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Biofuel benefits, wherefore art thou?

I was looking for something else, and came across a couple items on biofuels in BusinessWeek that work as something of a pro vs. con debate. First, there’s this recent Op-Ed piece by Rachel Smolker.

Go Ahead, Blame Biofuels

A switch from fossil fuels to ethanol and its kin diverts resources from food production, leading to hunger and destabilization of farming

In the beginning it seemed like a good idea. Instead of burning dirty fossil fuels, we can power our cars using plant-based “biofuels.” So said proponents of such fuel alternatives as ethanol. It would be like switching from a diet of greasy hamburgers to pure, sweet green tea.

A few lonesome voices suggested there could be negative consequences.

Now we are faced with the predicted mess. The push for biofuels has forced people off their land, caused deforestation, sucked aquifers dry, and increased the use of fertilizers and agrichemicals. To top it off, a study published recently in Science showed that biofuels result in far more, rather than less, greenhouse gas emissions.

(Proponents of biofuels say that blending ethanol with gasoline is helping to bring the price of fuel down, but ethanol delivers less energy per unit volume than gasoline, so consumers have to buy more).

Increased demand for meat, which takes a lot of grain to produce, is another contributing factor. (But this trend has been under way for years and cannot account for the recent price surges.)

Estimates are that in 2008 a full one-third to one-half of the U.S. corn harvest—about 140 million tons of corn—will be turned into fuel (offsetting a mere 6% of U.S. transport fuel).

American farmers have switched from soy to corn varieties most suited for ethanol (not food). The shortfall in soy resulted in a soy price increase, which is now driving farmers in South America to switch to soy production. As a result, grazing lands are being converted to soy and cattle farmers are clearing the Amazon rainforest to create new grazing land.

there is a swelling chorus of voices claiming that the next generation of technologies will avert competition for food by using cellulose derived from nonfood plants grown on “marginal” land. Wood is considered a promising alternative. It is not.

If biofuels are manufactured from wood, the demand for wood products, already unsustainable, will skyrocket. The world’s forests cannot feed biofuel refineries as well as supply increasing demand for heat and electricity generation, pulp, paper, and other wood products. Forests, and therefore the climate, will suffer.

In the short term, it is not enough to apologize while millions are starving to death. We must pony up the funds to alleviate the food crisis immediately. The U.N. has requested an additional $500 million to $700 million in aid. (The Iraq war is costing the U.S. $350 million every day).

In the long term, we must take agriculture out of the hands of Big Business and put it back into the hands of people who need more than ever to be able to feed themselves on their own terms. ADM and Cargill reported record profits, jumping 42% and 86%, respectively, in the past quarter alone. While they once again reap the gains of bad agriculture policy, biofuels may go down as the most misguided of all: In the words of the U.N. Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, overreliance on biofuels is indeed “a crime against humanity.”


Rachel Smolker is a researcher and campaigner with the Global Justice Ecology Project and the Global Forest Coalition. Her interest is in climate change, forest protection, agriculture, and especially the impact of biofuels development on these issues. She holds a PhD in biology from the University of Michigan, has a background in field biology, and lives in Vermont.

Next up is a piece by BusinessWeek senior correspondent John Carey cautioning readers not to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

Is Ethanol Getting a Bum Rap?

Corn-based fuel isn’t the villain critics contend, but shifting to other crops is critical

Ethanol is taking a tumble. Once hyped as a magic brew for reducing both oil addiction and global warming, alcohol made from corn kernels is now being accused both of triggering a global food crisis and doing more ecological harm than good.

There are grains of truth in this backlash, experts say. “There are bad biofuels and good biofuels,” says Daniel Sperling, director of the Institute of Transportation Studies at the University of California at Davis. Corn-based ethanol ranks as mediocre. Yet it is only a minor cause of high food prices, and better biofuels are on the horizon. The transition to these superior fuels will get a boost from policies now being developed, with California leading the way.

First, a reality check on corn ethanol, which isn’t quite the villain critics make it out to be. Last year, American farmers grew a record 13.1 billion bushels of corn on 85 million acres. Of that, 22% went to make about 7 billion gallons of ethanol. That still left enough corn to supply the domestic market, increase exports to record levels, and stockpile a 10% surplus. McKinsey principal Bill Caesar estimates farmers will be able to keep increasing corn-based ethanol production to 15 billion gallons in 2015 (a level of output mandated by federal policy) without reducing the amount going for food and feed, and without increasing acres planted. The secret: continuing improvements in yields.

Higher corn costs add 2 cents to a box of corn flakes, or 11 cents to a gallon of milk from corn-fed cows. Corn prices have little to do with the increases in rice and wheat, and only a small connection to soybean price jumps. “Biofuels are a very, very small factor” in rising food costs, says David Morris, vice-president of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, a nonprofit group that tries to strengthen communities politically and economically around the world.

It’s also worth noting that these high crop prices save taxpayers billions of dollars in reduced subsidies to farmers—far more than is spent to subsidize ethanol.

over the long haul, “it’s not obvious that high grain prices are inherently bad,” asserts Nathanael Greene, senior policy analyst at the Natural Resources Defense Council. Years of cheap, subsidized grain in the U.S. and Europe have left farmers in the developing world unable to compete. They can’t invest in better seed, machinery, or cultivation practices

While American corn farmers produce 150 bushels per acre, farms in the developing world often get only 30. “If there is a crime against humanity, it is these low yields,” not biofuels, says Richard Hamilton, CEO of Ceres Inc., a Thousand Oaks (Calif.) startup developing biofuel crops. Those low yields will improve if farmers make more money. In the long term, “high prices will lead these countries to produce more of their own food,” says Morris, easing the supply shortages.

the billions of gallons of ethanol are moderating oil prices by “easing energy bottlenecks,” says Francisco Blanch, head of global commodity research at Merrill Lynch. Blanch figures that oil prices would be at least 15% higher than they are, if not for today’s output of ethanol. And given the dependence of the whole food supply chain on oil and gas, “food prices might be higher if we were not producing biofuels,” says venture capitalist Vinod Khosla.

Still, corn ethanol is far from perfect.

How much is baby and how much is bathwater? This stuff is tricky.

[Photo credit: M. Gifford. Thanks, M, for the Creative Commons license!]

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