On Wednesday, a study conducted for the National Wildlife Federation by a team of graduate students from the University of Michigan was released. The report analyzes the current and potential impacts of increased corn ethanol production on wildlife and habitat in the Prairie Pothole states of Iowa, Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota.
According to the study, populations of sensitive wildlife species are declining significantly in areas with high increases in corn plantings. The updated Renewable Fuel Standard, passed in 2007, requires corn ethanol production to increase from 10.57 billion gallons in 2009 to 15 billion in 2015, which means corn ethanol production will continue to increase.
"While many factors influence land use changes the relationship between ethanol incentives and habitat destruction is fairly clear," said Elizabeth Griffiin, one of the graduate students who authored the report. "Ethanol incentives increase demand for corn and in turn increases corn prices. Increased corn prices lead to land being converted from other uses to corn production."
However, Renewable Fuels Association Communications Director Matt Hartwig says studies like this require a much greater context.
"For instance, farmers last year broke all records for corn production on seven million fewer acres than were needed to set the record in 2004," Hartwig said. "In fact, much of the increased demand for corn that results from the growing ethanol industry is met through increased corn yields."
Hartwig says that the 12 bushels per acre gain in yield from 2008 to 2009 alone would have yielded nearly a billion additional bushels of corn based on 2008 harvested acres, which more than accounts for the increased demand resulting from ethanol expansion.
The study puts forth several recommendations including increasing the Conservation Reserve Program cap, protecting prairies and wetlands from conversion, and allow cellulosic ethanol to replace corn ethanol.
"The industry is committed to expanding ethanol production to include cellulosic and other non-grain feedstocks," Hartwig said. "However, in order to make that transition, the strong foundation currently being built by today's ethanol industry must be allowed to finish."