Associated Press story plows under the facts about ethanol
The Associated Press story on ethanol is more dumpster fire than journalism.
Do you enjoy writing filled with hyperbole? How about “reporting” that cites long-dispelled myths as fact and uses professional talking heads as sources? Is lazy journalism that aims to manufacture controversy (think Skip Bayless at ESPN or one of the many loudmouths that pollute the talk radio airwaves) your thing?
Then an upcoming story from the Associated Press (AP) about so-called “dirty” ethanol is right up your alley. The story is embargoed until Nov. 12, but has already appeared in various corners of the internet so we decided to post it here today, before the rest of the world sees it sometime on Tuesday.
But hold on a minute. Before you scroll down further and get your salacious journalism fix, let us give you a taste of what this story would look like if its authors dealt in facts instead of half-truths; if their aim was to actually inform readers instead of troll for cheap web clicks and re-tweets.
In other words, let us warn you about a few of the many outrageous claims about “dirty” ethanol, farmers and renewable fuels that are made in the story, and set the record straight.
AP claim: “Five million acres of land set aside for conservation…have vanished on Obama’s watch. Landowners filled in wetlands. They plowed into pristine prairies, releasing carbon dioxide that had been locked in the soil.”
Whew, we warned you about the hyperbole.
First, farmers are not filling in wetlands. Acreage enrolled in USDA’s Wetlands Reserve Program hit a record 2.65 million acres in 2012. That land is enrolled permanently, or for a period of 30 years. Farmers can’t just wake up one day and decide to fill it in.
Second, acres in USDA’s Conservation Reserve Program have declined, but a big reason for the decline is because the cap on CRP acres fell from 39 to 32 million acres as a result of the 2008 farm bill. CRP lands were always intended to remain available to be farmed if market conditions warranted. It is perfectly reasonable to grow crops on good farmland, and save the more highly erodible land and fields near waterways for CRP enrollment.
Third, those “pristine prairies” remain pristine. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, no new grassland has been converted to cropland since 2005. Most native grasslands are also protected under “sodbuster” and “swampbuster” provisions of the farm bill. In Minnesota, a recent DNR report shows an increase in wetland acreage.
Finally, farmers participate in a variety of conservation efforts. Minnesota farmers lead the nation with more than 2 million acres enrolled in USDA’s Conservation Stewardship Program. Minnesota’s corn farmers also invest more than $2 million annually in research that seeks to improve conversation efforts and farming practices.
AP Claim: “Historically, the overwhelmingly majority of corn in the United States has been turned into livestock feed. But in 2010, for the first time, fuel was the No. 1 use for corn in America. That’s been true every year since.”
This claim is a doozy. Actually, it’s just plain wrong.
Livestock feed remains the No. 1 market for U.S. corn. Period.
What the AP authors aren’t telling you (presumably they know this, but maybe not) is that for every 56-pound bushel of corn that is made into 2.8 gallons of ethanol, 17 pounds — about one-third — is returned as a high-protein animal feed. This is what corn farmers mean when they talk about growing food, fiber, and fuel. Enough corn is grown to support all three (with plenty left over to export to other countries). We don’t have to pick just one.
If the AP reporters were honest, they would have acknowledged that when you factor in co-products, livestock feed — not fuel — remains the top use for corn by a wide margin.
AP Claim: “Before the government ethanol mandate, the Conservation Reserve Program grew every year for nearly a decade.”
Actually, it didn’t. CRP enrollment fell in five consecutive years from 1994-99. Oh, those pesky facts…
AP Claim: “But using government satellite data — the best tool available — the AP identified a conservative estimate of 1.2 million acres of virgin land in Nebraska and the Dakotas alone that have been converted to fields of corn and soybeans since 2006, the last year before the ethanol mandate was passed.”
The reporters don’t bother to tell us what “government satellite data” was used or how “virgin land” was identified. Government agencies like USDA don’t use satellite data often for regulatory or enforcement purposes because it contains a high degree of error.
If you want to know what’s happening on cropland in Nebraska and the Dakotas, referring to a satellite hovering around in outer space isn’t the best method. Instead, you want to use on-the-ground data.
If the AP reporters paid attention to what was happening on the ground, they would have learned that yes, 2013 corn acres in Minnesota, Iowa, Nebraska and the Dakotas are up over 9 million compared to the five-year average from 2000-04. However, acres dedicated to other crops fell by more than 11 million — meaning the increases in corn acres was more than offset by the decrease in other crops, not from planting corn on “virgin land.”
AP Claim: “Between 2005 and 2010, corn farmers increased their use of nitrogen fertilizer by more than one billion pounds. More recent data isn’t available from the Agriculture Department, but because of the huge increase in corn planting, even conservative projections by the AP suggest another billion-pound fertilizer increase on corn farms since
In the first year after the ethanol mandate, more than 2 million acres disappeared.
Since Obama took office, 5 million more acres have vanished.
Agriculture officials acknowledge that conservation land has been lost, but they say the trend is reversing. When the 2013 data comes out, they say it will show that as corn prices stabilized, farmers once again began setting aside land for conservation.
So the ethanol policy cruises on autopilot.