by Chuck Hassebrook, email@example.com
President Bush’s proposal to increase research on ethanol production from cellulose – switch grass, crop residues, etc. – holds promise. But it must be accompanied by appropriate conservation policies to protect the land.
The president proposes a two-thirds increase in federal research on cellulose-based ethanol production to $150 million annually. With the right break-through, an acre of switch grass could produce three times as much ethanol as corn. And it offers real potential for rural development.
Switch grass and crop residue are expensive to ship, so processing plants would have to be decentralized in many communities across the country. Cellulose-based ethanol production also has the environmental benefit of offering an income-earning conserving use for highly erodible land. And mixed grass plantings for ethanol production could benefit wildlife.
But cellulose-based ethanol production also presents some threats to natural resources if not accompanied by appropriate conservation policies. Removing crop residues could increase erosion and almost certainly reduce soil organic matter. Soil organic matter is essential in drought tolerance and reducing erosion because it increases the soil’s water holding capacity.
Furthermore, we should be increasing soil organic matter to combat the build-up of atmospheric carbon dioxide that is contributing to climate change and unstable weather. Soil is the earth’s biggest carbon sink.
Finally, we must protect wildlife habitat and natural space. If all wild land is harvested, we’ll lose opportunities to enjoy the rural environment. That would undermine rural community development because access to uncrowded natural space is one of the amenities we have to draw young families.
Conservation policies to prevent the use of every stalk and acre for ethanol production would also benefit farmers. If everything is harvested, the price will be driven down to dismally low levels.
The president’s initiative is positive and promising, but it must be accompanied by conservation policies to prevent potential pitfalls.
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Center for Rural Affairs
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