Anti-Ethanol Policy AP Story: “They’re Raping the Land”

Rick, the photographer from North Dakota, who is documenting the destruction of the Dakota’s former CRP lands, just sent me another photo which you see above. With it, he wrote, “Most of the newly planted corn fields from the converted CRP lands just have yield strips combined through them — for their insurance company. Then they are abandoned.”

That is what Rick is observing.

His E-mail was well-timed, because it gave me a photo for today’s subject.


I’ve felt a bit like a lone voice in the wilderness. The agricultural writer-activists like Michael Pollan and much of media, too, have been wasting their time by promoting anti-GMO legislation, blaming many of agriculture’s ills on GMO crops because they hate Monsanto.

But the real problem has been ethanol policy.

Many of the unsustainable agricultural environmental problems which the U.S. is guilty of today, name any one of them, stem from it. In just the few years since mandated use of corn ethanol has created a new and unprecedented demand for corn, the detrimental environmental consequences have been enormous while most of America has turned a blind and apathetic eye.

So finally today, a lengthy story by the AP — which has lambasted ethanol policy and Obama for endorsing it — is splashed prominently across the pages of every newspaper in America.

See: Making corn-based ethanol badly hurting environment: AP and DO NOT miss the corresponding time-line of ethanol policy A Timeline of Recent Ethanol Events.

The AP story hits Obama hard. They blame him for this ethanol mess and rightfully so. You can’t be a good effectual president and keep claiming that you weren’t aware of “the problem” — whatever the subject may be.

Not to leave Bush II off the hook. He enacted the policy under his watch.

Me? I’ve tended to pick on Tom Vilsack, our Secretary of Agriculture, for not speaking up, for not being a watchdog protecting our soil and water.

But the AP is demanding leadership from our president. Obama’s the one who appointed Vilsack. And this mandated ethanol policy intersects across the departments of Energy, Agriculture, and Defense as well as the EPA. It is embedded into our nation’s governmental powers that be.

Which brings me to another bone of contention that I have. I’ve wished that our nation’s presidents would start appointing good qualified candidates to the position of Secretary of Agriculture — individuals with PhDs in Agronomy, like we’ve been getting for our recent Secretaries of Energy, and more like the EU has in Dacian Cioloş — instead of small-town lawyers from Iowa or Nebraska.

Agriculture is the number one cause of environmental destruction in the world, so shouldn’t the person in charge of its leadership in the number one agricultural producing nation in the world have someone who understands the science behind it? If we mine our topsoil for no good reason, we are robbing the productive capacity of our nation to produce food and have clean water for our future generations.

If a president appoints a lawyer from Iowa to be their Secretary of Agriculture, they are appointing nothing other than the success of D.C. lobbyist special interests from the Midwest to have control of our agricultural policy. Like corn grower lobbyists. Like biofuels lobbyists.

Because we are the nation with some of the richest arable land in the world that the whole world watches and emulates — our policies go beyond our borders.

Today is a day of opportunity to “change” things.

As our farm bill waits to be rewritten, let’s put our subsidies towards rewarding the farmer who has conservation reserve program acres. Let’s strive for new high numbers in total CRP acres, paying a floating rate that keeps the marginal and good unfarmed lands in the CRP program. Let’s quit paying the farmers who choose to plow up their marginal lands — which are guaranteed to erode and destroy what was previously wildlife habitat — when their crop fails. Let’s put our subsidies towards farmers who practice rotational grazing, who grow organic corn and soybeans, who raise grassfed beef, bison, and other livestock. Let’s put our subsidies towards a pasture raised poultry program for the health benefits that these meats and eggs offer over corn-fed. Let’s put our subsidies towards helping the small eat local organic farmer survive and prosper.

And let’s scale back the ethanol mandate — gradually over the future — so our Midwestern producers have a soft landing — while at the same time creating new policies which steer them in new directions, which reward them for conservation methods, and healthier food that is produced more humanely, and more respectful of the land.

Creating the right policies could also allow today’s modern farm producers to reduce their sky-high input costs and hefty energy needs — while conserving soil and water, and while still making a decent living.

And last but not least, new aesthetic values represented in a better farm bill could provide our badly hurting rural communities with a new energy and vibrancy from the younger generation of people that it would attract back to farming, a generation which would love to participate in agriculture, if given the right opportunity.

This AP story is a call for action from President Obama. It is an opportunity for him to lead.

13 thoughts on “Anti-Ethanol Policy AP Story: “They’re Raping the Land”

  1. TomOfTheNorth

    Well said Kay!

    And I feel your ‘hope’ for ‘change’.

    However while past performance is not necessarily an indicator of the future, I suspect we would agree as to where this is headed….


  2. Ben Palmer

    Kay, you ARE a voice in the wilderness, but that’s why I look forward to your BPA posts every day. Today’s was excellent. Yesterday’s about the 280-some bushels per acre corn was spot-on, too, although the reader response was disappointing. I hope to see more responses to this post. Maybe that’s partly why you’re feeling so alone on this issue of ethanol. Surely the public will awake to the ethanol boondoggle. The AP’s story may help. But when you speak the truth to power and money, it can be a lonely mission. And make no mistake: Big Ag is hugely powerful. The perfect storm of ethanol driven corn prices; subsidized crop insurance; ag equipment, fertilizer, irrigation and grain merchandising tends to drown out contrary voices. What’s happening in North Dakota saddens me, as I know it must you and photographer Rick. Though I live and farm in Georgia, I gained a new friend this year who worked for many years in the effort to re-establish prairie grasses and cattle grazing in North Dakota. In such a short time, his work and that of others was plowed under in the mad race to again make the prairie a giant corn field. No, Kay, don’t slow down. Your work is too important.

    1. K. McDonald Post author

      Thanks, Ben. It’s nice to get a note like this. I am followed by many other writers, and other influential persons including some government leaders, so the silence really doesn’t bother me. Not sure how long you’ve followed me, but rest assured I won’t stop. I’ve been unstoppable for a few years now. Again, thanks for everything.

      This particular post got promoted on twitter by the environmental editor of National Geographic magazine, who regularly promotes my work on twitter. It really doesn’t get much better than that, does it?

      I’d say the average person is overwhelmed by too many things right now, they have to pick their battles. Agriculture tends to be on the back burner of life’s problems for most people.

  3. patrick

    The two principles behind ethanol’s creation have never been met. It had to be cleaner environmentally and to end our dependence on OPEC. To reach environmental goals they had to keep moving the posts to make the numbers fit, yields per acre and the like. The OPEC meme was the easy one to emotionally move the electorate. OPEC was the long held boogey man. The reality (long before Al Gore’s tie breaking Senate vote in 1994 that started the ethanol ball rolling–he later admitted in 2010 he did it for future farm votes when he imagined he would be running for president in 2000 and not for the environment, what a douche) our dependence on OPEC was already waning since 1989 in terms of gasoline demand. Once again the government created a monster for a problem that was dying a natural death.

    These charts make very clear why Big Ethanol is freaking out and now threatening lawsuits if the EPA reduces ethanol mixing because of the blend wall. In layman’s terms, too much ethanol and too little gasoline demand. The whole theory behind ethanol was a continued, never ending growth and demand for gasoline. Actual gasoline demand ended years ago.

    1. K. McDonald Post author

      I think the main other thing that opened the door for ethanol was the need for MTBE replacement. The AP article never mentioned that.

      This program always was about politics, not rationality.

      1. patrick

        Don’t even get me started on MTBE. The EPA, last I checked, still claims they had nothing to do with it! Not satisfied with polluting all the ground water they decided to go after all the aquifers by mandating ethanol!

  4. Rodney7777

    Ethanol and the quality of farmland. Most farmland is not being husbanded for the future generations. Farmers will have to switch from fertilizer, insecticides, and herbicides to using several different cover crops and no till farming.
    David Brandt of Carrol Ohio uses cover crops as natural fertilizer and has not tilled his land for years. His money crops are corn, soybeans, and wheat. His farmland is covered with worm mounds and his soil is much improved. I see corn based ethanol as a bridge fuel to get us to solar electric. Given the choice, I could easily give up Coca Cola and beefsteak , so I could have ethanol fuel to get to work. In Emmetsburg Iowa, there is a new full sized ethanol plant that uses only the rest of the corn plant to make ethanol. The leaves, stalks and cobs are baled up by farmers and sold to the ethanol plant. In the very near future, most vehicles will be solar and battery powered. All nuclear and coal plants will be shut down. Right now .075% of all electricity produced in the world is solar. That doesn’t sound like much but for many years solar output has been doubling every 2 years and will continue to do so. So 2015 = 1.5% 2017 = 3% etc. At 2027 the worlds output of solar produced electricity will be 98%. Clean, quiet, abundant, local and no moving parts. Many of you reading this will see the shut down of oil drilling and oil refineries. So in about 10 years there will be no more need for ethanol as a fuel. In Ohio no till and cover crop farming is taking off. Perhaps in 10 years that will spread to the rest of the U S and world. Search for two one hour lectures on land husbandry. One featuring David Brandt and the other is called “Green Gold” with Dr. Lui for a look at our future.

  5. roy hipple

    {In Emmetsburg Iowa, there is a new full sized ethanol plant that uses only the rest of the corn plant to make ethanol. The leaves, stalks and cobs are baled up by farmers and sold to the ethanol plant.}

    The above is a terrible idea. The soil needs that organic material so the rain can soak in, instead of rushing down the creek.


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