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Corn ethanol, how it harms the climate and destroys the American Great Plains

While still endorsed by the US government, scientists blame corn ethanol for higher food prices, increased CO2 emissions and deterioration of the Great Plains.

Ethanol, the biofuel made from corn and other plant materials, was once acclaimed as the solution to the United States’ dependence on foreign oil. Yet growing evidence, including a recent study from the University of Michigan, shows how the fuel is not reducing CO2 emissions as previously thought, but is instead contributing to the environmental demise of the American Great Plains, a region in the country’s Midwest, as well as its waterways and estuaries, polluted by the chemical fertilisers and pesticides used for corn production.

From pristine grassland to the Corn Belt

The mesmerising beauty and abundance of life of the American Great Plains appeared as heaven on Earth to famed 19th century explorers Lewis and Clark. With such rich and fertile soil, the area turned into profitable agricultural land by the late 1800s. Because of the predominance of corn monocultures, a large portion of the Great Plains is also known as the Corn Belt.

Years of abuse, which stripped the soil of its rich components, followed by a severe drought, led to the infamous Dust Bowl disaster of the 1930s, when strong winds picked up the lifeless topsoil causing dust storms that choked cattle and pasture lands. The soil depletion in the area continues to this day, exacerbated by the US government’s increased demand for corn ethanol.

prairie preserve
A vision of untouched nature at Nature Conservancy’s Tallgrass Prairie Preserve in Oklahoma, US © Wolfgang Kaehler/ LightRocket via Getty Images

The Renewable Fuel Standard

In an effort to reduce both CO2 emissions and America’s dependence on foreign oil, the US Congress passed the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) programme in 2005. Also known as the Ethanol Mandate, the programme requires blending up to 10 per cent of biofuel, namely ethanol, into the nation’s petrol supply. While the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has the authority to adjust the demand on biofuel production, farmers are growing more corn than necessary, with production estimated to be 14.5 billion bushels in 2016, the largest ever. The mandate has encouraged the destruction of untouched prairie grasslands, with the acreage used for corn production rising more than 15 per cent since going into effect.

More drawbacks than benefits

Although ethanol has the potential to be a cleaner energy source than petroleum based fuels, several scientists are warning against it. According to a 2014 report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, while the use of ethanol in vehicles may result in reduced CO2 emissions, the land used for corn production leads to greater total emissions than using petroleum fuel. In addition, food crops should only be used to feed humans and livestock, not for creating fuel. Since the introduction of the Ethanol Mandate, spikes in fuel demand have often resulted in higher corn prices, affecting consumers, the food industry and livestock farmers.

An environmental disaster

While in 2000 less than 5 per cent of the US corn crop was destined to the biofuel industry, that number reached over 40 per cent in 2013. Such a sharp increase was obtained through thoughtless deforestation and destruction of native grasslands. Growing corn requires large amounts of water, which is leading to the rapid depletion of groundwater. Corn is also hungry for nitrogen fertilisers, which leach into waterways and out to the Gulf of Mexico, causing death of sea life from oxygen depletion, creating one of the largest Dead Zones in the world.

The path to environmentally sound solutions

Research indicates that a more sustainable way to make ethanol is using fast growing grasses requiring less water and fertiliser, and even by fermenting trash into fuel, which reduces the demand for landfills, while cutting greenhouse gas emissions. Also promising is biodiesel created from algae. While progress is being made, these alternative fuels are not yet commercially available and still more expensive to produce than corn ethanol.

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