Fill ‘er up

Campo de ma�<p><p><p><p>z del sur de Ohio. Foto tomada de '''flickr'''. * Created by: [ graylight] * URL: [ Flickr] {{cc-by-2.0}} [[Category:Geography of Ohio]

Conjure up an image of a well-worn brick red pickup truck, passing through acres and acres of gently swaying corn stalks reaching up to meet the vast, azure skies. Go on … We’ve all seen that image somewhere. Now imagine the truck moves through the very field that will provide it with fuel in the following year, just as it once provided fuel for the driver the year before. The transition seems natural — at first.

We are a corn guzzling nation. Our farmland is packed with the high yield, heavily subsidized stuff, and you would be hard-pressed to find much in any supermarket that is made without a single corn product. So when we finally moved to look into biofuels as a way to try and free ourselves from our dependence on oil, of course we turned to corn. It’s good enough for us — it should be good enough for our cars. Right?

There’s a little problem with our logic. Corn production — as practiced throughout much of the United States — isn’t exactly carbon neutral. I won’t go into the details here — The Omnivore’s Dilemma, by Michael Pollan, tells the story much better than I ever could. But as Elisabeth Rosenthal reported in today’s NY Times, two studies in Science (see here, and here) revealed that switching to corn-derived biofuel (among other crop-derived ethanol sources) is not going to help us reduce our carbon debt one bit.The reason is simple: to meet the increasing demand for corn, soybeans, and other high-yield crops, we clear more pasture to plant more crops, to fuel our ever-moving, automobile-dependent nation — both in the supermarket and at the gas station. When we clear more land, we cut down trees, or clear out grasses, which have sequestered a significant amount of the CO2 we put in the air in the first place. Those trees then release all that CO2 upon death.

None of this is new news. For years, many have argued that the potential environmental benefit of corn- and soybean-derived ethanol is negligible, at best. As it turns out, we’re worse off switching to corn than we were before. So what, you may be asking now, are we to do?Well, the studies leave us with two promising alternatives: 1) derive biofuel from prairie grass on abandoned agricultural land covered with perennials, and 2) figure out a way to efficiently make biofuel from waste scraps. The second option is by far the better one. We have a long way to go before we can convert waste into biofuel efficiently, but we will get there with enough money and dedication. The first option is limited to land that has already been set aside for pasture, and is therefore quite limited in scope, but shouldn’t be discarded entirely. This would make use of land farmers have been paid to set aside and cover with perennial grasses, which help build up the topsoil on land that has been depleted by heavy agricultural use over time. As I learned last week, in a Sustainable Farming class, some grasses actually have to be cut or grazed periodically in order for them to effectively reverse topsoil erosion.

All of this depends on a solution that doesn’t yet exist, sought after (for most of us) by somebody else, stuck in a remote lab somewhere. I’m pretty impatient, though. I want to do something now, something that might start to lessen the enormity of the problem. So I’m making it a goal to bike or walk, rather than drive, for local trips. Oh, and I’ll tell New Haven to fix a few of its pot holes while I’m at it.

If you want to lug your own bike out of the basement, check out the Elm City Cycling page for new riders. If you think I’m a crazy environmentalist, well, maybe you’re right, but Oh, and stay tuned for tomorrow’s post on some awesome spiced raisin bread (the first of what I hope will become a weekly feature).

Photo from: Campo de maíz del sur de Ohio. Foto tomada de ”’flickr”’. * Created by: [ graylight] * URL: [ Flickr] {{cc-by-2.0}} [[Category:Geography of Ohio]


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