Sounding off on ethanol sustainability

Posted July 28, 2011 by    

Group discussing biofuels in BrazilIf you read our blog regularly, you know that IATP took a group of farmers, ethanol producers, and environmental advocates to Brazil in March to get an on-the-ground look at the environmental impacts of ethanol production.

This week, Ethanol Producer magazine published "Seeking Common Ground", a series of short interviews with three participants on the trip -- Nathanael Greene, from the Natural Resources Defense Council; Bill Lee, CEO of Frontline Bioenergy; and Joe Ludowese, a farmer and ethanol cooperative board member from Windom, MN.

As was the case in Brazil, these guys aren't afraid to call it like they see it. The discussion is provocative, even surprising at times. But don't take our word for it, read it here.

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Biofuels and land use: It's all how you look at it

Posted July 21, 2011 by    

What happens when you take a group of thoughtful people with quite radically different perspectives on agriculture and land use to Brazil? Really interesting conversations, for one.

In March, IATP took a group of farmers, researchers and environmental advocates to Mato Grosso, Brazil—the heart of that country's agricultural explosion. We were there to learn about Brazilian agriculture, and specifically, to investigate the effects of U.S. biofuel production on Brazil's land use—something known as "indirect land use change" (ILUC). Over about the last three years, ILUC has become a point of extreme contention between biofuel proponents and environmental advocates. This trip was an attempt to begin to bridge some of that contention. (Read our blog reports from the trip.)

During the course of the trip, we sat down with each participant to ask them about their perspectives on agriculture, Brazil and ILUC. You can listen to the interviews on iatp.org. There's something to learn from each interview, and we hope you enjoy them. You can also find preliminary information about our upcoming ILUC conference in Minnesota. We'll be posting more details, and a link to registration, very soon. January2011 169

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Cobell settlement: too little, too late?

Posted July 15, 2011 by Ben Lilliston   

Used under creative commons license from Travel Aficionado.

America has a long, tragic and violent history of removing American Indians from the land. Remarkably, a host of maddening barriers remain for many Indians seeking access to their land. In December, the Obama Administration announced the $3.4 billion Cobell settlement in an attempt to address “fractionation,” or the division of hundreds of millions acres of communally-owned tribal land across the country, but is the settlement too little too late?

In the July issue of In These Times, IATP intern Alleen Brown reports on the remarkable legal and political obstacles American Indians continue to face in accessing their own land. IATP also has a version of the article on our site.

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An invitation to return

Posted June 13, 2011 by Anna Claussen   

Graduation1 Rural leaders from across the country gather later this month to discuss the future of rural communities.   Paramount to the discussions at this joint gathering of the National/Midwest Rural Assembly will be the establishment of environments that attracts young adults to work, live and engage in rural communities. So it’s natural, with graduation season on our doorstep and the National Rural Assembly right around the corner, that I am weighted down with thoughts about our future education system,  the vibrancy of our rural communities and how we fit youth into the picture. 

At the heart of it

Most rural communities operate under the principle that the school is the heart of the community. It causes me to wonder, then, how we will have successful communities with dwindling school enrollment. While many of the 2011 graduating classes in rural Minnesota are large and prosperous, the future looks bleaker for class sizes coming down the pipe. As school districts foresee these smaller class sizes and simultaneously face increasingly tight budgets, action is necessary to change and adapt the system in order to remain resilient.    

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Antibiotics in ethanol? Just say no.

Posted May 26, 2011 by    

Image used under Creative Commons license from Fickr user Argonne National Laboratory Here's an issue you don't hear very much about: antibiotic use in ethanol production.

You heard me right. Some ethanol producers use antibiotics to keep bacteria under control in their fermentation tanks (yields can go down if bacteria get out of control). Unfortunately, the residues from these antibiotics are turning up in what are called distiller's grains, a byproduct of ethanol production that's fed to livestock—yet another source of unnecessary antibiotics in our food system.

We've been tracking this issue for a while. We've found that there are very good alternatives to antibiotics on the market, and many ethanol producers are not using antibiotics at all. Unfortunately, this fact hasn't stopped the ethanol supply industry from continuing to push antibiotics.

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Ethanol subsidies: better to burn out than to fade away?

Posted May 6, 2011 by    

Ethanol’s main subsidy—the Volumetric Ethanol Excise Tax Credit (VEETC)—is on the chopping block. Given the current fiscal climate, even ethanol proponents have resigned themselves to the fact that VEETC—an annual $6 billion tax credit, set to expire at the end of this year—is probably on its last legs.

This week, those that would kill the 45-cent blenders’ credit subsidy quickly, and those that would prefer a long farewell, drew their lines in the sand. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK) introduced a bill Tuesday that would fully end VEETC and the import tariff on foreign ethanol by July 1, 2011.

A day later, Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) and Sen. Kent Conrad (R-N.D.) released a bill that would gradually make the tax credit counter-cyclical over the next five years. Under their bill, VEETC would drop to 20 cents next year and 15 cents in 2013. After that, the credit would be pegged to oil prices, ranging from 30 cents a gallon when oil is at $50 per barrel or less, to zero when oil reaches about $90 per barrel. It would also keep the import tariff, but lower it to 20 and then 15 cents in 2012 and 2013, respectively. Co-sponsors of the Grassley-Conrad bill include Minnesota DFL Senators Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken.

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The sweet sell on Brazilian ethanol

Posted March 31, 2011 by Ben Lilliston   

Used under creative commons license from energyclimatechange.

IATP is leading a delegation of U.S. environmentalists, academics and corn/biofuel producers down to Brazil (you can read our reports here) to learn more about the intersection of agriculture, biofuels and land use.

On our last day in Brazil, we got the hard pitch on sugar ethanol from UNICA: an association of 110 companies producing 60 percent of the country's ethanol and sugar production. UNICA has done a masterful job marketing sugarcane ethanol as the cleanest, lowest carbon fuel in the world—garnering a 2009 Bulldog Public Relations Award for their efforts. But our discussion was more than just a flashy powerpoint, there was a lot to be impressed by as well.

Brazil is the largest sugarcane producer in the world—and the world's second largest ethanol producer (next to the U.S.). According to UNICA, sugarcane production uses less fertilizer than corn (the primary U.S. feedstock), needs only to be replanted every six years or so, and uses a variety of integrated pest management tools to help lower pesticide use. All sugarcane mills are energy self-sufficient because they burn both the leftover stalk from the sugarcane as well as bagasse (waste leftover after the sugarcane has been processed). About two-thirds of sugarcane processing plants can switch between ethanol or sugar, depending on what that market demands.

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Touched by agriculture: The Pantanal

Posted March 25, 2011 by Ben Lilliston   

IATP is leading a delegation of U.S. environmentalists, academics and corn/biofuel producers down to Brazil (you can read our reports here) to learn more about the intersection of agriculture, biofuels and land use.

After being immersed in Brazil’s new soy frontier, we travelled to another eye-opening landscape—the Pantanal. The Pantanal is the largest wetland in the world and stretches from Brazil into Bolivia and Paraguay. The range of birds (we sorely missed the expertise of avid birder, and IATP President, Jim Harkness), frogs and other species is unlike anything on earth. Some photos below will give you only some idea of our short time there.

Because the Pantanal is under water six months out of the year, there is little direct threat from agricultural expansion onto the area. But that doesn’t mean that it isn’t affected by agriculture. The Pantanal is fed partly by a series of rivers and tributaries, including Rio Cuiaba, which run straight through Mato Grosso’s soy fields. We talked with the owner of our lodge who expressed concern that runoff from Mato Grosso farm country was already affecting the Pantanal. Her worry is that the situation will only get worse. The flood cycle is now starting later in the year (consistent with concerns about climate change)—another source of unease in this amazing part of the world.

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Tale of two farms in Brazil

Posted March 25, 2011 by Ben Lilliston   

IATP is leading a delegation of U.S. environmentalists, academics and corn/biofuel producers down to Brazil (you can read our reports here) to learn more about the intersection of agriculture, biofuels and land use.

Today, we got our shoes dirty. We visited two very different types of farms outside this bustling agriculture town of Lucas do Rio Verde. One, struggling to survive, the other seemingly thriving. One small, one large. One growing all food, the other nearly all agricultural commodities. The stories of both farms reflect the challenges and promises of Brazilian agriculture.

The previous day we heard about a forming cooperative of small farmers, struggling to produce food in the margins around giant soy, corn and cotton farms. Sure enough, this morning we drove down a dirt road surrounded by cotton and corn fields, till the road split off in a V. In a triangle shaped wedge, 30 families (each with 2.5 hectares, or 6 acres) managed a series of highly diverse farms. Thesmallfarmer

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Photos from Brazil

Posted March 24, 2011 by Andrew Ranallo   

This week, IATP led a delegation of U.S. academics, environmentalists and corn and biofuel producers to Brazil to study biofuels and indirect land-use change. Photos from the trip are on IATP's Flickr page and there are plenty to see!

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