The trade organization that represents biotechnology companies, including those that develop and market biofuels, came out with a study this week (March 26) claiming that lowering the amount of corn ethanol blended into gasoline will increase greenhouse gas emissions.
There’s one small problem with the research sponsored by Biotechnology Industry Organization, known as BIO: it assumes that corn has magical properties.
From introductory economics, we know that if demand for something goes up, supply will try to catch up. Since 2007, the federal law that mandates blending up to 15 billion gallons of corn ethanol a year into the gasoline supply has been driving up the demand for corn. This mandate was implemented with the hopes that switching corn ethanol for gasoline could decrease greenhouse gas emissions. But this assumption has been proven false. The fact is, depending on how we meet demands for the feed stock, corn ethanol can dramatically increase greenhouse gas emissions. Cutting down forests and plowing up grasslands to produce more corn dramatically increase carbon emissions, because the carbon stored in the trees and soil are released into the atmosphere.
BIO’s study assumes that the amount of corn farmers grow responds immediately to price. In BIO’s magical world, if the price of corn jumps between March and September, the corn harvest will surge. This assumption that corn can magically sense the market allows BIO to claim that meeting the demand for corn will require very little conversion of forests for corn production.
That’s a bit like wishing that money grew on trees.
Not only is BIO’s wishful thinking unrealistic, it’s not based on any evidence. If BIO’s magical world were real, there wouldn’t be places in the United States and China where corn yields are stagnating.
BIO’s study also imagines an imaginary world of forests that never get cut down. It asks us to assume that less than a quarter of new farmland around the world will be created by clearing forests. In particular, BIO asks us to assume that if a forest isn’t managed, no one with cut it down.
Most of the tropical rainforests in South America are unmanaged, and much of deforestation that has occurred in the Amazon rainforest has been for agriculture. In fact, converting forest to crop production was the biggest source of new agricultural land in the 1980’s and 1990’s. Deforestation and land conversion release over a billion tons of carbon stored in the soil into the atmosphere each year.
EPA estimates that emissions from land use change are three times greater than BIO’s estimate – and EPA’s estimate is on the low end of the many published estimates. Some studies estimate land use change emissions may be more than ten times greater than BIO’s estimate.
Magical corn? Imaginary forests? Maybe BIO needs a reality check.
Source: Environmental Working Group, press release, 2014-03-28.
Author: Emily Cassidy (Biofuels Research Analyst)