What Would You Do With 35 Million Acres?
Ethanol and the limits of land use
About 93 million acres of land in the United States was planted to corn in 2021. Roughly 40% of the corn crop goes to ethanol production – about 36 million acres. What if, instead of inefficiently converting corn into fuel, we simply did something else with all that land? Maybe it could be used to grow higher value perennial crops, or to raise giant herds of grass fed beef cattle. But why be so obvious? Maybe it could be converted into a national park eighteen times the size of Yellowstone, filled with buffalo, antelope, wolves, and maybe some lions and cheetahs while we’re at it.
This may sound crazy, but it is far, far more reasonable than what we’re doing at the moment. Many us who pay an unhealthy amount of attention to what’s going on in the world of agriculture have suspected that ethanol is on the balance a waste. Now a new study in Proceedings of the National Academy of Science has confirmed this suspicion. Replacing fossil fuels with ethanol actually results in higher carbon emissions than just using fossil fuels themselves.
Ethanol is a choice
For all the details of why ethanol is actively counterproductive, I recommend this article in Civil Eats. It’s definitely worth a few minutes of your time, since it not only summarizes the study but also gets into some of the implications. But I want to think about it differently. If we accept that ethanol is a bad idea, we can think about the daunting and exciting question of what else could happen to all that land.
Yes, there are a million reasons it would most likely stay in monoculture crops even without the price supports for ethanol. After all, the land is privately owned, either by individuals or (increasingly) by corporations, and few of these owners would opt to be the ones to stop planting corn simply because demand decreased. Our existing policy encourages massive over planting of corn for absolutely no good reason, and it’s been successful at getting more cheap corn grown. I’d like to think there’d be some way to slowly shift incentives towards other ends.
A more general problem
My old neighbors tell me that much of what’s now woods, particularly on hilltops, was farmed a century ago. Besides all the private land that has become forested as a result of declines in small dairy farms, the 1400 acre state forest up the hill from me used to be farmland. But this reforestation has been driven by economic realities. These same realities make it much harder to see how some of the most productive, machine-friendly farmland in the world could be put to any other use. Even if corn wasn’t as profitable, it would make sense to grow something on that land.
This is actually a problem faced by evangelists of plant-based meat. Their rosy projections of incredible carbon reductions usually rest on the idea that this would free up farm land to be planted into trees. This is absolutely backwards. Just as directly preserving the Amazon has a better chance of saving it than attempting a market-based shift reliant on individual people eating less meat, getting the farmland that currently goes to ethanol put to another use would require an active vision.
A more interesting future
So as unlikely – but not impossible! – as it may be, let us imagine putting a huge chunk of land currently growing corn to some other use. It could be used for solar panels, which would at least have the benefit of being a net environmental positive, but I would vote for establishing a huge swath of tallgrass prairie. This is the perennial grassland that used to cover basically the entire midwest up to the foot of the Rocky Mountains, a uniquely American ecosystem shaped by buffalo and fire that has virtually vanished in the past two centuries.
Also, I wasn’t kidding about the lions and cheetahs. Up until about 11,000 years ago lions quite similar to those found in Africa lived in North America, as did cheetahs. Introducing approximations from a continent away might sound ridiculous, but I firmly believe it would lead to a healthier ecosystem. Trying to rewild land without a robust predator population is, I believe, as cruel as factory farming. Read this story about a famous Dutch wilderness preserve to understand why.
A more pressing short term need
A surprisingly difficult question is how I would justify this use of the land. It wouldn’t be as economically productive as continued farming. It wouldn’t combat climate change as well as a field of solar panels. Mostly it would enrich biological diversity, which I view as a profound good in itself.
But for the moment, grim realities have superseded any pie-in-the-sky ideas dreamers like me might have. As much as I fervently hope for the war in Ukraine to end very soon, with a complete Russian retreat, that does not look likely. Meanwhile, Ukraine is one of the most productive agricultural countries in the world, and the growing season is rapidly approaching. The prospect of a diminished or entirely absent Ukrainian wheat crop is already roiling global grain markets.
I am not expert enough to know how feasible it would be, and I am very skeptical that anyone has the political will to make it happen, but shifting ground from ethanol corn to spring wheat strikes me as not just sensible but a profound moral good. Yes, this likely would mean marginally higher gas prices. But given the extent to which wheat is necessary to survival in many poorer countries, an out of control wheat market may well be a humanitarian disaster.
What clearly doesn’t make sense, in either the short or the long term, is to tie up land in the production of fuel with a higher carbon footprint than simply pumping oil out of the ground when there are so many better ways to use it.