Cause and effect: Fuel standard puts environmentalists in a bind

The Oklahoman Editorial Published: June 5, 2013

WHAT'S a tree-hugging, squirrel-kissing environmentalist to do? Fuel standards touted as a way to mitigate climate change are now indirectly responsible for increasing pesticide use and its alleged impacts.

In 2007, federal lawmakers passed the Renewable Fuel Standard, which mandated that the amount of blended biofuels in gasoline be gradually increased to 15 percent. Under the standards, biofuel production will increase to roughly 36 billion gallons by 2022, essentially forcing adoption of E-15 fuel (which has up to 15 percent ethanol).

The proposal was touted as a way to reduce production of so-called greenhouse gases. The Environmental Protection Agency has estimated that the renewable fuel standard will reduce annual greenhouse gas emissions by 138 million metric tons by 2022, the equivalent of taking 27 million vehicles off the road.

Here's the rest of the story: The mandate is one reason that corn, used to produce ethanol, has become more of a cash crop than ever. Its price is about twice the historic norm, so farmers planted 97 million acres of corn in the United States last year — the most since the Great Depression and up significantly from 75.7 million acres in 2001.

Increased production has coincided with the declining effectiveness of genetically modified corn seeds that generate toxins to kill rootworms without the use of pesticide. Thanks to modified seeds (which environmentalists also dislike), the share of corn acreage treated with insecticide fell from 25 percent in 2005 to 9 percent in 2010. In recent years, however, rootworms have become resistant to the genetically modified seeds' toxins. As a result, insecticide use is surging as corn acreage also increases.

Since Rachel Carson published “Silent Spring” in 1962, environmentalists have insisted that pesticides cause everything from headaches to cancer. Today, many of Carson's claims are considered more hyperbole than fact. Some tests suggest the cancer risks posed by pesticides like DDT and EDB are lower than herb tea, peanut butter, alcohol and mushrooms.

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