Saving earth's skin

Agriculture.com Staff 05/10/2007 @ 1:15pm

Are we trading cheap oil for cheap soil? As our industry rushes to grow more corn to feed fuel tanks as well as stomachs, that's a question many are asking.

I hear different versions of that question from farmers as well as conservation groups. Some of the worriers are grass-based livestock producers and growers in the sustainable agriculture camp. Most corn and wheat farmers are delighted that biofuels are finally giving us decent prices in the marketplace.

The short answer to whether this boom boosts erosion is not yet.

No-till corn production for dry mill ethanol plants is, contrary to the bad press it sometimes gets, almost a perfect system.

Over time, no-till slowly builds up organic matter in the soil. That captures carbon from the atmosphere, maybe helping offset some of the global-warming carbon dioxide that Hummers and speed boats pump out.

Then, when the crop comes off and moves through a modern, efficient ethanol plant, more energy really does come out than goes in. The critics who say this isn't so -- mainly Tad Patzek and David Pimental -- are smaller voices in a shrinking wilderness of doubters.

At the Commodity Classic in Tampa last winter, the National Corn Growers Association trotted out chart after chart of more reasons to feel good about $4 corn and ethanol. In recent years fertilizer use in corn has fallen. So has soil erosion.

But if we're honest with ourselves, we know that not all of the corn planted this year will be on the best land. Not all of it will be protected from too much wind or water. And this is just the beginning of the strains on the world's greatest crop-production machine -- American agriculture.

Soon, we're going to move toward cellulosic ethanol production. At first, it won't be from switchgrass. It will be corn stover and wheat straw coming off fields near grain ethanol plants. How much can we take off before this great system of capturing carbon and growing energy breaks down? How long will it be before topsoil, the thin skin that supports terrestrial life on this planet, slowly begins to disappear?

Agricultural doomsday isn't just around the corner. In a nation that struggles with obesity, we can produce plenty of food and fuel for years. But I'm not sure anyone really knows if we can replace most of our oil imports with biofuels and not risk resources our grandchildren will need.

One of the more thoughtful agricultural leaders who is starting to ask tough questions is Ralph Grossi, president of American Farmland Trust. Last month Grossi wrote leaders in Congress to suggest three ways that these pressures on agricultural land can be addressed:

  1. Make sure incentives for more biofuels come with a big increase in working lands conservation programs.
  2. Have energy policies that spur energy efficiency and discourage waste. This will reduce pressures on working lands as well as our nation's reliance on imported oil.
  3. Vigorously support the develop-ment of a new generation of biofuels.

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