on Tuesday saying the emergency grazing "simply is not enough to have any beneficial impact on high food prices."

CRP lands are also the subject of a legal dispute playing out in federal court in Seattle. This week, a federal judge there sided with the National Wildlife Federation and issued a temporary restraining order against the USDA to stop an earlier initiative that allowed limited grazing and haying on CRP lands. The merits of the case will be heard next week.

Given the high price of corn and other crops, farmers are unlikely to re-enroll their lands into CRP or other conservation programs as their existing contracts expire. (Most conservation programs effectively "rent" the land for a term of years.) This is yet another negative environmental consequence of the nation's political romance with corn-based ethanol.

Snarky:
Your sure that this has nothing to do with the low value of the dollar and nothing to do with the weather, right?

I mean, there couldn't possibly be other more important factors than corn-based ethanol, right?

And if there were other factors, you would definitely mention them and not just focus on a pet cause of yours, right?
7.11.2008 9:01am
Jim at FSU (mail):
The low value of the dollar doesn't exactly win your case for you. The lower the dollar goes, the more overseas consumption of US agricultural products will displace US consumption of those same products. In other words, price goes up and Americans can get less food for the same amount of money. Which brings us back to the value of land as federally mandated swamp vs the value of land as corn fields.

Corn based ethanol is definitely not helping though. It artificially pushes the market in the same uncomfortable direction that the lower dollar does. The reason people focus on corn based ethanol is because a) it is an artificial market condition created by government fiat b) it is a relatively new program and thus hopefully easier to kill off without a protracted battle.

IMO, the environmentalists have played their hand poorly in supporting ethanol. Corn based ethanol was widely trumpted as a way of reducing greenhouse gasses, dependence on foreign oil, etc etc. 3 or 4 years ago I predicted that the real outcome would be massive food shortages since corn and wheat are far more valuable as ethanol feedstock than as a food source for most of the world's poor people. And their favored conservation policies have ensured that there isn't much surplus food production capacity in the system anymore.
7.11.2008 10:13am
therut:
The environmental extremists have always wanted to cut the human population so causing starvation of the poor of the World is just another way of burning the village to save it.
7.11.2008 10:17am
Tony Tutins (mail):
CRP land became habitat for thousands of pheasants and woodcock, as well as other wildlife. Hunters will suffer as will the businesses, including motels and restaurants, which cater to their needs.
7.11.2008 10:35am
Jim at FSU (mail):
Perhaps, but even someone who supported such an outcome would be foolish to think such a culling would take place without a political backlash, especially among the soft headed crowd that buys into the environmentalist's emotionally driven message. They'd also be foolish to not anticipate that the economic convulsions that would produce such an effect on the world's poor would also produce disruptions everywhere else, since everyone eats food and uses fuel directly or indirectly.
7.11.2008 10:36am
Jimmy W (www):
Jim at FSU, the "food for foreign poor people" is also a government fiat program, except it's a gov't fiat from Egypt, Nigeria, et al. These countries import massive amount of food from US, et al, and then sell to their people at a massive discount.

These food subsidy programs distort their domestic markets and hurt the subsistence farmers because they can't sell anything. With the recent rise in food prices, for example, Nigeria has raised its wheat flour prices and caused shortages in bread for cityfolks. Urban residents had to drastically cut back on their favorite toast w/ breakfast and eat more yam. In turn, the rural farmers make more money and raise themselves out of poverty. That's got to be a good thing.
7.11.2008 10:56am
JK:

the environmentalists have played their hand poorly in supporting ethanol. Corn based ethanol was widely trumpted as a way of reducing greenhouse gasses

Is that some sort of joke? Can you name some real evironmentalists that support corn based ethanol? My impression was corn based ethanol was pushed through by midwestern "farmers" who make a great living farming the government for pork (maybe they through in some pseudo-environmentalist retoric).
7.11.2008 11:14am
Jim at FSU (mail):
Environmentalists have been pushing biofuel for a very long time because making it takes carbon out of the atmosphere instead of burning fossil fuels, which doesn't. I'm not going to spend a few hours proving something this uncontroversial.

Someday we may figure out a way to grow crops that directly produce fuel hydrocarbons or a way to produce alcohol from raw cellulose, but right now the yeast that make alcohol eat the same sugars that humans do (they actually eat a narrower range than humans, but it isn't relevant here).

This is the price you pay for "doing something now" via government edict instead of letting the market solve the problem at its own efficient pace. The entire environmentalist agenda is based off of this mistaken principle that reality can be shaped through legislative fiat without disrupting the markets and causing shortages, starvation and other classical symptoms of interference in the free market.

Environmentalism is compatible with the free market. In fact, environmentalism works better when sold as a business case. Witness the progress made with Wal-Mart's logistical fleet- they tweaked their trucks to save tens of millions of dollars in gasoline. They profit and the environmentalist get what they want. This is much more effective than forcing increased costs on people in return for what they perceive as an illusory benefit. Remember, a lot of people don't believe your hokey bullshit about man-made global warming. If you want us to do something, show how it puts money in our pockets.
7.11.2008 12:10pm
PersonFromPorlock:
I'd guess the essential point is that the people who brought us the problem will now bring us the solution. Yep.
7.11.2008 12:41pm
wfjag:

CRP land became habitat for thousands of pheasants and woodcock, as well as other wildlife. Hunters will suffer as will the businesses, including motels and restaurants, which cater to their needs.


So, are you suggesting that I'll just have to cut the heads off chickens instead of shooting pheasants and woodcocks?
7.11.2008 12:47pm
JK:

I'm not going to spend a few hours proving something this uncontroversial.

Why would it take a few hours to find a link to something so uncontroversial and established? Maybe because environmentalists have been roundly denouncing corn based ethanol for the last ten years?


Environmentalism is compatible with the free market. In fact, environmentalism works better when sold as a business case. Witness the progress made with Wal-Mart's logistical fleet- they tweaked their trucks to save tens of millions of dollars in gasoline.

I don't think this establishes that there is a business motivation to protect the environment in general, or to reduce carbon emissions in particular. Business is responding to the increased price of petroleum which has been caused by factors largely independent of the environmental impact of burning petrol. It's a luck coincidence that in this case a harmful environmental practice has practical limitations (limited easily accessible supply), but we can't count on that always to be the case.

Pollution is a classic example of a market failure, as the full costs of burning petrol (namely environmental harm) is not reflected in the price (and thus not born by the user). Markets are wonderful things, but they aren't perfect, and central planning does have its place.
7.11.2008 1:00pm
Geest:
Except that, for the Nigerian city-dwellers, yams are a terrible source of nutrition. (If Guns, Germs, &Steel is to be believed).
7.11.2008 1:43pm
Jimmy W (www):
Geest, there is a reason why yam was the traditional staple in west Africa instead of wheat. We can't all eat cake. They can have some rice cake, tho.
7.11.2008 2:00pm
Jim at FSU (mail):
JK, stop trying to weasel around what I said. I said that environmentalists have supported biofuels in general, not corn based fuel specifically. Corn based ethanol just happened to be the biofuel that coincided with a giant governnment subsidy for corn farmers. You guys played right into the hands of big agriculture.

Every discussion I have ever read of biofuel, biodiesel, etc is filled with references to the fact that it reduces carbon emissions. There are half a dozen wikipedia articles that discuss the environmental impact of biofuel and dozens of articles linked from each of them.

And GG&S guys, I thought Africa sucked because none of the native African animals were domesticable (African elephants and zebras can only be tamed, and poorly at that) and the orientation of the continent precluded growing a single species of domesticated plant across the whole continent (like wheat in Europe or rice in Asia).
7.11.2008 3:01pm
Jim at FSU (mail):

Pollution is a classic example of a market failure, as the full costs of burning petrol (namely environmental harm) is not reflected in the price (and thus not born by the user). Markets are wonderful things, but they aren't perfect, and central planning does have its place.


Here are the problems with your little backdoor route to communism:

1) nearly everything in modern society performs work by oxidizing hydrocarbons to emit CO2. Living creatures do it, machines do it. Hydro/solar/wind aren't capable of replacing hydrocarbon oxidation. Not even close.

2) various biological processes have been and continue to emit most of the carbon dioxide that is produced on this planet. 95 percent of it. The seasonal fluctuations in carbon dioxide levels due to growing season cycles between the northern and southern hemispheres accounts for yearly fluctuations 10 times greater than human beings and their machines and livestock produce. And despite this going on for billions of years, no one can produce any evidence of anyone being harmed by carbon dioxide unless they were suddenly engulfed in it.

3) Since CO2 production is directly tied to the production of useful work, regulating CO2 production gives the government a means to regulate nearly every aspect of the economy and our lives. I must admit, this is a much more clever approach than the communists ever came up with.

In essence, man-made global warming is the perfect implementation of the notion that the modern communist claims to embrace the free market (as you did above) while claiming to have found market failures nearly everywhere. In this case, all of our transportation, manufacturing and energy production represent a market failure because they produce CO2. One of the most harmless trace gasses that exists on our planet.
7.11.2008 3:26pm
Nick P.:
Jim at FSU:
1) nearly everything in modern society performs work by oxidizing hydrocarbons to emit CO2. Living creatures do it,

Which living creatures oxidize hydrocarbons?
7.11.2008 3:39pm
TomH (mail):
Oxygen is essential in the mitochondrial respiratory chain, which is the chief site of energy generation in the body. The enzymes within the chain utilize oxygen to make water with hydrogen molecules. The energy produced from this process is indirectly used to make ATP, the energy "currency" used within the body. Oxygen is also used in glycolysis to generate carbon dioxide and energy from the sugar hydrocarbon molecules that are broken down in the cycle. Without glycolysis or the production of ATP in the mitochondria, the cellular respiration would cease.

If you need more details, you can look in any biochemistry or biology textbook for the specific enzymes used within these processes (it would take a lot of space to explain each process in detail). You can also try "Googling" mitochondrial respiratory chain or glycolysis.

Stolen from - http://en.allexperts.com/q/ Genetics-1795/oxygen-essential.htm"
7.11.2008 5:16pm
Curt Fischer:
JK has it right when he said that the vast majority of serious environmentalists have staked positions against corn-based ethanol. Jim at FSU's 11:10am post is poorly worded: if we are talking about corn-based ethanol, widely suddenly (and obfuscatorily) generalize the discussion to all biofuels rather than just corn-based ethanol?

If we are talking about biofuels in general, we must recognize that some of them, such as biodiesel from used vegetable oil, do in fact abate a significant amount of greenhouse gas emissions. Others, such as corn ethanol, do not.

Relatedly, point #1 of Jim at FSU's 2:26pm post conflates gross and net carbon dioxide emissions. All living creatures emit CO2 but this does not mean that all living creatures are responsible for net increases in atmospheric CO2 levels. Most obviously, plants emit CO2, but they are not net emitters. Similarly, if animal-emitted CO2 all derives from plants, animal metabolism is also not a net CO2 emitter.

Thus, instead of absurd extrapolations from highly localized phenomena ("mice emit CO2!!"), examination of a thing called "the carbon cycle" might be more productive. We need to understand how the changes we make to CO2 levels etc. changes the cycle. Limiting focus to any particular part of the cycle and ignoring the rest is not really helpful.

Also, if anyone is really interested, the living creatures which oxidize hydrocarbons include Geobacillus thermodenitrificans, Brevibacterium erythrogenes, and Alkanindiges illinoisensis. Not your everyday critters.
7.11.2008 6:21pm
Tony Tutins (mail):

are you suggesting that I'll just have to cut the heads off chickens instead of shooting pheasants and woodcocks?

Assuming you're not a farmer hunting his own property, each pheasant shot pumps a couple hundred dollars into the economy when all is said and done. Chickens are the cheapest meat available.
7.11.2008 7:24pm
Duncan Frissell (mail):
negative environmental consequence

This sounds like a positive evironmental consequence in which wasted resources (land set asisdes) are returned to productive use. If hunters or anyone else wants to take land out of food production and use it for something else, they can buy or rent it.
7.11.2008 8:52pm
Smokey:
In order to grow this extra corn, we're going to have to produce more CO2 to feed it.

As a matter of established scientific fact, the whole "carbon dioxide is an ee-e-e-vil pollutant" is so ridiculous as to border on the insane. CO2 is beneficial. Doubling of atmospheric CO2 -- which is currently on the extreme low end geologically -- would be enormously beneficial.

So give up that guilt over your CO2 emissions. It's all good! More is better!

After all, since Al Gore personally generates 5 - 10 times as much "carbon" as the average guy, we know he had his fingers crossed behind his back when he said the Earth has a fever.
7.11.2008 9:18pm
Tony Tutins (mail):

anyone else wants to take land out of food production and use it for something else, they can buy or rent it.

Golf courses -- otherwise a waste of water, fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides (and the inevitable runoff of all of the above) -- are next.
7.11.2008 10:36pm
Dreadnaught (www):
No fair. There should not be consequences. We should have green fuel and not use land to grow it.
7.11.2008 10:38pm
Mark in Texas (mail):
If we need more corn to feed pigs and ferment into alcohol one simple way to make more available is to impose a nickel a pound tax on high fructose corn syrup. That ought to be enough to make the stuff uneconomical.

Nobody else in the world uses high fructose corn syrup outside of the United States and it is only used here because of a long history of government subsidies and tariffs.
7.12.2008 12:11am
amativus (mail):
I can't believe it took so long for somebody to mention high fructose corn syrup. The nation's "political romance" with ethanol is nothing compared to the romance it has with corn syrup, xantham gum, etc. The reason American "needs more corn" is to continue its present food economy which leaves our monocultured crops vulnerable, our subsidized corn artificially cheaper than anything produced by developing nations, and oh yeah, our citizens obese thanks to truly unnecessary additions of corn extracts into virtually all processed foods. Naturally the use of corn has allowed other products to become cheaper (particularly meat), and the merits of America's dependence on corn and soybeans ought to be debated more vigorously. But this mythical conception that all our corn is grown to be funneled into a Prius in Seattle is completely ridiculous and only serves to distract us from the REAL nature of modern agribusiness.
7.12.2008 9:11am
amativus (mail):
Sorry, that sounds a bit hysterical - food politics just get me riled up. My point is that debates over ethanol are timely but really miss the big picture. American agribusiness is all upside down, and our use of corn is at the heart of it. It irritates me that ethanol is being painted as the big devil behind genuine food panics. I'm certainly no advocate of corn-based ethanol, but if there's not enough corn to go around feeding the rest of the world, it's got a lot more to do with subsidized corn flooding the international market. The Third World has always been unable to compete and relies on U.S. exported corn instead. Now that oil prices are rising and the dollar is weak, farmers shipping their produce overseas must raise food prices and Third World countries, devoid of domestic agribusiness, are starving. It's not that ethanol is diverting precious land away from African stomachs, it's that our outrageous government farm subsidies have prevented Africa from establishing its own domestic food production.
7.12.2008 9:47am
Toby:
The big problem is that governmental processes always want to pick THE SOLUTION, and so result in more unintended consequences of any kind than would a diversity of solutions. As someone mentioned above, biodiesel is great if you are using waste oil. Planting soybeans for biodiesel is a stupid waste, just as is planting corn for ethanol.

Personally, I'm waiting for several dark horses to come in, something that is off the radar. My emotional favorite is biodiesel algae binding scrubbed waste CO2 from coal plants, make coal one of the cleanest solutions and bankrupting several government fuel programs. I say emotional, because for all I know, the takeover option of 2015 is buying bankrup corn stills to produce kudzu-root butanol. Chances are, there is a government regulation to block such a program right now, and another putting a subsidy in place to make it uneconomical…
7.12.2008 12:58pm
TJIT (mail):
The CRP program is an environmentally counterproductive, socially destructive, boondoggle of a program that was doomed to failure from the start.

The most fundamental policy concept is don't reward bad behavior you will get more of it.

CRP utterly violated that concept by rewarding those who destroyed fragile habitats with highly lucrative CRP contracts. Some of those getting CRP payments used that money to buy unfarmed fragile habitat and promptly destroyed it to put in additional crop production.

There are tracts of property that were plowed out in the thirties and forties, put in the soil bank (early version of the CRP) in the fifties, plowed again and converted back to farmground in the sixties and seventies and enrolled in CRP in the eighties.

There are people who have not done a lick of work in twenty years thanks to the checks they received from the CRP program.

If the biofuels boondoggle manages to kill the CRP boondoggle that will be about the only useful thing biofuels will have accomplished.
7.13.2008 7:07pm
TJIT (mail):
JK, you said
Is that some sort of joke? Can you name some real evironmentalists that support corn based ethanol?

Maybe because environmentalists have been roundly denouncing corn based ethanol for the last ten years?


Folks like you are trying to sweep the environmental communities support for corn based ethanol under the rug.

Unfortunately for you that dog won't hunt. Environmentalist laid the groundwork for corn based ethanol, they pushed for it, and to date they have mounted no substantial opposition to it.

You folks in the environmental community own corn based ethanol. The sooner you admit it the faster you can get to work fixing the problems and environmental destruction your policy mistakes have caused.
7.13.2008 7:29pm
TJIT (mail):
JK,

Here is a link to a July 2005 NRDC white paper on biofuels.

BRINGING BIOFUELS TOTHE PUMP An Aggressive Plan for Ending
America's Oil Dependence


Relevant quote from the paper

Q: An RFS will support existing biofuels technologies; do these really save energy?
A: Yes. A carefully crafted 8 billion gallon RFS with a 1 billion gallon cellulosic biofuels requirement might well require up to 7 billion gallons of fuel to be produced using existing corn-to-ethanol technology. The best science currently supports the conclusion that ethanol from corn kernels contains more high-quality energy than it takes to grow the corn and process the fuel.
Not only did they support corn based ethanol they favored a mandate requiring up to seven billion gallons of corn based ethanol to be produced.

Like I said the environmental community owns the corn based ethanol debacle.

The sooner they admit, and get to work fixing the problems they caused, the better off all of us will be
7.13.2008 7:38pm