Paul Sancya / AP

Ethanol lobby undermines grass-roots politics

Biofuel mandates are bad policy, but presidential candidates embrace them as the price of doing business in Iowa

January 6, 2016 2:00AM ET

Every four years, presidential candidates descend on the Iowa State Fair to meet local activists, give stump speeches and pose for photos. The event happens seven months before the first-in-the-nation Iowa caucuses. As a longtime Iowan, I can say the fair is good fun. But the candidates go there mostly to pander to Iowa’s powerful agribusiness interests.

Iowa is the largest corn producer in the United States, and more than 90 percent of gasoline sold in the U.S. contains ethanol. The state’s agribusinesses benefits from the renewable fuel standard, a 2007 law that requires gasoline producers to blend ethanol, which is almost always distilled from corn, to their product. The caucuses embody the power of grass-roots politics, but the influence of the ethanol lobby shows how corporate interests can undercut democracy.

Iowans will hold caucuses on Feb. 6 to choose their presidential candidates. According to a new Des Moines Register/Bloomberg Politics poll, 77 percent of Democratic likely caucusgoers surveyed said they support the renewable fuel standard, as did 61 percent of Republican ones.

As world leaders noted during the high-stakes climate conference in Paris last month, global warming remains a crucial challenge, but ethanol is a poor way of reducing greenhouse gases. Mandating smaller, more efficient motor vehicles and better public transportation would reduce fossil fuel consumption far more effectively.

In Iowa artificially inflated corn prices and revenue, enhanced by government mandates, continue to encourage producers to plant it from fencerow to fencerow. This increasingly common practice has reduced wetlands and grasslands that could soak up water and reduce the risk of flooding. Partly as a result, Iowans and others around the Midwest have faced unprecedented floods over the last 20 years.

Yet ethanol mandate advocates portray it as an environmentally sound, renewable fuel, although its long-term use actually threatens the environment. Iowa has lost a considerable amount of nonrenewable topsoil to corn production. Some areas in Iowa have about half the fertile soil as they did when farmers began plowing in the 1840s. The emphasis on corn has increased the use of cancer-causing nitrate fertilizers and pesticides. The chemicals run off the land and endanger drinking water and flow down the Mississippi River. Fertilizers have produced a growing dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico, almost devoid of life, affecting the livelihoods of fishermen.

Many processed foods in the U.S. contain corn or corn syrup. In 2014 the U.S. Department of Agriculture classified 14 percent of American households as food insecure. With so many Americans facing hunger and even more suffering abroad, using corn to power cars is horrible idea.

Subsidized corn ethanol benefits a privileged few. The price of Iowa farmland remains prohibitively expensive, nearly $7,000 an acre, making diversified family farms less and less viable. Someone other than the owner, such as employees or tenants, farms more than half the state’s agricultural land. And those who live outside the state own 20 percent of Iowa’s farmland.

Farmers rely on petroleum-based fertilizers, huge diesel tractors and combines and long-distance trucking between farms and markets. As food-security activist and writer Andy Fisher said recently, today’s intensive agriculture is a process of “turning oil into food.” And after using fossil fuels to produce corn, ethanol production entails using more energy to turn corn into fuel.

If the caucuses are to continue to matter, Iowans must demonstrate a willingness to think beyond the state’s agribusiness interests.

A Cornell University ecologist has estimated that producing ethanol — from growing the source plant through the full chain of production — uses as much fossil fuel as it saves. The exact figures are contested, but recent research suggests that it takes 7 gallons of oil to produce 10 gallons of corn-based ethanol.

While ethanol mandates are bad policy, in Iowa, presidential candidates generally embrace them as the price of doing business in the state. Eric Branstad, the son of longtime Gov. Terry Branstad, leads an ethanol lobbying group, Americans for a Renewable Future. The organization has rated 17 of the candidates on the basis of their support for ethanol subsidies or mandates. All three of this year’s Democratic hopefuls were labeled good.

Ethanol politics is far more complex on the Republican side. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul received bad ratings from Americans for a Renewable Future. In 2008, Republican presidential candidate John McCain expressed doubts about ethanol subsidies and was punished for it, finishing fourth in the Iowa caucuses. Several current GOP candidates have wavered on the issue. Unlike other free-market advocates who oppose ethanol subsidies, politicians are held to different standard. Cruz, who is surging in Iowa polls, failed to support ethanol, but he is from oil-producing Texas.

Rubio has wavered on corn-based ethanol, in part because Florida wants help for more sugar-cane-based biofuels. Like McCain, Cruz and Rubio may pay a price for their positions. Rubio in particular is in an uncomfortable spot, stuck between Florida’s sugar lobby and ethanol interests in Iowa. In November, The Des Moines Register, the state’s largest newspaper, signaled the issue’s importance by running a front-page article examining Rubio’s views on ethanol. The candidates must hope that conservative evangelicals, who in recent years have dominated the Republican caucuses, care more about abortion and same-sex marriage than the price of corn.

On Nov. 30, the Environmental Protection Agency announced that it would mandate blending 18.11 billion gallons of corn-based ethanol in 2016 — up from the 2015 mandate of 17.4 billion gallons. Terry Branstad said he was “very disappointed” with the EPA’s ruling. His reaction to the 2016 ethanol mandate suggests there is disconnect between Iowa’s political establishment and mainstream opinion outside the state. The New York Times, for example, described the new mandate as a “big jump,” which appears to be a reasonable reaction to the new ethanol standard.

The candidates have mostly been quiet on the modest hike in the ethanol mandate. The EPA announcement coincided with the launch of an Americans for a Renewable Future ad campaign criticizing Cruz for opposing the mandate. The attack ads against him have had little effect so far, as he moved to the front of the Republican pack in Iowa. In the Des Moines Register/Bloomberg poll, 31 percent of likely Republican caucusgoers surveyed said they favored Cruz, giving him a 10 point lead over businessman-turned-candidate Donald Trump.

It is still early, and caucusgoers could switch their support, but Cruz’s recent surge suggests that ethanol has become a secondary issue for Iowa Republicans, who have other issues such as the Affordable Care Act and abortion rights on their minds. He appears to be counting on his Christian conservative base and Republicans who oppose government mandates on principle.

The ethanol lobby accused Cruz of being biased against the fuel because of his $700,000 worth of investments in the oil industry. As Shane Goldmacher wrote on Politico, opposition to the renewable fuel standard “has long been perceived as a third rail of Iowa politics, and the agriculture industry here wants to keep it that way.”

The Iowa caucuses play a critical role in vetting presidential candidates. For example, in 2008, President Barack Obama demonstrated his appeal to white voters by winning the Iowa caucuses. The ethanol lobby has become more formidable over the years. If the caucuses are to continue to matter, Iowans must demonstrate a willingness to think beyond the state’s agribusiness interests.

Wallace Hettle is a professor of history at the University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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