Agriculture and ethanol leaders gathered today in Sioux Falls to commemorate Earth Day and discuss the role of sustainability and stewardship in both industries.
New technologies are making it possible to grow more corn on the same acreage with fewer inputs, and ethanol production efficiency continues to advance. Ethanol’s carbon footprint is improving, while the opposite is true for oil, which is becoming more costly to explore and extract. Farmers and ethanol producers are responsible stewards of our environmental resources.
“One of the clearest measures of the sustainability of an industry is that industry’s ability to increase efficiency, while decreasing environmental impacts,” said David Fremark, president of the South Dakota Corn Utilization Council. “Today it takes about 40 percent less land and energy to produce a bushel of corn than it did 20 years ago. Earth Day is the perfect moment to recognize farmers for improving their environment and for being environmental stewards 365 days of the year.”
America’s corn growers have achieved impressive yield improvements, while decreasing inputs and environmental impact. In 1944, for example, the 85 million acres planted to corn in the U.S. brought a total crop of about 2.8 billion bushels; in 2007, those 85 million acres yielded a crop of 13.1 billion bushels. While yields have grown dramatically, improvements have been achieved in soil loss, irrigation, energy inputs, and emissions per bushel. (See the “Corn Sustainability Improvements 1987-2007” chart.)
“Today’s farmers are combining technology advances and conservation practices like never before,” said Michael Held, CEO of the South Dakota Farm Bureau. “GPS technology allows farmers to place the fertilizer and crop protectants exactly where they are needed instead of spreading the same amount across the entire field. Conservation tillage, which is used on 60 percent of crop acres in the U.S., leaves crop residue on the field, which reduces runoff and the amount of crop protectants used. These practices allow America’s farmers to be as productive as ever while protecting our natural resources.”
Today’s corn ethanol gives at least a 19 percent reduction in carbon footprint versus gasoline, and cellulosic ethanol will offer an estimated 86 percent reduction over gasoline. New sources of oil, such as the Canadian tar sands, are increasingly expensive and energy-intensive to extract, meaning large increases in the oil’s “well-to-tank” greenhouse gas emissions.
“The bottom line is that ethanol is becoming even cleaner and more efficient, while petroleum is becoming more costly and more harmful to the environment. The age of easy oil is over,” said Brian Jennings, executive vice president of the American Coalition for Ethanol. “Ethanol is inherently cleaner than petroleum-based gasoline, and technology advancements are making ethanol production even cleaner and more sustainable.”
Ethanol producers continue to achieve reductions in the amount of energy needed to produce a gallon of ethanol, down from an average of 39,719 BTUs per gallon in 2001 to 31,070 BTUs per gallon today. A gallon of ethanol itself contains 76,000 BTUs, a clear energy-positive.
America’s ethanol producers are employing innovative methods of reducing energy use at their production facilities; for example, POET Biorefining – Chancellor is now using landfill gas in a wood waste-fuel boiler to generate process steam. Using the landfill gas and the wood-waste boiler offsets 90 percent of the plant’s process steam needs met before by natural gas.
“The ethanol industry plays an important role in reaching our nation’s goal of a cleaner environment, and South Dakota has a unique and prominent place at the forefront of that effort,” said Doug Berven, Poet Biorefining Director of Corporate Affairs.
Though anti-ethanol interests have tried to pin rising food prices on the ethanol industry, research clearly shows that not to be the case.
"The Congressional Budget Office report that was recently released shows exactly what South Dakota farmers have known all along, that ethanol hasn't had a significant impact on the rise in food prices. Ethanol can be attributed to just 0.5 and 0.8 percentage point increases in the price of food from April 2007 to April 2008," said Chris Studer, spokesman for the South Dakota Farmers Union. “And ethanol saved consumers $48 billion at the gas pump in 2007. So in the end, ethanol has put more money back in the pockets of consumers."