Last winter, I was in the sub-basement of the library at the University of Minnesota, with two state maps stretching 10 feet across spread out on the table in front of me. One was from the 1990s, the other a century older. Growing up on the Wisconsin border, the Minnesota I knew was nothing but farm fields growing food, interrupted only by the Twin Cities and their suburbs. But the map from the state’s early years showed a different landscape. Back then, carbon-storing forests covered most of Minnesota.
Today it’s mostly cornfields with ethanol fuel plants sprouted in between. Farmers used to grow corn and other crops to sell as food for families and livestock, but in the last decade, selling it for ethanol has become too lucrative to refuse. In 2013, thanks largely to surging demand from ethanol plants, U.S. farmers snagged an average of $6.15 per bushel of corn — up from $1.96 in 2005.
The federal government has encouraged ethanol use since 1992, but it really took off as an alternative to gasoline in 2005, spurred by the fines and mandates of the newly adopted Renewable Fuels Standard. The current version of the standard requires 36 billion gallons of renewable fuels to be blended with gasoline by 2022, which the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency predicts will be about 7 percent of the total fuel use.
Though these policies were well intended at the time, research now shows that the land we’re using to grow plants for biofuels would be better used for crops to feed hundreds of millions of undernourished people around the world.