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Ode to Ethanol-Free Gas

Ethanol was developed to help reduce auto-emissions in older vehicles. In the 80’s closed-loop fuel injection systems were designed that solved the issue of emissions that ethanol was developed to address. Ethanol caused multiple problems in automobiles because of a phenomenon called  phase separation. Because gas tanks must be vented to prevent bursting caused by changing pressures due to temperature changes, incoming air contains atmospheric moisture. When enough has accumulated in the tank, the alcohol and water fall out of suspension with the fuel pooling at the base of the tank causing major issues in combustion engines. My source is this very informative Popular Mechanics article that discusses even more issues with alcohol blended gasoline fuels.

Of the many reasons I dreaded the near mandate of ethanol blended gasoline, the most important one is aligned with the entire reason I am embarking on the sustainable farming operation: Monoculture farming. Really, this is more of an anti-industrial farming debate and an alcohol-blended fuel issue. As such, I’ll let Miguel A. Altieri from the Division of Insect Biology at University of California, Berkeley explain it well:

 

From an ecological perspective, the regional consequences of monoculture specialization are many-fold:

  1. Most large-scale agricultural systems exhibit a poorly structured assemblage of farm components, with almost no linkages or complementary relationships between crop enterprises and among soils, crops and animals.
  2. Cycles of nutrients, energy, water and wastes have become more open, rather than closed as in a natural ecosystem. Despite the substantial amount of crop residues and manure produced in farms, it is becoming increasingly difficult to recycle nutrients, even within agricultural systems. Animal wastes cannot economically be returned to the land in a nutrient-recycling process because production systems are geographically remote from other systems which would complete the cycle. In many areas, agricultural waste has become a liability rather than a resource. Recycling of nutrients from urban centers back to the fields is similarly difficult.
  3. Part of the instability and susceptibility to pests of agroecosystems can be linked to the adoption of vast crop monocultures, which have concentrated resources for specialist crop herbivores and have increased the areas available for immigration of pests. This simplification has also reduced environmental opportunities for natural enemies. Consequently, pest outbreaks often occur when large numbers of immigrant pests, inhibited populations of beneficial insects, favorable weather and vulnerable crop stages happen simultaneously.
  4. As specific crops are expanded beyond their “natural” ranges or favorable regions to areas of high pest potential, or with limited water, or low-fertility soils, intensified chemical controls are required to overcome such limiting factors. The assumption is that the human intervention and level of energy inputs that allow these expansions can be sustained indefinitely.
  5. Commercial farmers witness a constant parade of new crop varieties as varietal replacement due to biotic stresses and market changes has accelerated to unprecedented levels. A cultivar with improved disease or insect resistance makes a debut, performs well for a few years (typically 5-9 years) and is then succeeded by another variety when yields begin to slip, productivity is threatened, or a more promising cultivar becomes available. A variety’s trajectory is characterized by a take-off phase when it is adopted by farmers, a middle stage when the planted area stabilizes and finally a retraction of its acreage. Thus, stability in modern agriculture hinges on a continuous supply of new cultivars rather than a patchwork quilt of many different varieties planted on the same farm.
  6. The need to subsidize monocultures requires increases in the use of pesticides and fertilizers, but the efficiency of use of applied inputs is decreasing and crop yields in most key crops are leveling off. In some places, yields are actually in decline. There are different opinions as to the underlying causes of this phenomenon. Some believe that yields are leveling off because the maximum yield potential of current varieties is being approached, and therefore genetic engineering must be applied to the task of redesigning crop. Agroecologists, on the other hand, believe that the leveling off is because of the steady erosion of the productive base of agriculture through unsustainable practices (3).

He goes on to explain the second wave of environmental issues:

So far, field research as well as predictions based on ecological theory, indicate that among the major environmental risks associated with the release of genetically engineered crops can be summarized as follows (12):

  • The trends set forth by corporations is to create broad international markets for a single product, thus creating the conditions for genetic uniformity in rural landscapes. History has repeatedly shown that a huge area planted to a single cultivar is very vulnerable to a new matching strain of a pathogen or pest;
  • The spread of transgenic crops threatens crop genetic diversity by simplifying cropping systems and promoting genetic erosion;
  • There is potential for the unintended transfer to plant relatives of the “transgenes” and the unpredictable ecological effects. The transfer of genes from herbicide resistant crops (HRCs) to wild or semidomesticated relatives can lead to the creation of super weeds;
  • Most probably insect pests will quickly develop resistance to crops with Bt toxin. Several Lepidoptera species have been reported to develop resistance to Bt toxin in both field and laboratory tests, suggesting that major resistance problems are likely to develop in Bt crops which through the continuous expression of the toxin create a strong selection pressure;
  • Massive use of Bt toxin in crops can unleash potential negative interactions affecting ecological processes and non-target organisms. Evidence from studies conducted in Scotland suggest that aphids were capable of sequestering the toxin from Bt crops and transferring it to its coccinellid predators, in turn affecting reproduction and longevity of the beneficial beetles;
  • Bt toxins can also be incorporated into the soil through leaf materials and litter, where they may persist for 2-3 months, resisting degradation by binding to soil clay particles while maintaining toxic activity, in turn negatively affecting invertebrates and nutrient cycling;
  • A potential risk of transgenic plants expressing viral sequences derives from the possibility of new viral genotypes being generated by recombination between the genomic RNA of infecting viruses and RNA transcribed from the transgene;
  • Another important environmental concern associated with the large scale cultivation of virus-resistant transgenic crops relates to the possible transfer of virus-derived transgenes into wild relatives through pollen flow.

I will happily pay an extra $.20 per gallon for ethanol free gasoline to vote with my wallet and support the few gas stations that still provide the product. After all, I think our key to energy independence is a reduction of consumption rather a shift in sources. Once biofuels are manufactured from sustainably raised crops from a diverse local ecosystem, they will have my full support!

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