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In Response: Study, article misrepresented, did disservice to ethanol

Ashwin RamanI believe the March 21 story, “Habitat loss highest near ethanol plants,” did a disservice to readers because it cited a study that contains dubious and inaccurate conclusions.

The study focuses on the period of 2008 to 2012 and indicates that as ethanol production increases, more grassland will be converted to cropland to accommodate the increase in corn needed for ethanol production.

The facts, however, paint a different picture. According to the USDA, planted acres for corn actually have been decreasing since 2008 from 93.6 million acres to 88 million acres in 2016. The acres harvested for corn similarly have been decreasing. In 2008, it was 86.1 million acres. In 2016, it was 80.8 million acres.

Meanwhile, while the national acreage has been decreasing, ethanol production has been on the rise. In 2008, the United States produced 9.3 billion gallons of ethanol. Last year, production was 15.3 billion gallons. Corn yields per acre have been increasing. In 2008, it was 153 bushels per acre. Last year, it was 168.4 bushels per acre.

Clearly, the idea that more grassland will be converted to cropland due to a rise in ethanol production is a dubious one.

And that’s because corn used for ethanol represents a quarter of the total supply of corn in the United States. In 2016, 5.22 billion bushels of corn out of 15.4 billion bushels were used for ethanol production. That’s 33.8 percent of the total supply.

Since 18 pounds of every bushel used for ethanol is returned as dried distillers grain (which is a high-protein animal feed), only 68 percent of a bushel of corn is actually converted into ethanol. As such, the actual amount of corn used in 2016 was 23 percent of the total corn supply.

In 2017, the USDA expects the area planted for corn to increase to 94 million acres while the area harvested to increase to 86.7 million acres. But again, this increase has little to do with demand from the ethanol industry, as the USDA estimates the corn used for ethanol will be 5.53 billion bushels.

But the total supply is expected to be 16.94 billion bushels, meaning the percentage used for ethanol this year will be 22 percent.

The omission of such vital data from the study raises many questions. Was it a mere coincidence that two of the study’s authors wrote a similar study in 2015 that also painted ethanol in a bad light? The 2015 study was refuted by scientists from the Argonne National Laboratory, the University of Illinois, and the Oak Ridge National Laboratory. They questioned the use of the the USDA’s Cropland Data Layer (CDL) and the National Land Cover Dataset (NLDC). In particular, they said the study cited CDL and NLDC data that had low accuracy levels. That same CDL and NLDC data made it into the current study.

Ethanol is a locally produced renewable energy that has reduced and continues to reduce harmful greenhouse gas emissions, strengthens our economy, reduces prices at the pump, and has made America more energy independent.

Ashwin Raman is the communications and education coordinator for the Minneapolis-based Minnesota Bio-Fuels Association (mnbiofuels.org).

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