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Why Biofuels (like Ethanol) Are Bad for Birds:

The NYT reports what many of us have been predicting:

Thousands of farmers are taking their fields out of the government's biggest conservation program, which pays them not to cultivate. They are spurning guaranteed annual payments for a chance to cash in on the boom in wheat, soybeans, corn and other crops. Last fall, they took back as many acres as are in Rhode Island and Delaware combined.

Environmental and hunting groups are warning that years of progress could soon be lost, particularly with the native prairie in the Upper Midwest. But a broad coalition of baking, poultry, snack food, ethanol and livestock groups say bigger harvests are a more important priority than habitats for waterfowl and other wildlife. They want the government to ease restrictions on the preserved land, which would encourage many more farmers to think beyond conservation. . . .

Last fall, when five million acres in Conservation Reserve came up for renewal, only half of them were re-entered. While the program has gained some high-priority land in the last few months, in part from an initiative to restore bobwhite quail habitats, the net loss is still more than two million acres.

That is just the beginning, warns Ducks Unlimited, a politically potent organization with more than half a million members in the United States. Ducks Unlimited is concerned about the three-quarters of a million acres of grassland that were removed from the program last year in the so-called duck factory in the Upper Midwest.

"We foresee a dramatic reduction," said Mr. Ringelman, a conservation director for the association.

Incentive programs to encourage for voluntary conservation on private land have been a bargain, particularly when compared to various regulatory and non-regulatory alternatives. (A point I discuss in the latter sections of this paper.) It doesn't take much to convince many landowners to make small alterations in their land practices for the benefit of wildlife. Yet with the ethanol driven rise in commodity prices, many farmers now find that the opportunity costs of dong the green thing are too high. So they put more of their land under plow, and wildlife suffers as a result.

ruralcounsel (mail) (www):
So is anyone really surprised that the "law of unintended consequences" holds true for even an environmental issue as simple and straightforward as this one?

Just another factoid to support the contention that legislators and perhaps the general populace don't understand the concepts of renewable or sustainable. It's a fascinating exercise in watching a train wreck in slow motion.

DU should have been getting contractual committments from property owners, or becoming a bigger property owner themselves, if they wanted to guarantee habitat. There has to be a quid pro quo ... these lands aren't owned for charitable purposes! Perhaps we've all been "free riders"?
4.11.2008 10:28am
Jay D:
Hooray!

High prices means there is demand out there for more product than is being produced. These farmers are apparently going to produce more produce. My grocery bill goes down.

I would rather the government never subsidized ethanol, but they did, and I am glad to hear farmers are producing more to smooth over the unintended consequences of bad policy.

I'm sorry about the wildlife, but it is not my fault or the farmer's fault. It is government regulator's fault.
4.11.2008 10:40am
anonthu:
Jay D.,

hear hear. Price of corn goes up. In response, farmers plant more corn. People complain about the price of corn, and in the same breath complain about farmers responding to that demand.

As an aside, I should note that most wildlife does quite well in fields of corn.
4.11.2008 10:59am
Grain guy:
Never thought I'd see the day when VC would post a story supporting the government paying farmers not to work. The CRP program long ago stopped being about protecting the environmentally sensitive lands and highly erodible soil.

The fact is that 15 year idling of land is not even good for wildlife. Rotating land in and out of production is better. Most hunters will tell you that CRP land after several years is not very good hunting land unless it is next to crop land. (I guess wildlife has to eat as well.)

The real crime of the CRP changes is USDA's recent decision to NOT allow farmers to voluntarily leave the program without penalty. They have the authority to allow it, but chose to continue distorting the market.

CRP should be refocused to environmentally sensitive land. In some states, cropland that has an irrigation pivot will have the corners in CRP. The next field will have the corners of the field in dryland crops. Why are we paying tax dollars to farmers not to produce crops on good cropland?

Of course, it is easy to blame the high prices solely on ethanol. But worldwide bad weather reducing supply and international dietary changes increasing demand in places like China and India have had a major contributory impact on prices.

In addition, your grocery bill is much more directly impacted by fuel prices than commodity prices. Ethanol, according to the Wall Street Journal, has reduced gasoline prices 15%.

Sure wouldn't want any facts or market forces to get in the way of a good anti-ethanol rant. What happened to all of the libertarians?
4.11.2008 11:10am
CDU (mail) (www):
ruralcounsel wrote:
DU should have been getting contractual committments from property owners


If you'd read the Times article, you'd know that the Conservation Reserve Program does get ten year contractual commitments. The farmers are pulling their land out of the program as these come up for renewal.
4.11.2008 11:14am
rarango (mail):
Faming practices have had a major impact on game bird populations--especially the increasing use of circle irrigation--I was fortunate enough to be able to hunt pheasants in the swales of nearly every section in the 1960s. Alas.
4.11.2008 11:17am
D.A.:
Big surprise.
Most suburbanites find that the opportunity cost of NOT being seen in a gargantuan SUV is also too high, so they drive the big gas hogs around constantly. Same difference.
4.11.2008 11:21am
ruralcounsel (mail) (www):
CDU wrote:
ruralcounsel wrote:
DU should have been getting contractual committments from property owners


If you'd read the Times article, you'd know that the Conservation Reserve Program does get ten year contractual commitments. The farmers are pulling their land out of the program as these come up for renewal.

Not sure what you're trying to say here ... I clearly was writing about Ducks Unlimiteds' concern about habitat loss, not CRP. Apples and Oranges.
4.11.2008 12:34pm
Erick:

Ethanol, according to the Wall Street Journal, has reduced gasoline prices 15%.

Are you going to bother supplying a source for this?
4.11.2008 12:40pm
EKGlen (mail):

As an aside, I should note that most wildlife does quite well in fields of corn.


If you had every spent any time at all on a farm, you'd know that is not so.

If you want to step into reality, you can go over to the Ducks Unlimited website and read about how ducks need very specific habitat to reproduce - and cornfields aren't it.
4.11.2008 1:33pm
anonthu:
If you had every spent any time at all on a farm, you'd know that is not so.

If you want to step into reality, you can go over to the Ducks Unlimited website...
???

If I want to step into a reality, I'll visit the farm I worked at growing up (and continue to hunt on). True, ducks don't do well in a cornfield. But there are always plenty of ducks in ponds or stock dams adjacent to (or within) cornfields. I always come across lots of pheasants in cornfields (you see tons of them flushed out during harvest), as well as deer, doves (who prefer sunflower fields over corn fields), rabbits, etc. I've never seen quail in corn, but I don't see much of those to begin with...
4.11.2008 1:58pm
Curt Fischer:


Ethanol, according to the Wall Street Journal, has reduced gasoline prices 15%.


Are you going to bother supplying a source for this?


Wouldn't the source be the, um, Wall Street Journal?
4.11.2008 2:00pm
cathyf:
You missed another one... The greenies' war on GMO crops has a huge environmental impact. The no-pesticide-non-GMO crops which the luddites insist on feeding their children are unsafe to feed to livestock in large amounts, so there are added costs to keeping the gmo and non-gmo outputs segregated.

Take corn. The only ways to protect the crop from corn borers is either to use strains that are resistant (i.e. StarLink), or to spray with pesticides. Spraying with pesticides costs money (forcing the farmer, and his land, to work harder -- no more easements), pollutes the environment with runoff, and costs extra energy in the diesal fuel that's needed to drive the pesticide sprayer trucks through the field. Leaving the field "organic" is a crap shoot -- a touch of the wrong weather at the wrong time and your corn is eaten up by corn borers, which devastates your yields. In other words, it doesn't just take 3, 4, 5 times as much land but also even bigger multiples of diesel fuel, seed, fertilizer, wear and tear on equipment, etc., to produce the same sized crop in luddite corn as in StarLink corn.

And then you have to be careful to either keep the luddite corn completely segregated for consumption by the birkenstock set because they will sue you otherwise, or you have to be very careful to completely and evenly mix it with GMO corn because it's not safe for livestock to eat large amounts of it. (Corn-borer-infested corn gets infected with a follow-on fungus which produces mycotoxins. These mycotoxins cause diseases such as wasting and pulmonary edema when consumed in large quantities, and we are talking about livestock that doesn't get a varied diet. If a single truckload of heavily-borer-infested organic corn ends up as the sole diet of a herd of cattle, or a farmer's small number of horses, all of the animals will be sickly or dead by the time they get to the end of the truckload.)
4.11.2008 2:05pm
ChrisIowa (mail):
Fancy that landowners actually try to maximize the income from their land? Who would have guessed?

The most noticeable change I see as I drive across Iowa, as I did this morning, are the number of clean up jobs being done. Fence rows being pulled out and drainage ways being cleaned up. I do not think I would notice CRP acres being converted, but Department of Agriculture can keep track of that.

Fence rows provide some minimal amount of cover for wild life as do the weed grown ditches. Some of the ditches are being cleaned out, and the ground plowed to the bottom of the ditch.

The drainageways I see cleaned up are actually small erosion gullies that have been there so long they have trees growing beside them that are now being removed. The gullies are being filled in. It appears that the new drainageways are being shaped to SCS design cross sections. If so, there will be a reduction of soil erosion from the previous gullied state; especially if the new waterways are planted to grass, but I won't be able to see that until planting. The amount of cropland planted to row crops in most of these gully revision projects will probably be reduced, but the grassed waterway can grow hay and makes working the corn ground easier. Though one type of habitat is reduced, a different type of habitat replaces it.

I think these are projects the farmers would have liked to do long ago but didn't have the funds until there was $5.00 corn.
4.11.2008 3:16pm
astrangerwithcandy (mail):
Curt Fischer -

you are aware that the WSJ is a large newspaper with quite a history....saying "see wall street journal" doesn't really help all that much.

———



"If you want to step into reality, you can go over to the Ducks Unlimited website... ???"

ok, real quick

duck = animal

bird, duck, raccoon, deer, mice, rats, squirrels, etc = animals

so saying animals thrive even if ducks don't, doesn't make the statement incorrect. i grew up on a farm...animals as well as insects and other forms of biodiversity do just fine in fields of corn, soybeans and anything else - notwithstanding your animal protection website's self-serving claims to the contrary.
4.11.2008 4:14pm
EKGlen (mail):

notwithstanding your animal protection website's self-serving claims to the contrary.

Tee hee hee - calling Ducks Unlimited an "animal protection website"
4.11.2008 4:48pm
markm (mail):
Sure, they want to protect ducks from starving to death due to habitat loss and overpopulation. They also protect them from slow lingering death by old age. ;-)
4.11.2008 7:13pm
Tony Tutins (mail):
Ducks Unlimited: better habitats, more ducks, more hunting. But the best setup in Iowa is to alternate CRP land with cornfields -- the (upland game) birds feed during the day and go to the CRP land at night.
4.12.2008 1:15am
TokyoTom (mail):
Jon, the I-told-you-so about biofuels, while correct, is really just scratching the surface here. Why not discuss the CRP itself?

The NYT makes it clear the politicized rent-seeking that results from governmental interference is at the crux of this issue:
Groups like Ducks Unlimited and Pheasants Forever want the government to raise rental rates to keep the same amount of land in the program or even increase it. While offering more money to farmers might be a difficult sell in a year of record farm profits, Jim Ringelman of Ducks Unlimited said, "There are overriding environmental issues here."

The bakers and their allies have a different set of overriding issues: high commodity prices. The rising cost of feed is hurting ranchers, the rising cost of corn is hurting ethanol producers and the rising cost of wheat is hurting bread makers.


If, as you say, "it doesn't take much to convince many landowners to make small alterations in their land practices for the benefit of wildlife," then why are you focussing on biofuels subsidies instead of seeing this as an opportunity to argue that now is a good time for hunters to start using their own dollars to express their preferences, rather than asking that the government take more from taxpayers?
4.12.2008 3:29am
Steve2:
I still, still don't understand what the "why" for ethanol is. I've seen plenty about "why not", but I still haven't ever gotten a good explanation for what the benefit is beyond "grow what you burn instead of drill for what you burn".
4.12.2008 12:46pm
TJIT (mail):
Ducks unlimited wants us to pay for their recreational pursuits. That is a pukeworthy bit of rent seeking.
4.12.2008 1:59pm
TJIT (mail):
Simple concept don't reward bad environmental behavior if you don't want more of it.

Plowing out fragile grassland is the most environmentally destructive agricultural practice there is, it should not be subsidized or rewarded

Naturally, the government would screw up this relatively simple concept and set up a program (CRP) that would provide the greatest financial reward to those who operated in the most environmentally destructive manner possible.

You had to destroy fragile grassland to even qualify to participate in the program. If you were a rancher that had actually preserved grassland no money for you.

The CRP program did provide lots of money to farmers who compete against ranchers for use of the limited amount of property available.

Some farmers enrolled their existing farmground in the CRP and then turned around and bought more grassland to plow up and convert to farming.

That does not even begin to go into the massive economic and social disruption CRP caused in rural areas. It effectively drove a generation of young farmers out of agriculture because they could not compete against the deep pockets of the US taxpayer when it came to renting land.

Complete and utter charlie foxtrot it was.
4.12.2008 2:18pm
Mark in Texas (mail):
Steve2:I still, still don't understand what the "why" for ethanol is. I've seen plenty about "why not", but I still haven't ever gotten a good explanation for what the benefit is beyond "grow what you burn instead of drill for what you burn".

There are a number of "whys". At the top of the list is $100 a barrel oil. The wholesale price for unleaded regular is higher than the wholesale price of ethanol. At gasoline terminals, they can splash mix up to 10% lower price ethanol with higher priced gasoline and sell it to you. Most of the time, you won't notice any difference either in performance or mileage. The ethanol does raise the octane and decrease the amount of carbon monoxide in the exhaust but the driver usually does not see any benefit from either effect from either since modern engines are designed to run on low octane gasoline.

If a gas station puts in an E85 pump which costs several thousand dollars, they can sell a fuel mixture that is 85% ethanol and 15% gasoline. It is unwise to use this in any vehicle that has not been set up as a Flex-fuel vehicle capable of automatically adjusting the engine to use any percentage of ethanol in the fuel from 0% to 85%. There is a kind of chicken and egg problem in that there are not enough Flex-fuel vehicles to justify putting in more E85 pumps and not enough E85 pumps to justify buying more Flex-fuel vehicles. It is only mixtures of 10% or more ethanol that get the federal government tax credit of $0.51 per gallon so E85 gets a tax break of 43 cents per gallon and E10 gets a tax break of a nickel a gallon. Mixtures of less than 10% get no tax break but the terminal operator gets to use a cheaper product in his mix.

The reasons to use ethanol are that it is cheaper than gasoline, we make it here in the United States and in countries that do not subsidize jihadis who want to kill my children, it raises the octane rating of the fuel, it makes the exhaust cleaner.

I'll leave it to the usual suspects to drag out David Pimentel's discredited old recycled study and oil industry talking points to argue against ethanol.
4.13.2008 5:41pm
TJIT (mail):
Mark in Texas,

There are three types of people who continue to support ethanol.

1. Those who make money off of it

2. Those who have not been exposed to the facts about it.

3. Those who choose to ignore the abundant information showing that ethanol is an environmental, social, and energetic disaster.

Here is a good roundup explaining why the current drive to use ethanol is a complete disaster.

Unintended Consequences The Politics of Biofuels

Thus, at best the critics suggested that the impact of biofuels policies would increase food prices. Worse, biofuel mandates may be mandates for starving the poor.
The fact that the rent seeking forces that have driven ethanol policy in the US may actually be killing people is just stunning when you think about it.
4.13.2008 10:59pm
TJIT (mail):
Mark in Texas,

Key point from the article above that ethanol boosters should pay attention to.

The consequences from these biofuel policies was foreseen by a number of scientists. However, their criticisms were often shouted down, and their motives were questioned by some proponents.

In the U.S., proponents cast the ethanol debate in terms of national security, energy independence, and the benefits to farming communities. Opponents were cast as being anti-farmer and un-American.

Our political leaders need to carefully consider not only the arguments of proponents, but they also need to give the critics a fair hearing.

Had this been done, we may have been able to focus our attention on renewable options that do not compete with our food supply.
4.13.2008 11:03pm