November 12, 2013
Corn For Ethanol Speeds Topsoil Erosion

Read this whole article. We should not erode away our topsoil for ethanol from corn.

As farmers rushed to find new places to plant corn, they wiped out millions of acres of conservation land, destroyed habitat and polluted water supplies, an Associated Press investigation found.

Causes bigger dead zones in ocean areas near river outlets too. Americans have a view of the United States of being not only self sufficient in food but also a big crop exporting nation. But the United States is down to only 15% of domestic corn now getting exported. Throw in some population growth and more soil erosion and we'll shift to a food importing nation. Bad outcome.

Globally soil erosion is a big problem: "Every year in the world an estimated 20 million hectares of arable land are rendered infertile simply owing to water-induced erosion." Soil depletion is cutting crop yields.

Although improved technology – including the unsustainably high use of fertilisers, irrigation, and ploughing – provides a false sense of security, about 1% of global land area is degraded every year. In Africa, where much of the future growth in agriculture must take place, erosion has reduced yields by 8% and nutrient depletion is widespread.

"Soil fertility is both a biophysical property and a social property – it is a social property because humankind depends heavily on it for food production," says Bob Scholes, who is a systems ecologist at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research.

This brings to mind David Montgomery's excellent book Dirt: The Erosion Of Civilizations. Recommended reading, though not if you prefer blissful ignorance.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2013 November 12 09:41 PM 

Ronald Brak said at November 14, 2013 12:25 PM:

Apparently only 12% of US corn is consumed by humans. This suggests a wide margin of safety to avoid starvation if say the central United States dries out. Humans eating a greater portion of what corn is produced would of course mean less meat and less ethanol would be available. Because the option of doing without meat and ethanol exists, climate change is unlikely to cause starvation in the US but can make the country much less rich than it would otherwise be. (No rejuvenation treatments for you!) And it will of course cause immense hardship and death among the poor of the world who will suffer from both changing climate and higher imported food prices.

By the way, the National Corn Growers Association says about 20% of the US corn crop is exported rather than 15%. 2012 was an unusually low year for exports. Of course with the drought and increasing climate instability exports may be on the way down.

James Bowery said at November 17, 2013 12:13 PM:

Its "entertaining", in a black humor sort of way, that I moved back to Iowa in part because there was an ethanol plant that was building an algae cultivation facility to convert its fermentation-derived CO2 into biofuel. That facility happened to be within a reasonable commute of the retirement residence one of the founders of the DoE's Energy Information Administration who I knew from the days before Indians drove guys like us out of Silicon Valley (he had been the guy who financed the PDP books that resurrected neural networks from Minsky's attempt to deep-six the field). I move into the same town as that algae facility and began working with the DoE EIA founder on a comprehensive plan for energy independence and the environment. Looking at the technology they were pursuing I informed them that it wouldn't be remotely economic, as I had been looking at the economics of this stuff for several years - and that maybe, possibly, they could make it work within the nutraceuticals market -- a much smaller market. They ignored me. I proceeded to develop the algae cultivation aspect of the energy plan, finally (after going back to the drawing board several times based on the numbers repeatedly not working out) figuring out a technology that could use soybean prices as the basis for capturing and photosynthesizing the CO2 from all US elex plants, including coal, if the deployment scale took the industrial learning cure way down in cost. I told them and, well, maybe they ignored me but, the ethanol planet guys had started to do press releases on agricultural feeds rather than fuel. I knew they were still an order of magnitude off in their costs and that they'd still have to go to nutraceuticals. Then I discovered a technology had been demonstrated in Europe that not only solved the cost problem far better than I had, but it looked like it could work for fuel and do so without the huge industrial learning curve. I moved out to a farm within walking distance of the ethanol plant hoping I could get them to see the light. Meanwhile they got a grant from the State of Iowa to start construction of the facility, and placed job ads. I applied. The job went to a guy from India who had done his thesis on converting coal CO2 into algae biomass. I wrote to my State representative and asked why, with the world-leading scholastic aptitude of Iowans, that a qualified Iowan couldn't be found for this job and they had to hire a guy from India. My state representative didn't respond but forward my letter to the Stat of Iowa's energy bureaucracy, headed by a woman from India, and an underling wrote back saying that the money for that job position was going to be spent in Iowa so it was to the taxpayer's benefit.

The latest word is that they're no longer targeting agricultural feedstocks.

Guess what market they think they might be able to serve with their algae technology?

James Bowery said at November 17, 2013 12:20 PM:

For all you fans of "The Twelve Monkeys" out there: These "cognitive elites" probably wouldn't even exist to come over to Iowa and be so helpful if it weren't for an Iowan by the name of Normal Borlaug.

James Bowery said at November 17, 2013 12:21 PM:

BTW: These "cognitive elites" probably wouldn't even exist to come over to Iowa and be so helpful if it weren't for an Iowan by the name of Norman Borlaug.

James Bowery said at November 17, 2013 12:39 PM:

Ironically, by helping to suppress the next green revolution, the guys from India may have helped midwestern farmers. The algae technology that their idiocracy is suppressing would have shifted the center of protein production (and possibly carbohydrate production) to the deserts. If, as seems likely, carbohydrate production can use the same algae cultivation technology (different strains), then Iowa farm land will become essentially worthless. Of course, its been a long time since Iowa farm land was actually in the hands of family farmers hence doing anything to help Iowa fertility even approach India's fertility rates.

James Bowery said at November 17, 2013 2:19 PM:

Another, not so humorous but nevertheless black anecdote regarding the wondrous gift of the "cognitive elites" made possible by Normal Borlaug:

Before being basically given the boot from Silicon Valley, I personally knew a number of folks relatively high up in the social echelons (folks who hung out with Gordon Bell and Sun Microsystems founders, etc.) who were disciples of Gurumayi. When I say "disciples" I mean getting up at 3AM every day and driving from Silicon Valley to the Oakland center to meditate.

One of the more charming aspects of Gurumayi's messages to these Silicon Valley elites was that we were all incarnated on Earth at this point in time as a result of being invited by Earth to witness its planetary death. I've run into similar "memes" from "disciples" of various Hindu sects in responses to my posts to the Internet (as early as 1992 to Usenet) invoking the "Kali Yuga", and that the West's degeneration is Her will.

Comforting to know it is all in order with the divine.

Dave said at November 17, 2013 5:14 PM:

That's interesting. The whole "Kali Yuga" meme is also popular on the Far Right. In fact I thought the "Kali Yuga" idea was exclusive to the Right. I didn't know those guru types who cater to a mainstream audience and liberal types like those Silicon Valley execs promoted pessimistic memes. I thought they were mainly about promoting yoga and healthy living, positive thinking, etc.

It's interesting that they've had influence on both the Right and mainstream, liberal audiences. Especially with the same pessimistic memes.

James Bowery said at November 18, 2013 2:42 PM:

The Hare Krishna guys have been going on about the Kali Yuga thing in the US since the 60s but the last I interacted with those guys was in the 80s. Their whole reason for chanting "Hare Krishna" is in response to the Kali Yuga being upon us.

aandrews said at November 24, 2013 7:39 AM:

As it is with everything else, it seems, the consequences of the corn for ethanol thing could be *much* worse than the casually cognizant would dream.

The Year the Monarch Didn’t Appear


"A big part of it is the way the United States farms. As the price of corn has soared in recent years, driven by federal subsidies for biofuels, farmers have expanded their fields. That has meant plowing every scrap of earth that can grow a corn plant, including millions of acres of land once reserved in a federal program for conservation purposes.

"Another major cause is farming with Roundup, a herbicide that kills virtually all plants except crops that are genetically modified to survive it.

"As a result, millions of acres of native plants, especially milkweed, an important source of nectar for many species, and vital for monarch butterfly larvae, have been wiped out. One study showed that Iowa has lost almost 60 percent of its milkweed, and another found 90 percent was gone. “The agricultural landscape has been sterilized,” said Dr. Brower."


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