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Land and money grab

(article, Stephanie Beechem)

A booming demand for ethanol and other biofuels in the United States is having a massive spillover effect in the farming industry, the New York Times reports. Two articles published August 8 document two different ways in which the rush to produce biofuels is dramatically changing the way we use our land.

The first article — "Ethanol Is Feeding Hot Market for Farmland," by Monica Davey — reports on the rapid rise in prices for Midwestern farmland because of the explosion in demand for corn, soybeans, and sugar cane, all important components in biofuel production. In Illinois, for example, an 80-acre farm sold for an historic $10,000 per acre, while farmland property values in Iowa and Nebraska have shot up 14 percent and 17 percent, respectively, from last year. 

There are several effects of this hike in property value. The dollar signs, of course, are good for farmers who already own land, but bad for young farmers who don't. (It's also tough on farmers who want to expand their land holdings.) With small farms already vanishing in the U.S., the rise in agricultural land prices may mean that only the largest and wealthiest farming operations survive. 

Farm consolidation combined with increasing demand for two of the country’s biggest monoculture crops — corn and soybeans, used for ethanol and biodiesel, respectively — will only increase the amount of land planted with these crops, scaling back the already-scant biodiversity in the region and in other agricultural regions worldwide.   

The second article — "Cooking Up More Uses for the Leftovers of Biofuel Production," by Hillary Rosner — concerns the sub-industry that's arisen around the leftovers of biofuel production, in the hope that biofuel byproducts will become valuable products in themselves. Many biorefineries are exploring the possibilities of transforming lignin, a byproduct of ethanol production, into bio-based glue and detergent. Glycerol, the most common and plentiful byproduct of biodiesel production, can also be made into a material used in upholstery, carpets, and clothing.  

This byproducts industry is banking on the continuing growth of biofuels, even though there's no certainty that demand will stay up when newer or better clean-energy sources reach the market. It's possible, too, that due to escalating biofuel production, these byproducts will soon exist in such abundance that it'll be extremely difficult to make a profit on them.

The byproducts article is part of the New York Times Energy Challenge, a series of articles designed to explore whether the world “is, and is not, moving toward a more energy-efficient, environmentally benign future." Biofuels may indeed help create a more energy-efficient, environmentally sound future. But their side effects may not.

Also on Culinate: An article about using corn to fuel cars.