The daily news is never short of articles on biofuels these days, but these three caught my eye today.
The first concerns the release of some research results by soil scientist Jane Johnson of the Agricultural Research Service (ARS).
It’s an open secret that the dominant feedstock for cellulosic ethanol production as the technology takes off in the Midwest will likely be corn stover, and not switchgrass or prairie grasses. The implication of Johnson’s findings, however, is that farmers growing corn for ethanol production might be able to “sustainably” harvest only half as much cornstalk residue as previously expected:
If conservation of soil organic matter is taken into account, the US at best [sic] has to cut in half the amount of cornstalks that can be harvested to produce ethanol, according to an Agricultural Research Service (ARS) study.
Jane Johnson, a soil scientist with the ARS North Central Soil Conservation Research Laboratory in Morris, Minn., found that twice as many cornstalks have to be left in the field to maintain soil organic matter levels, compared to the amount of stalks needed only to prevent erosion.
This doesn’t mean harvesting cornstalks for cellulosic ethanol isn’t feasible — just that when you add soil organic matter concerns to erosion concerns, it slashes the amount of cornstalks available for conversion to ethanol. For example, 213-bushel-per-acre corn yields leave farmers an average four tons per acre of cornstalks after harvest. Farmers could then harvest about two tons of cornstalks per acre for conversion to ethanol — but only from land with low erosion risks, using little or no tillage.
If the same farmers rotate with soybeans as recommended, they can only remove half again as much biomass for ethanol production, or just one ton per acre, to compensate for the lower biomass left by soybeans.
But, of course, that’s the future.
Meanwhile, the demand for biofuels is having a knock-on effect on the demand for fertilizer, raising its price. According to The Jamaica Observer, the price of fertilizer n Jamaica has increased on average between 18 percent and 31 percent since December 2006. The country’s Ministry of Agriculture is therefore planning to meet soon with local agriculture commodity bodies to discuss the problem. Although the government has made no commitments yet, it is considering providing subsidies to reduce the impact on farmers of rising prices of fertilizer and animal feeds (which have also been affected by price increases).
In short: subsidies for biofuels are begetting subsidies to offset the effects of increasing the production of biofuels.
But it’s all for a good cause, right? Here’s part of a transcript of U.S. Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns’ remarks to the National Summit on Agricultural and Food Truck Transport for the Future yesterday in Arlington, Virginia:
This administration is making a big investment in opportunity for rural America. We expect ethanol production to reach over 11 billion gallons annually in the next few years. That’s almost double the current capacity.
For truckers, let me describe what this means to you. Very simply it means more business, pulling more renewable fuel feedstocks, ethanol, and its coproduct, distillers dried grain, or DDGs. It also means transporting or using significant amounts of biodiesel. Truckers are already pulling 25 percent of the ethanol that is moving around the United States while our rail carriers handle about 60 percent of that. [my emphasis]
Ain’t that great? More biofuel production means more road transport! Whoopee!