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Published November 14 2013

Forum editorial: A mixed perception of ethanol

Depending on one’s point of view, the Associated Press ethanol/corn article featured on Page 1 of Wednesday’s Forum is either an incomplete hatchet job or a long-needed exposé. In truth, it’s a little of both.

The ethanol industry, centered mostly in Midwest corn-growing states, has been a flashpoint of controversy from its beginnings. Seen initially as an alternative to gasoline and thus imported oil, ethanol also was touted as a cleaner-burning motor fuel. That two-pronged campaign – lowering oil imports and less air pollution – was an easy sell.

But then came the corn debate – the question of whether it was right to divert a basic component of food to the manufacture of fuel. That issue, too, had appeal to ethanol critics, but it was phony. There has never been a shortage of corn for food because of corn for ethanol. As they always do, farmers read the market and stepped up production to record levels in order to meet demand for corn for all its uses. The ethanol industry grew, but so did global demand for U.S. corn for food and livestock feed. Prices rose and farmers responded by producing even more.

And therein were sown the seeds for an element in the national debate that the ethanol industry and corn growers cannot cavalierly dismiss: the unprecedented conversion of millions of acres of conservation reserves, pastures and even marginal lands into horizon-to-horizon corn fields. Driven by the hottest corn market in memory, the land conversion race included accelerated ditching and draining of sloughs and potholes, and wholesale bulldozing of mature-tree shelterbelts and tree claims.

Corn prices have since cooled, but U.S. farmers will harvest one of the largest corn crops on record this year, said USDA – more than enough for corn flakes and corn fuel.

So, for all the criticism of the AP’s ethanol investigative report, the focus on the loss of wildlife habitat and conservation lands to corn acres will resonate across the nation more than any other rap on the industry. The facts of that phenomenon are irrefutable. The sensibilities of much of the nation (even in farm states) tilt toward habitat protection and preservation. It is not a leap of faith to conclude that ag and ethanol policy, which is made on the national level, will eventually tilt the same way.

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Forum editorials represent the opinion of Forum management and the newspaper’s Editorial Board.