Soybean growers are worried that the Obama administration's latest effort to control global warming could threaten the Midwest's biodiesel industry.
The Environmental Protection Agency has proposed new rules that would factor in damage that American soybean production can inflict in faraway lands like Brazil, Malaysia and Indonesia.
The rules, proposed last week, mark another step to combat global warming, a problem made worse when carbon-filled forests go up in smoke in order to grow fuel and food.
But the concept of punishing American soy growers for potential damage in foreign countries -- or "indirect land usage" -- will be hotly debated in Washington in the coming weeks. The biofuels industry argues that the EPA deployed unreliable methods in calculating how much biodiesel and ethanol contribute to climate change. MORE POLITICAL NEWS See all our political coverage The Political Fix keeps you on top of local, state and national politics.
Two years ago, Congress passed legislation greatly increasing the requirement for using ethanol, made from corn, and biodiesel, made heavily from soy, as a means to reduce dependence on foreign oil.
That was a boon to corn and soy farmers in Missouri and elsewhere. But the nation's Renewable Fuel Standard requires that the alternative fuels reduce pollution to qualify for the government mandate.
The new EPA rules, designed to develop next-generation biofuels, project the emission reductions far into the future. Corn-made ethanol is granted exemptions over the next several years, but the effects on biodiesel could be immediate, industry officials say.
Soybean production for fuel requires more land than corn, and its imprint on land use around the world is calculated differently by the EPA. The agency believes that if more U.S.-grown soybeans are used in biodiesel, then other countries will convert more rainforests and other environmentally sensitive land to produce soybeans for food.
The biodiesel industry, already suffering from the recession, lower fuel prices and new European tariffs, this year may produce less than half of 2008's 700-million-gallon output. Many plants have been idled or are producing little now. Missouri has eight biodiesel plants; Illinois has six.
And now, complains Joe Jobe, CEO of the Jefferson City-based National Biodiesel Board, his industry could be left out of the federal mandate to require alternative fuels and thereby become the first in the country to be regulated for greenhouse gas emissions.
Jobe's organization, allied with the St. Louis-based American Soybean Association, plans to aggressively challenge the new rules during the 60-day comment period, which began last week. About half of biodiesel comes from soybeans.
They contend that the EPA based its land use calculations on imprecise modeling and outdated satellite photos of rainforest damage during a period when little biodiesel was made.
"There has sprung up in Washington a cottage industry of self-proclaimed agriculture policy experts who have never set foot on a farm or worked in any capacity in modern agriculture," Jobe said.
The new rules point to a reality long overlooked or simply discounted -- that farming, like the economy, is a global proposition governed by cause and effect.
Growing corn and soybeans in the United States for energy changes planting habits not just in the Midwest but around in the world. Studies have found that cultivation of new croplands to fill gaps in the commodities market leads to the destruction of forests, wetlands and grasslands that hold massive amounts of carbon.
In Brazil, farmers and speculators have converted vast tracts of land to soybeans, pushing cattle ranches deeper into pristine Amazon territories. The Brazilian government reported in March that 9,650 square miles of Amazon rainforest had been destroyed or damaged in a one-year period ending last July, a two-thirds increase over the previous year.
In Malaysia, meanwhile, developers are swiftly converting forests into palm oil plantations for vegetable oil.
Tim Searchinger, a researcher at Princeton University, co-authored a peer-reviewed study last year concluding that biofuels contribute heavily to greenhouse gas emissions when land use decisions are factored in.
"It's simple: When you divert food crops for energy, they will be replaced by plowing up new land," he said. "When you divert U.S. soybeans into biodiesel, it might be replaced on the world market by palm oil from Southeast Asia."
A day after the EPA proposed its new rules last week, the soybean industry was making its case on Capitol Hill, arguing that biodiesel reduces pollution when it displaces oil. The EPA, soybean growers said, acted on "faulty assumptions, flawed analysis and misplaced penalties."
A statement from the American Soybean Association asserted that soy biodiesel is the cleanest burning biofuel "and is not responsible for international land use changes."
However, Illinois soybean farmer Phil Corzine acknowledges the connection from the perspective of someone who also grows soybeans on his 1,500 acres in Brazil.
"If you step back and look at it, a lot of what (the EPA) is saying is true. If you use a significant amount of land for biofuels, you're going to force production to Brazil and you're going to have to find new areas to grow it," said Corzine, who farms near Assumption, in south central Illinois.
Still, Jobe of the National Biodiesel Board grows frustrated wondering why his industry has to shoulder the blame.
"They're trying to hold us accountable in the United States not only for our own carbon dioxide emissions, but for hypothetical international emissions decades into the future, based on decisions by millions of people around the world," he said. "It's extraordinary."