Naturally Driven to Innovate

Farmers have adopted new technologies at an unrivaled speed, prompted by the RFS, writes Brian Jennings. Ethanol production has helped the agricultural sector be more profitable, providing opportunities for adoption of new practices.
By Brian Jennings | April 14, 2014

President Eisenhower didn’t know how right he was when he said “Farming looks mighty easy when your plow is a pencil and you’re a thousand miles from a corn field.”  Today, thanks in large part to ethanol, plows and pencils have been replaced by no-till and precision agriculture.

The unrivaled speed of technology adoption in agriculture and biofuels is just another benefit of the renewable fuel standard (RFS). More than any policy enacted by Congress, the RFS has spurred the production of corn, ethanol and ethanol coproducts more efficiently and with less environmental impact. While oil is becoming more difficult to find, expensive to drill and harmful to the environment, ethanol is becoming more sustainable, efficient and cleaner.

Today, farmers apply fewer inputs to produce larger crops on the same land. In 2013, they produced nearly 160 bushels of corn per acre, twice as much corn per acre of land than when the first cell phones were introduced in the 1980s. A recent University of Illinois-Chicago study found that as corn farmers and ethanol producers continue to innovate, ethanol results in 60 percent fewer greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions than gasoline, and, state-of-the-art technology has improved ethanol’s energy balance to a more than 2 to 1 ratio. 

Meanwhile, the days of easy oil are over. Finding oil compressed-tightly within rocks and far below the land or sea is more energy-intensive than ever before. 

As ethanol has helped restore profitability to agricultural production, farmers can afford to adopt new technologies and practices to conserve water and soil and produce more bushels of grain using fewer inputs. According to a survey by Purdue University, the use of auto-steer for fertilizer application has increased 11 percent and auto-steer is now in use on nearly two-thirds of farms. Precision agriculture and GPS auto-steer technology have saved North Dakota’s farmers nearly 12 percent of fuel costs, according to North Dakota State University.

Biotech crops have also played a role in helping farmers become more efficient. According to the USDA, about half the total land used to grow crops (169 million acres) in the U.S. was planted to biotech varieties in 2013. These biotech crop traits have saved farmers time, reduced insecticide use and enabled the use of less toxic herbicides. In 2013, more than 18 million farmers in 27 countries planted biotech crops, with adoption rates increasing more than a hundredfold since 1996. For the first time in 2013, 123,500 acres of drought-tolerant corn was planted and more drought-tolerant crop varieties are in the pipeline. Ask seed companies and farmers and they’d tell you none of this progress was possible without ethanol.

Farm families’ home place is also their workplace. They drink the water and eat the food from their own land. In order to fulfill the hope and dream of virtually every farmer that the next generation succeed them on the home place, the first priority is to leave the farm in better condition than when the last generation passed it on.

Before 1940, the organic matter contained in crop residues was often mistakenly considered problematic, and efforts to rid fields of this organic matter were called “trash management.” Today, however, thanks to better research and conservation practices such as no-till, scientists and farmers know that crop residues, such as corn stalks leftover from harvest, increase the amount of organic matter and contribute to the overall health of soil. Modern-day farmers understand that organic matter is the lifeblood of soil and scientists now consider the content of soil organic matter as the most important measure of productivity. Soil with large stocks of organic matter absorb and hold more water and crop nutrients, resist erosion and grow higher yields using less fertilizer. There is strong emerging evidence that farmers who utilize no-till to plant corn are able to increase soil health and even sequester carbon by leaving crop residue on their fields. In fact, soil test databases show that increases in organic matter in corn fields can reduce corn ethanol’s GHG footprint by 60 percent or more compared to gasoline.

Farmers and ethanol producers will continue making these important improvements as long as federal policy doesn’t punish those of us who are naturally-driven to innovate. This is just another reason why we need to keep the RFS intact.
Author: Brian Jennings
Executive Vice President
American Coalition for Ethanol
[email protected]