The Renewable Fuel Standard, a policy that promotes the biofuel ethanol, has led to a massive expansion of corn and soybean farming, and to significant environmental destruction, according to a new report.
Researchers from Kansas State University, the University of Wisconsin and the University of California-Davis found that the United States lost more than a million acres of non-farm land between 2008 and 2016, particularly in Kansas, Nebraska, Missouri and the Dakotas.
When virgin soil is plowed over, said Nathan Hendricks, an associate professor of agriculture at Kansas State University, it releases large amounts of carbon stored in the soil. "There are greenhouse-gas emissions," he said. "There's going to be some water-quality impact and habitat impacts for wildlife, as well."
The report also said the increase in corn and soybean acreage has negatively impacted the Ogallala aquifer because in drier areas it can take as much as 2,000 gallons of water to produce a single gallon of ethanol.
This spring, the Environmental Protection Agency will release a proposal to update the Renewable Fuel Standard, which then will then be open for public comment. Supporters of the current policy have said ethanol has boosted farm economies and made the United States less dependent on oil from other countries.
David DeGennaro, an agriculture policy specialist at the National Wildlife Federation, said he'd like to see the new policy emphasize cleaner, next-generation biofuels made from wood waste, grasses and waste oil. But he worries it could be an uphill battle. "Corn ethanol has been around for a long time and Congress has been very supportive of that industry," he said, "and there's been a lot less willingness to really provide the necessary incentives for other types of fuels to develop."
The report also found that the current policy has been harmful to monarch butterflies. In order to clear land, farmers had to plow under thousands of acres of milkweed, the monarch's favorite food source. The report is online at ethanol.nwf.org/report.