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Deer in cornfield

A group of does and fawns walk through a picked cornfield.

August is here, and across much of Wisconsin and the Midwest, corn is tasseled out and soybean fields are taking on their characteristic golden hues. The average person gazes upon these fields and thinks all is good.

But there’s trouble in farmland: low prices, Trump tariffs, the continued loss of small and medium dairy farms. Despite these concerns, Wisconsin farmers are growing about 4 million acres of corn and more than 2 million acres of soybeans this year. That’s in part because farmers are long on hope. It’s also because of government programs that mitigate loss and encourage production. Generous public subsidies for crop insurance insulate some farmers from variables like weather and crop prices. Meanwhile, the federal Renewable Fuel Standard, which requires America’s transportation fuels to contain a minimum volume of renewable fuel, serves as an impetus to grow corn and, to a lesser extent, soybeans.

Some will remember how President Trump flip-flopped on the RFS to court rural voters, suddenly becoming a supporter. No one expects Trump to care about the environment, but a new report quietly issued by the Environmental Protection Agency documents some major impacts.

The report got the attention of mainstream conservation groups like the National Wildlife Federation. The report, said the group, is “the first acknowledgment by the federal government that the current federal biofuels policy is wreaking havoc on wildlife, water resources and air quality.” The report was predictably timid in making these assertions, but it turns out that growing corn for ethanol — about 15 billion gallons this year under the RFS — can have major negative impacts on air quality. Same for water quality: Corn-based biofuels “may” contribute to the kinds of harmful algae blooms we know all too well, and to so-called “dead zones” in the Green Bay and, more infamously, in the northern Gulf of Mexico.

Not to mention, said David DeGennaro, agriculture policy specialist with the Wildlife Federation, dramatic conversion to croplands has contributed to nitrate contamination of rural water supplies across the U.S. This is a public health issue, folks.

As for water quantity, the report went on to say there are “some indications of increased water use due to increases in irrigated areas for corn and elevated land conversion rates in more arid Western states.” The same could be said for parts of Wisconsin.

On ecosystem health and biodiversity, both related to wildlife habitat, the RFS gets bad grades. These are major concerns of the Wildlife Federation.

The RFS is an example of a well-intended law gone awry. It was all tied up with clean air and reducing reliance on foreign oil. But other forms of biofuels with fewer environmental impacts have lagged. That has led to the kinds of problems articulated in the EPA report.

The Wildlife Federation is asking for support of legislation that would reduce the amount of corn ethanol, support development of better biofuels, and direct funding to environmental impacts.

One major loophole is the lack of enforcement of a provision meant to prevent conversion of grasslands, prairie, forest wetlands and other environmentally sensitive land to cropland. The rule has been in place since 2007, but enforcement has been shoddy at best.

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It’s a big problem, DeGennaro said. “The University of Wisconsin and the feds did good work studying this. A lot of studies show between 4 and 7.5 million acres have been converted from 2008 to 2012.” Much of this land was in the federal Conservation Reserve Program, which is supposed to protect environmentally sensitive lands. New research, DeGennaro said, will show that even as crop prices have declined, another 1 million acres have been converted.

The report opens the door to discussions about how to improve biofuel programs, UW-Madison researcher Tyler Lark said at a briefing last week. The report “helps lay to rest some of the tired debate about whether these landscape changes and environmental impacts are occurring.” Whether those discussions will take place is another matter. RFS is a political hot potato.

Bill Berry of Stevens Point writes a semimonthly column for The Capital Times.

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