SFGate: Ethanol Relief Vital to State’s Cows

October 17, 2012

Attempts to clean up our air and to ensure that the nation has enough milk to drink are on a collision course.

As a result, the future of California's dairy industry looks sour. Around 100 farms are expected to go bankrupt this year alone, and the trend seems likely to continue if nothing is done.

Because of the demand for grain to produce the gasoline additive ethanol – which was supposed to reduce air pollution – plus a nationwide drought, many of the state's cash-strapped farmers are selling their cows for slaughter because they can't afford to feed them. It's a “perfect storm,” says Colin Carter, professor of agricultural economics at UC Davis, that could spell trouble for the county's milk supply – 1 out of 5 glasses of milk consumed in the United States comes from California cows. And the increasing price of grain is hurting all livestock industries.

What can be done?

— The federal law mandating that gasoline contain 10 percent ethanol – 13.2 billion gallons this year – has an escape clause. In an emergency, it can be lifted temporarily by the Environmental Protection Agency. Six states have petitioned for relief. The dairy industry looks on this as an emergency – ethanol consumes one-third of the nation's corn crop, and next year the share could be higher.

— Biofuel alternatives to corn ethanol need to be explored and developed. The corn fuel seemed like a good idea when it was invented, but even our immense agricultural industry can't feed us and fuel us at the same time. And some experts doubt that ethanol has any net benefit to air quality anyway, especially when the economic and environmental costs of producing it are factored in.

Brazil produces ethanol from sugarcane in a process greatly cheaper and more efficient than the production of corn ethanol. Other possible sources include algae, switchgrass and waste material from vineyards – sources that aren't productive yet but hold promise. Research could lead to new breakthroughs.