Backpedaling on Biofuels

August 1,2008 by

As concern over global warming intensified over the past few years, biofuels derived from food crops quickly emerged as a practical answer to the energy crisis. Adding corn ethanol to gasoline or using palm oil for biodiesel makes the fuel burn more cleanly, stretches oil supplies, and perhaps most attractive to some politicians, provides a nice boost to big agribusiness. In Europe and in the US, increasing biofuels was mandated by law.

Fortunately the rush to biofuels production has slowed because of a number of well-documented negative side effects. Biofuels production contributed to a global food shortage and a rise in food prices as farmers sold off their crops to ethanol or biodiesel producers. Deforestation increased in tropical wilderness areas as countries such as Brazil and Indonesia cleared rainforest to make room for biofuels such as soybeans, leading to large losses in biodiversity. Deforestation also increased greenhouse gas emissions, as carbon stored in those forests was released into the atmosphere, offsetting gains from biofuel use and contributing to global warming.

In the US, agricultural run-off increased as millions of acres of farmland were brought into production, creating one of the biggest ever dead-zones in the Gulf of Mexico as fertilizers made their way down the Mississippi. Much of the farmlands returned to production were lands previously placed in highly successful, federally funded conservation programs…including some of our last wild prairie lands. With remarkable lack of foresight, some members of Congress have suggested removing even more lands from these programs.

The decreased fuel efficiency of vehicles using ethanol – some drivers are also saying ethanol fuels makes their engines sputter – combined with the energy and fertilizer intensive process for producing crop-based biofuels, further combined with serious biodiversity and food supply impacts, all make it clear that biofuels produced from crops are not a solution. Another perverse effect has been that ethanol subsidies driven up the price of corn, slashing profit margins, and making corn-based ethanol production in the US have viable only for some of the larger food producers – the very same large industrial agribusiness companies that drove the rush to ethanol in the first place…

Biofuels hold significant promise if they are produced in a way that takes their entire life-cycle into account, from production to indirect impacts such as loss of wilderness areas, and especially if they can be generated using non-food crop sources. Cellulosic ethanol, produced from switchgrass or biowastes has higher cellulose content and is available in abundant quantities without growing crops. Cellulosic ethanol could therefore be a far more efficient and environmentally friendly biofuel alternative, pending investments in the necessary technology and infrastructure.

Luckily we‘re now witnessing the first retreat on crop-based biofuel production as politicians are finally forced to admit that crop-based biofuels are hugely problematic. The European Union Parliament’s Environment Committee recently voted unanimously to reduce mandated biofuel targets, though only Parliament can make this decision final. In the U.S., the State of Texas is asking the Environmental Protection Agency for a waiver to temporarily reduce ethanol production. As with the EU, EPA has not yet decided what to do. With a little luck, common sense will prevail, and the result will be a stronger food supply, better economic policy, and more wild nature.

More Info:
American Association for the Advancement of Science
New York Times
Sierra Club

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