Posts tagged carbon footprint

Study says better to leave land unfarmed than plow to grow corn for ethanol

This study, critiquing corn-for-ethanol’s carbon footprint, came to me today from Duke University Office of News & Communications in North Carolina. Perhaps some Iowans would like to weigh in on the topic.

DURHAM, N.C. —  To avoid creating greenhouse gases, it makes more sense using  today’s technology to leave land unfarmed in conservation reserves than to plow it up for corn to make biofuel, according to a comprehensive Duke University-led study.

“Converting set-asides to corn-ethanol production is an inefficient and expensive greenhouse gas mitigation policy that should not be encouraged until ethanol-production technologies improve,” the study’s authors reported in the March edition of the research journal Ecological Applications.

Nevertheless, farmers and producers are already receiving federal subsidies to grow more corn for ethanol under the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007.

“One of our take-home messages is that conservation programs are currently a cheaper and more efficient greenhouse gas policy for taxpayers than corn-ethanol production,” said biologist Robert Jackson, the Nicholas Professor of Global Environmental Change at Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment, who led the study.

Making ethanol from corn reduces atmospheric releases of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide because the CO2 emitted when the ethanol burns is “canceled out” by the carbon dioxide taken in by the next crop of growing plants, which use it in photosynthesis. That means equivalent amounts of carbon dioxide are removed from the atmosphere and “fixed” into plant tissues.

But the study notes that some CO2 not counterbalanced by plant carbon uptake gets released when corn is grown and processed for ethanol. Furthermore, ethanol contains only about 70 percent of gasoline’s energy.

“So we actually reduce greenhouse gas emissions only 20 percent when we substitute one liter of ethanol for one liter of gasoline,” said Gervasio Piñeiro, the study’s first author, who is a Buenos Aires, Argentina-based scientist and postdoctoral research associate in Jackson’s Duke laboratory.

Also, by the researchers’ accounting, the carbon benefits of using ethanol only begin to show up years after corn growing begins. “Depending on prior land use” they wrote in their report, “our analysis shows that carbon releases from the soil after planting corn for ethanol may in some cases completely offset carbon gains attributed to biofuel generation for at least 50 years.”

The report said that “cellulosic” species — such as switchgrass — are a better option for curbing emissions than corn because they don’t require annual replowing and planting. In contrast, a single planting of cellulosic species will continue growing and producing for years while trapping more carbon in the soil.

“Until cellulosic ethanol production is feasible, or corn-ethanol technology improves, corn-ethanol subsidies are a poor investment economically and environmentally,” Jackson added.

However, the report noted that a cost-effective technology to convert cellulosics to ethanol may be years away. So the Duke team contrasted today’s production practices for corn-based ethanol with what will be possible after the year 2023 for cellulosic-based ethanol.

By analyzing 142 different soil studies, the researchers found that conventional corn farming can remove 30 to 50 percent of the carbon stored in the soil.  In contrast, cellulosic ethanol production entails mowing plants as they grow — often on land that is already in conservation reserve. That, their analysis found, can ultimately increase soil carbon levels between 30 to 50 percent instead of reducing them.

“It’s like hay baling,” Piñeiro said. “You plant it once and it stays there for 20 years. And it takes much less energy and carbon dioxide emissions to produce that than to produce corn.”

As part of its analysis, the Duke team calculated how corn-for-ethanol and cellulosic-for-ethanol production — both now and in the future — would compare with agricultural set-asides. Those comparisons were expressed in economic terms with a standard financial accounting tool called “net present value.”

For now, setting aside acreage and letting it return to native vegetation was rated the best way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, outweighing the results of corn-ethanol production over the first 48 years. However, “once commercially available, cellulosic ethanol produced in set-aside grasslands should provide the most efficient tool for greenhouse gas reduction of any scenario we examined,” the report added.

The worst strategy for reducing carbon dioxide emissions is to plant corn-for-ethanol on land that was previously designated as set aside — a practice included in current federal efforts to ramp up biofuel production, the study found. “You will lose a lot of soil carbon, which will escape into the atmosphere as CO2,” said Piñeiro.

The research was funded by the National Science Foundation, the Center for Global Change at Duke University and by the Agencia Nacional de Promoción Científica y Tecnologíca of Argentina.
Other researchers in the study included Brian Murray, the director for economic analysis at Duke’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions and a Nicholas School research professor; Justin Baker, a researcher with Murray and Jackson; and Esteban Jobbagy, a professor at the University of San Luis in Argentina who received his Ph.D. at Duke.



Comments (2) »

Earth Expo music fest

This message is from S.E.E.D.:

Dear Friends;


We invite you to an earth friendly, family friendly event.   Can you think of a better way to spend a balmy Iowa Summer Saturday than exploring the issues of sustainable living in the lush, green and fertile Iowa countryside?   All this, and great Iowa musicians all day long!


The Monthly Meeting for Sustainable Ecological Economic Development (S.E.E.D.) will take place at 2 pm Saturday June 7 on the grounds of the EARTH EXPO north of Iowa City.  The SEED monthly meeting will take place at the SEED Exhibit at EARTH EXPO.



What: Earth Expo 2008…”bringing it all back home”… with the Exodus Music Festival
When: Saturday, June 7, 2008 12:00pm-till the music ends.
Where: Meggar’s Farm
Who: for anyone interested in living green, music and wants to camp. Attendees of this event are invited to camp at the Meggar’s farm


For driving directions to Meggar’s Farm, click on MAP link below;

The primary goals for this year’s event are:



  • To continue to promote local businesses and organizations which contribute to our goal of greener lifestyle.
  • To educate and excite the community about living a “greener” lifestyle and lessoning the carbon footprint
  • To build a strong future by making environmentalism a fun and valued part of people’s lives.


: $12.00 provides you with admission to Earth Expo and the Exodus Music Festival.
Please note that these costs help us keep these events alive. We appreciate your support.Earth Expo will feature…Speakers: Fred Meyer and Sheila Sameulson
                Poetic Rebound Performance Company 
                Allie Dane Petting Zoo and Dane’s Dairy Ice Cream
                Local organizations and businesses will share their work through green exhibit



The Music FESTIVAL will start at noon and go until it ends;

Here is the talent lineup;

School of Flyentology
BF Burt
Nikki Lunden
Miracles of god
12 Canons
Bomb Selleck
Eben Louis
Public Property

                                                       S.E.E.D.  MISSION STATEMENT


Sustainable Ecological Economic Development S.E.E.D. is an Iowa not for profit research and educational organization.


The Mission of Sustainable Ecological Economic Development (S.E.E.D.) is to organize into joint action the diverse community organizations and individuals that are working on various issues and initiatives that relate to a sustainable economy:


1. re-localization of food supply within sustainable agricultural systems

2. initiatives for community based renewable energy

3. design and implement energy conservation systems in the private/public built environment and in public infrastructure.


The purpose of S.E.E.D. is to carry out open public conferences and other educational and research efforts to organize policy makers, educators and the general citizenry of Iowa to organize a “whole systems” approach to building a sustainable society based on ecological economic principles.”


S.E.E.D. is an open system.  We invite individuals and organizational allies to join into this timely effort. It is only through active coalition building with other individuals and organizations that we can build the critical mass for a cultural shift into a sustainable society based on ecological principles.


We set 4 simple yet clear standards for participation and co-sponsorship of S.E.E.D. work;


1. We are non-partisan.  We find common ground for action, not political division.

2. We will not state a problem if we do not have the courage to engage in the work to find a solution.

3. We engage in this group process with mutual honor and respect, utilizing the communication tools.

    of creative conflict resolution and consensus decision making.

4. With the foundation of S.E.E.D, we are engaging our part in an historic global cultural shift to build a just and sustainable society. We have an absolute commitment that this process of deep systemic change will be conducted with the principles of non-violence that have been well defined by seminal global leaders such as Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King.


Any individual or organization that is ready to build a working coalition with S.E.E.D. by utilizing the four principles of action listed above is invited to work with us to build a world wide society where the entire human race will thrive and prosper as we care for the environment that provides our common life support system.    SEED demonstrates how social action is accomplished by getting past the limitations of organizational territoriality that tends to limit the effectiveness of many human organizations. We’ll get much more accomplished by working together.


S.E.E.D. Iowa Office

Cedar Rapids Peace Center

1029 Third Street S.E.

Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401     Phone; 319-213-2051


Comments (1) »