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Study Concludes That Land Set-Asides Can Be Better Climate Investment Than Corn Ethanol

A new study concludes that, depending on prior land use, carbon (C) releases from the soil after planting corn for ethanol may in some cases completely offset C gains attributed to biofuel generation for at least 50 years. Based on an analysis of 142 soil studies, the study also found that soil carbon sequestered by setting aside former agricultural land was greater than the carbon credits generated by planting corn for ethanol on the same land for 40 years and had equal or greater economic net present value.

The study also found that once commercially available, cellulosic ethanol produced in set-aside grasslands should provide the most efficient tool for GHG reduction of any scenario examined. The researchers from DUke University, Texas A&M University and Universidad Nacional de San Luis om Argentina suggested that conversion of CRP lands or other set-aside programs to corn ethanol production should not be encouraged through greenhouse gas policies.

The paper appears in the March edition of the journal Ecological Applications.

One of our take-home messages is that conservation programs are currently a cheaper and more efficient greenhouse gas policy for taxpayers than corn-ethanol production...Until cellulosic ethanol production is feasible, or corn-ethanol technology improves, corn-ethanol subsidies are a poor investment economically and environmentally.

—Robert Jackson, the Nicholas Professor of Global Environmental Change at Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment

Nevertheless, farmers and producers are already receiving federal subsidies to grow more corn for ethanol under the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007.

The report said that cellulosic species such as switchgrass are a better option for curbing emissions than corn because they don’t require annual replowing and planting. In contrast, a single planting of cellulosic species will continue growing and producing for years while trapping more carbon in the soil.

The report noted that a cost-effective technology to convert cellulosics to ethanol may be years away. So the team contrasted today’s production practices for corn-based ethanol with what will be possible after the year 2023 for cellulosic-based ethanol.

By analyzing 142 different soil studies, the researchers found that conventional corn farming can remove 30 to 50% of the carbon stored in the soil. In contrast, cellulosic ethanol production entails mowing plants as they grow, often on land that is already in conservation reserve. That, their analysis found, can ultimately increase soil carbon levels between 30 to 50% instead of reducing them.

The worst strategy for reducing carbon dioxide emissions is to plant corn-for-ethanol on land that was previously designated as set aside—a practice included in current federal efforts to ramp up biofuel production, the study found.

The research was funded by the National Science Foundation, the Center for Global Change at Duke University and by the Agencia Nacional de Promoción Científica y Tecnologíca of Argentina.

Resources

  • Gervasio Piñero et al. Set-asides can be better climate investment than corn ethanol. Ecological Applications, 19(2) pp. 277–282 doi: 10.1890/08-0645.1

Comments

fred schumacher

If society wants land set aside for the public good, then society must pay for that. One can't expect farmers to bear the burden of maintaining land in a non-revenue producing condition.

In the U.S., the largest land set-aside is the Conservation Reserve Program, which was set up in the mid-80s and was originally intended to last only 10 years. This was an effort to remove highly erodible land from crop production. Farmers placed bids in an auction for annual set-aside lease payments for land to be accepted into the program.

As land came out of the CRP, it mostly reverted to crop production. CRP was designed as a temporary program. If we want more permanent set-aside, payments must be incorporated into that concept.

creativforce

That's four strikes for corn-based ethanol. When is going to be called out?

The Goracle

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How much money ($$$$$$) was paid to do this "study?" Do these people regularly make money (BIG $$$$$, cushy jobs, fat retirement packages) by "studying" carbon as it relates (poorly or the money stops flowing) to Global Warming®?

Of course burning our food (corn) for fuel is moronic. Growing algae to produce biodiesel can be done in dessert wastelands. Then again, the dessert wasteland named ANWAR has been ruled off limits for even the smallest portion of use.

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Richard Burton

Goracle; get your facts straight. It is ANWR,Alaska National Wildlife Reserve. And, from my perspective of actually visiting it 2 years ago, it is far from being a "desert wasteland". It is a pristine,fragile area,with mountains,streams,beautiful tundra type vegetation found in places like the Alps. and yes, vegetation is scarce, and willow trees up there looked like bushes,stunted by the cold and short growing season.
and, perhaps it would do us well to keep in reserve some oil for the day when oil becomes so scarce that a small amount of oil might be worth the ecological damage to go after.As for now, I say burn up others oil,(but cut our consumption as much as possible). Richard

The Goracle

It is a pristine,fragile area,with mountains,streams,beautiful tundra type vegetation

Thank you for describing the desert Southwest. We MUST ban any and all use of the desert Southwest since it is "pristine," correct?

Jesse 67

Once again the simplest solution is the best, by doing less we can acomplish more!

The best way to reduce your environmental footprint is not to go out and buy all the latest high tech green stuff but to use less stuff overall. Don't buy a prius, ride a bike or walk! That uses no fuel, bio or otherwise.

Now if you have to buy, build or use something making an environmentally responsible choice only makes sense and it usually saves you some dollars as well. For every decision you have to make (like supporting corn ethanol) just think, the environment would probably be better off if we didn't even exist.... so how can you lessen the damage you're doing to this earth with the choices you make while you're here?

If we work hard at making the right choices we might actually be able to contribute positivly to the world, and you have to think in a broader sense than just the economy.

If your glass is half empty, pour it in a smaller glass, then it'll be full! Cheers!

SJC

"..increase soil carbon levels between 30 to 50% instead of reducing them."

Using the corn stalks for biofuels, plowing the stalks and roots back in and putting the biochar from the biomass gasification back into the soil could be a good method as well.

Richard Burton

Goracle; the level of this discourse is to me non-productive. How can you possibly compare hot desert terrain with cold Arctic species of wildlife and vegetation except from some ideological rant? the vegetation on the tundra does not even remotely resemble Southwest vegetation. Neither are there grizzly bear,muskox,or caribou, to name just 3 critters in the Southwest. Richard

JosephT


Richard, the Blackfoot, Navajo and Apache tribes would like a word with you. There is not SW Diamondbacks, Bald Eagle nursuries or Saguaro in the Tundra.

"Don't buy a prius, ride a bike or walk! That uses no fuel, bio or otherwise."

Really, cause whenever I ride a bike or walk I get hungry (needs fuel). So I eat... and then later... pass gas.

I thought methane was even worse than the CO2 that my car puts out.

Bernard

The study ignores the fact that the US massively overproduces industrial corn, which means that Ethanol use is a small diversion from the rivers of high fructose corn syrup that we feed our kids, and the corn feed that cattle can't naturally digest without the aid of a constant stream of drugs. What's left over we dump into third world markets so we can be sure to stunt the growth of their local agriculture.

Anyone who's driven cross-country should know that the US is all corn and soy from the Alleghenies to the Rockies.

Thinking that corn ethanol is forcing family farms to cultivate unplowed fields is hopelessly naive. It's just another industrial outlet for the ADM's of the world, like Cocoa Puffs and chicken nuggets (that's corn-fed chicken dipped in corn flour and fried in corn oil, for those of you lucky enough not to know this product). The big difference is that corn ethanol is less toxic than the product it replaces.

Jesse 67

"So I eat... and then later... pass gas." Ha! Very true, but when you walk you only have to haul your own but around and exercise is good for you, when you drive you take a 4000 lb car with you, takes a lot more calories to do that. And if you happen to be the average north american you could stand to lose a few pounds anyways so you shouldn't have to eat any more than normal! I would also rather eat more and buy less gas.

Engineer-Poet

Goracle isn't worth your rebuttals; he's just a troll, without any capabilities except cutting-and-pasting talking points.  Sarcasm or silence are the best policy.

Ruminants are quite capable of turning cellulose into energy, and even into protein if they are given some nitrogen (Dept. of Agriculture demonstrated the feeding of cows on newsprint supplemented with urea decades ago).  Miscanthus giganteus can produce far more biomass per acre than maize, so we might even get more meat by grass-feeding beef cattle on some tallgrass crops than by corn-feeding them.  Eliminating the soil disturbance and adding soil carbon is another big plus.

The question is, will US farm policy be changed so that this option is not actively penalized?

JosephT


In 7 days on March 12, The EU, might change US farming in a big way. The European BioDiesel Board has pushed for a vote to levy a tarriff on imported US Biodiesel. Reportedly 80% of the BioDiesel in Europe is soy based biodiesel imported from the US.

If the Tarriff passes, this could cause massive adjustments.

Mark_BC

We should instead just start eating bison which is much healthier to begin with. They used to roam by the millions over the great plains (along with grizzly bears which used to range over the entire western half of North America including the LA basin), now they are almost extinct. The benefit of bison is that they naturally eat grass, they do not wallow in mud like cows (thus don't contribute to erosion), and they would support a semi natural ecosystem. We wouldn't be supporting meat factory feedlots which are always situated beside rivers so they can dump their waste somewhere.

Of course you probably wouldn't get a 99 cent bison burger in McDonalds but a growing number of the population is realizing the health benefits of bison so we should be trying to increase the amount of land devoted to their cultivation and slowly switch our meat preferences.

Rikiki

>>Bernard RE "the corn feed that cattle can't naturally digest without the aid of a constant stream of drugs" BS!

As I recall, my Father and Grandfather fed ground corn as a supplement to hay routinely to our dairy herd, and as a main feed to chickens and hogs, especially over winter. They also used corn silage as asupplement And gramps probably fed corn as well as oats to the draft horses over winter.. Neither one of them even knew about antibiotics. Cattle and "cows" never had drugs and made it over extreme cold winters with little loss of body mass.

Do a wiki on corn-fed beef to get a little ahead on the subject

Rikiki

Rikiki

>Mark bc RE "they (Bison) naturally eat grass, they do not wallow in mud like cows (thus don't contribute to erosion), and they would support a semi natural ecosystem.

"Cattle" in feedlots and dairy holding pens may "wallow" in muddy spaces, I.E., enclosed controlled spaces.

But you should go to Yellowstone and you might catch a bison or herd 'WALLOWING" after a heavy rain or snow. Wallowing is a condition based upon soil type and moisture content and very heavy animals. Bison herds did not leave the plains unscared. Millions of bison also over grazed the best forage areas..

Over-grazing the land with sheep, goats, deer, cattle, wildebeast, or whatever can do a lot more erosion damage than mucking about.

Rikiki

The Goracle

Richard Burton, your level of this discourse is to me non-productive. Both the desert Southwest and ANWR have wildlife. Both have plant life. Both are "pristine" in many ways. The only difference is that one is cold during the day and one is hot.

Regarding Engineer-Poet's rant: "he's just a troll, without any capabilities except cutting-and-pasting talking points. Sarcasm or silence are the best policy." Yes, your post is laughable because you're not capable of discussing issues without name calling. Name calling, of course, is "science" nowadays. Yes, you are deserving of the sarcasm that you wish to dole out to others.

Mark_BC

rikiki said: " Bison herds did not leave the plains unscared. Millions of bison also over grazed the best forage areas. Over-grazing the land with sheep, goats, deer, cattle, wildebeast, or whatever can do a lot more erosion damage than mucking about."

If they get to the point where they are overgrazing, I think it's time to do some culling for the sake of some bison burgers!!

Goats, cattle, and wildebeast aren't from North America. Bison are.

Engineer-Poet

The latest analysis I have claims that the population of bison exploded after 1492 as a consequence of the collapse of so many autochthonous populations:  European endemic diseases removed most of the top predators.  The overgrazing was a temporary phenomenon, and was certainly over-compensated for by the likes of "Buffalo" Bill Cody.

Ruby Tuesday's features a buffalo burger on the menu, and IMHO it's quite good.

Bernard

Rikiki said "Do a wiki on corn-fed beef to get a little ahead on the subject."

OK, I googled it, the first hit was http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grass_fed_beef and it totally agrees with what I wrote. So what's your point?

BTW, I do realize that wikipedia is not always the best source of information, however you brought it up so I'll play it by your rules.

I maintain that anybody who thinks that current industrial corn production in the US has anything to do with Old MacDonald, who has a small family farm, plowing some previously set aside grassland is hopelessly naive.
That kind of this hasn't happened in the Midwest since before the previous Great Depression.

We're not talking about your grandad (or mine) having a small dairy farm, we are talking about industrial corn used in industrial feedlots to pump out industrial beef (or preferably ethanol).

Rikiki

>>Bermard RE; "So what's your point?"

Your assertion about the inability of cattle to digest grains without a constant stream of drugs..... "the corn feed that cattle can't naturally digest without the aid of a constant stream of drugs"

Rikiki

PS Pop and Grandpa were what people call today "organic" providers. It is a growing movement today.

CNCMike

They need to look at the carbon savings by not using the gasoline that the ethanol replaces. If you add in all the emissions from searching for oil, drilling for oil, not finding oil, searching again, deilling again, not finding again, repeat as many times as necessary, you will see that the carbon savings would be dramatic.

Are you aware that the oil companies actually burn clean burning natural gas to make CO2 to pump into the ground to pressurize oil reserves so they can actually get the low quality dirty oil that we have been reduced to using. Ethanol production would replace that wasted burning of a clean fuel to get a dirty fuel due to the production of CO2 during fermentation.

If everyone knew the true emissions and energy and oil comsumed making each gallon of gas they would be behind ehtanol all the way. The oil companies don't want you to know that there is about 20% more energy put into getting each gallon of gas into your gas tank than you will ever get out it by burning it. Ethanol has an 8 to 1 return on energy.

Jesse 67

The root cause of all these problems is still the need for fuel or energy in the first place. If we can reduce that we can eliminate a lot of these problems and the rest become easier to solve. We obviously can't produce enough corn ethanol to meet our energy needs and eventually there will be no more oil. Something needs to take up the slack. Hopefully by then we will need less energy overal but I'm hoping for an electric car I can charge from a solar panel or wind turbine on my roof.

As a stop gap I think enthanol can be better than oil, no question, but there are better ways to make it than with corn. Corn has been grown for hundreds of years as food and we only recently found it can be made into fuel. We're familiar with growing and working with it. People don't like change so they use whats familiar, even if its definitly not the best tool for the job. Notice the study says CORN ethanol, not any ethanol. We just need to figure out a better process and feedstock then we'll have something that can potentially wean us out of the oil age.

SJC

The 8 to 1 is on sugar cane ethanol. We can grow corn for food and use the stalks for fuel. Return the biochar to the land and we can sustain that for quit a while.

Engineer-Poet

Quoth CNCMike:

The oil companies don't want you to know that there is about 20% more energy put into getting each gallon of gas into your gas tank than you will ever get out it by burning it. Ethanol has an 8 to 1 return on energy.
The United States Department of Agriculture claims closer to a 1.3:1 return from corn ethanol, with a possibility of 1.6... someday.  This is far too low to run a society on, and is one more element of proof that ethanol in the USA is just a farm price-support program in disguise.

The irony is that we can get a much higher ROI using ethanol as an on-demand octane booster in a downsized, turbocharged engine.  As little as 5% average ethanol consumption could save 30% in total fuel.  The "problem" with this is that wet ethanol would work better than expensive anhydrous ethanol, and methanol would be better yet.  Methanol can be made rather easily from gasified biomass of any type, even garbage; this undercuts the rationale for ethanol, which is easiest to make from corn.

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