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Farm News & Views - February 22, 2022

Last week, a research article, titled, “Environmental outcomes of the US Renewable Fuel Standard”, published in the journal, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, created quite a stir with folks in the renewable fuel industry. The Renewable Fuel Standard, written in 2007, guaranteed corn ethanol and other biofuels a share of the U.S. gasoline market. The study concluded that during the first eight years of the program, the use of biofuels resulted in the release of at least as much carbon “and likely 24% higher” greenhouse gas emissions than the petroleum it displaced.” The article went on to contend that “profound advances in technology and policy are still needed to achieve the intended environmental benefits of biofuel production and use.” Although researchers found that ethanol does reduce the level of greenhouse gas emissions of carbon directly from engines using the fuel, the side effects of growing more corn are contributing to the additional emissions. Researchers reported that “the production of corn-based ethanol in the United States has failed to meet the policy’s own greenhouse gas emissions targets and negatively affected water quality, the area of land used for conservation, and other ecosystem processes,” without considering the possible effects on cropping patterns overseas. Adding to the problem, researchers stated that “farmers put more land into corn production, with resultant increases in fertilizer use, nutrient runoff and soil erosion, while more grasslands were converted to crop production.” Geoff Cooper, president and CEO of the Renewable Fuels Association, the ethanol trade lobby, called the study "completely fictional and erroneous." When the Renewable Fuel Standard targets were set in 2007, after much political wrangling, the target was set for ethanol production in the U.S to increase up to 36 billion gallons by 2022. However, in 2020, only 12.7 billion gallons of ethanol were added to fuel in this country.

Although soil erosion has improved over the past four decades, the National Resources Inventory program from the United States Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service found that in 2017, soil loss from cultivated cropland in the U.S. due wind and water erosion amounted to over 3.6 tons per acre. Much of this erosion has removed top soil which affects the ability of the land to produce optimal yields because of the loss of nutrients and organic matter.

According to data published by the U.S. Department of Commerce recently, the highest level of agricultural exports ever were posted in 2021. Exports of farm and food products totaled $177 billion, topping the 2020 total by 18% and eclipsing the previous record, set in 2014, by 14.6%. China remained the top export destination, with a record $33 billion in purchases, an increase of 25% from 2020, although China was several billion dollars short of what they had agreed upon in the 2020 trade agreement with the U.S. Mexico inched ahead of Canada to capture the No. 2 position in 2021, with a record $25.5 billion, that’s up 39% from last year. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack credited these exports with providing 1.3 million jobs on farms and in related industries such as food processing and transportation.

Author Victor Frankl wrote, “Our greatest freedom is the freedom to choose our attitude.”

Bob has been an agricultural educator and farm and ranch management consultant for over 40 years in southwest Colorado. He writes about agricultural issues from his farm near Cortez, and has helped to produce farm reports on KSJD for more than a dozen years.