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Push for Ethanol Production Carries Costs to Land

For related articles and more information, please visit OCA's Environment and Climate Resource Center page and our Iowa News page.

CORYDON, IA. - The hills of southern Iowa bear the scars of America's push for green energy: The brown gashes where rain has washed away the soil. The polluted streams that dump fertilizer into the water supply.

Even the cemetery that disappeared like an apparition into a cornfield.

It wasn't supposed to be this way. The ethanol era has proven far more damaging to the environment than politicians promised and much worse than the government admits today.

As farmers rushed to find new places to plant corn, they wiped out millions of acres of conservation land, destroyed habitat and polluted water supplies, an Associated Press investigation found.

Five million acres of land set aside for conservation - more than Yellowstone, Everglades and Yosemite national parks combined - have vanished on President Barack Obama's watch.

The ethanol industry has disputed many parts of this story, noting that the decrease in Conservation Reserve Program acreage came in part because of the 2008 farm bill. In addition, farmers increased corn acreage in 2012 and 2013 in response to drought-ravaged corn supplies, not because of ethanol, the industry said.

The corn boom resulted in sprayers pumping out billions of pounds of fertilizer, some of which seeped into drinking water, contaminated rivers and worsened the huge dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico where marine life can't survive.

Environmentalists and many scientists have now rejected corn-based ethanol as bad environmental policy. But the Obama administration stands by it, highlighting its economic benefits to the farming industry.

Farmers planted 15 million more acres of corn last year than before the ethanol boom, and the effects are visible in places like south-central Iowa.

The hilly, once-grassy landscape is made up of fragile soil that, unlike the earth in the rest of the state, is poorly suited for corn. Nevertheless, it has yielded to America's demand.

"They're raping the land," said Bill Alley, a member of the Board of Supervisors in Wayne County, which now bears little resemblance to the rolling cow pastures shown in postcards sold at a Corydon pharmacy.   


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