Yet Another Unintended Consequence Of Ethanol Mandates/Subsidies

I’ve not been kind to the forces for ethanol. I’ve pointed out that demand for ethanol raises the price of food for poor people, how I’ve felt the pinch personally in increased prices for homebrew supplies, how the use of ethanol is wasting scarce water resources. Finally, I pointed out that ethanol actually increases pollution, not decreases it!

You’d think that’d be enough… But the hits just keep on a’comin… Researchers at my alma mater, Purdue, suggest that the increased land usage necessary to meet the demand for ethanol might disrupt migration patterns for dozens of species of migratory bird:

A new Purdue study suggests the demand for ethanol could fuel the decline of migratory birds by driving the elimination of small woodlots on farms, which many birds use for protection during migration.

Over two years, researchers found 76 species of migratory birds using those small wooded landing zones during their flights between Canada and South or Central America.

Dunning and Packett’s study suggests that the woodlots are as important to protect as larger forests.

Those trees are among the limited stopover areas birds have as they migrate over land. Open fields or cities could leave the birds susceptible to predators. The wooded areas also provide food, not just shelter.

But Dunning said there is concern that with the increased demand for ethanol, farmers and others may not see the value of the wooded areas and may cut down the trees to make more room to plant corn there.

“There are strategies for conserving forest for migratory birds, but those strategies emphasize the largest patches of forest,” Dunning said in a news release. “We found that even very small woodlots were filled with migratory birds at times. It makes us believe we also need to conserve the little patches of forest, not just the big ones.”

Sometimes I think it’d be hard to come up with a worse policy than ethanol.

But rest assured, as long as we have a Congress, I’m sure we’ll have plenty of contenders.

  • Pete Sandfort

    “Farmers might cut doen trees”? This is the basis for your contention that ethanol will hurt migratory birds? Good gravy, the trees are there because they are not on good farmland. Ethanol isn’t going to suddenly make that poor farmland useful. The whole contention that more farmland will be needed neglects the fact that yields continue to increase making additional land unnecessary.

    Just because you personnaly do not believe that ethanol is a good thing does not authorize you to employ false or fanciful arguments against it.

    Enjoy your day.

  • Brad Warbiany


    This is not just my contention, it’s the contention of the authors of the study.

    And if the mandates/subsidies get high enough, it just might be worth it to use sub-optimal farmland to grow ethanol.

  • Justin Bowen

    But Dunning said there is concern that with the increased demand for ethanol, farmers and others may not see the value of the wooded areas and may cut down the trees to make more room to plant corn there.

    Of course farmers will see the value of the wooded areas. They’ll see the value in the dollars and cents that the federal government gives them to cut down the trees and figure out a way to plant corn.

  • John222

    I don’t get why they insist on making it from corn. With all the new crops in California, it would give them something to do with all the stems, seeds, and leaves.

    Ford referred to his vehicle as having “sprung from the ground”. Even the body panels were made from some kind of pressed hemp fibers, which were more resilient to dings and dents. He wanted to use ethanol made from hemp also. From what I’ve heard you can keep growing industrial hemp in the same fields without rotating. Not to mention all the other stuff that can be made like paper and rope.

  • John222

    In other words, you don’t need prime land or a food source to make ethanol.

  • Walter Grant

    By all means, lets buy our oil from the rest of the world that hates us and would do anything to destroy our nation. Don’t look to the most abundant source of renewable motor fuel that is working right now. Let’s all be enslaved to the oil companies and march in a straight line with our wallets out. “The sky is falling..The sky is falling”. Let’s improve our system at home. If you don’t have a better plan, (like one Texas oil man said during the first oil crisis, “Let the bastards freeze in the dark”) get out of the way so the rest of us that have more than your fear of change can make this a better planet, even if we have to pull your dead weight along with us. You could move to Saudi Arabia where corn production is not an issue, but finding a tree to swing under might be.

  • Brad Warbiany


    You want ethanol? Base it on sugar, not corn. Sugar cane is far easier (i.e. less energy intensive) to grow, packs more energy itself, and on the whole is a pretty solid way to produce ethanol. Corn, however, is a net energy loser.

    Oh, but America won’t do that. You know why? Corn grows in the heartland, and sugar (largely) grows offshore. So what do we do? Subsidize corn, and tax ethanol. How much sense does that make?

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  • John222

    Brad, I’m with you about the corn, it doesn’t make sense. I forget about sugar though, which is surprising as it is a pretty big industry in S. Florida. Of course it is also heavily subsidized.

    I’m not a legalization nut, I just think the overall utility of hemp would benefit us all. It will grow almost anywhere, in soil not suitable for most other crops

  • Quincy

    Walter –

    Being against stupid change does not necessarily mean someone is against smart change.

  • John222

    I’m also very interested in hydrogen as a fuel source. It is the most abundant element. There is one guy that seems to have a working idea. Some say he’s a quack, but he claims to be starting production in early 2010.

    If you’re interested, here is a link:

  • TerryP

    The reason corn is used is because it is our largest crop and is grown all over the country. Farmers like to grow it and we have infrastruture to handle everything needed in growing, harvesting, and storing it. It obvously is not the best source from where ethanol can come from but until we get something that can be produced in many places and with the infrastructure to get the product from start to finish it will likely come from corn.

    Hemp is essentially outlawed by the govt.

    Sugar in the US actually comes from two sources: sugar beets and sugar cane (along with imports). To my understanding sugar beets and sugar cane can only be grown in only a few areas of the country. We just couldn’t grow enough sugar in this country to make it a viable alternative to corn for most of our ethanol.

    While I don’t agree that corn ethanol is a net energy loser, it should have to compete against oil or any other energy source in a free market without gov’t interference.

  • Biodiversivist

    I have two engineering degrees from Purdue. The biofuel mandates and subsidies are a bipartisan boondoggle. I grow weary listening to the xenophobes who think we can become energy independent by turning food into fuel.

  • CH

    Bull! There are all kinds of areas like fence lines and field borders that would be a lot easier to farm than tearing out trees and yet they are still here unfarmed. Farmers do like wildlife and we feed it all for free so you can hunt.
    The corn is going to be planted whether there is ethanol or not. Ethanol is made from a renewable resource. If you don’t like it fine but cut the bull.