Understandably those in the ethanol industry responded to USDA’s research released last week demonstrating the emissions-reducing benefits of ethanol by saying: “Yeah, that’s what we’ve been telling you for years!”
Be assured that industry leaders were elated by the report, A Life-Cycle Analysis of the Greenhouse Gas Emissions of Corn-Based Ethanol, showing that greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions associated with corn-based ethanol in the United States are about 43 percent lower than gasoline when measured on an energy equivalent basis. This is a big number – and the reduction percentage will get even bigger over the next few years, driven by ongoing improvements in ethanol production and improved land management practices.
But the study should – we hope, once and for all – end the frustration long experienced by ethanol advocates who have been bombarded over the years by unfounded or, worse, untrue criticisms of biofuels by legacy fuel stakeholders that seek to hold on to market share. Misguided environmental groups that have an aversion to burning anything to power our transportation system, have also consistently rejected good solutions for desired “perfect” solutions, which are, in fact, unrealistic.
The news for the ethanol industry, both here in the United States and across the world, got even better later in the week when the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) released its latest food price index showing that world food prices fell for a fifth straight year in 2016. The index, which measures monthly changes for a basket of cereals, oilseeds, dairy products, meat and sugar, experienced a 1.5 percent drop last year, with cereals such as corn, driving the decrease in prices.
Given that last year, the U.S. ethanol industry reached record production and export levels, the UN findings further dispel the “food-versus-fuel” myth that would have us as consumers believe that increased ethanol production drives up food prices. Furthermore, ethanol producers here in the United States use less than 3 percent of global grain supplies, thereby making more food and feed available worldwide than ever before.
Returning to the ethanol/GHG study, this is research that for the first time brings real-world experience to the table. Unlike other studies of GHG benefits that have been based on forecasts of future ethanol production systems and expected impacts on the farm sector, the USDA assessment reviewed how the industry and farm sectors performed over the past decade to assess the current GHG profile of corn-based ethanol. The report found greater lifecycle GHG benefits from corn ethanol than earlier studies, driven by a variety of improvements in ethanol production, from the corn field to the ethanol refinery.
Farmers are producing corn more efficiently and expanding the implementation of conservation practices that reduce GHG emissions, including reduced tillage, cover crops and improved nitrogen management. Corn yields are surging – between 2005 and 2015, yields increased by more than 10 percent. Advances in ethanol production technologies, such as the use of combined heat and power, using landfill gas for energy, and co-producing biodiesel helped reduce GHG emissions at ethanol refinery plants. In a scenario where these fermentation improvements and land management practices are universally adopted, the GHG benefits of corn ethanol are even more pronounced over gasoline, about a 76 percent reduction. As it is, given current trends, the GHG profile of corn-based ethanol is expected to be almost 50 percent lower than gasoline in five years.
The report serves in a way as the final act capping a tremendous legacy built by Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack over his eight years as head of the USDA, where he served as the leading voice for ethanol and biofuels in an administration that could, at times, be somewhat ambiguous about renewable fuels. Vilsack, who marked his last day in office last Friday, had the vision and tenacity to promote the major economic opportunities that biofuels continue to offer rural America and have made them an indispensable part of America’s fuel supply.
With definitive proof of ethanol’s environmental contributions, and global analyses that have repeatedly demonstrated that the “food-versus-fuel” argument as a false one, policy makers should fully reject the myths that opponents of ethanol pass off as fact and reinforce the statutory mechanisms and incentives that give biofuels a central role in improving our energy security, enhancing our environment and boosting our economy.