Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Growing Crops for Fuel

Yesterday I wrote that growing crops for fuels was contributing to the world food crisis, and quoted Lester Brown's warnings on the subject. It turns out that yesterday he had written an opinion piece (with Jonathan Lewis) on the dangers of biofuels in the Washington Post:
Most troubling, though, is that the higher food prices caused in large part by food-to-fuel mandates create incentives for global deforestation, including in the Amazon basin. As Time magazine reported this month, huge swaths of forest are being cleared for agricultural development. The result is devastating: We lose an ecological treasure and critical habitat for endangered species, as well as the world's largest "carbon sink." And when the forests are cleared and the land plowed for farming, the carbon that had been sequestered in the plants and soil is released. Princeton scholar Tim Searchinger has modeled this impact and reports in Science magazine that the net impact of the food-to-fuel push will be an increase in global carbon emissions -- and thus a catalyst for climate change.
Meanwhile, the mandates are not reducing our dependence on foreign oil. Last year, the United States burned about a quarter of its national corn supply as fuel -- and this led to only a 1 percent reduction in the country's oil consumption.
The good news is that people are coming to understand the consequences of biofuels, which is why public support for ethanol subsidies has dropped over the last two years.


Anonymous Nancy Willing said...

Where is the R&D for using the non-food part of a plant that Bush touted when he was here visiting DuPont. The corn stalk not the corn might not solve the clearing you describe here but it might. There is plenty of chaff/stalks already available, one would think.

9:53 AM, April 23, 2008  
Anonymous Nick Fernandez said...

Corn to Ethanol was a good idea in theory, but the math comes out horrible. The scales are all wrong and the side effects are devastating.
Switchgrass ethanol is much better. The typical yield is 1000 gal/acre compared to 200 gal/acre for corn and requires very little fertilizer. If we can create switchgrass farms on land that is not already being used for food production or covered with rainforest, it's an appealing proposition. In the long run though, this is not enough, and vehicles will be forced to draw their energy from something besides hydrocarbon fuels.
The push for corn ethanol certainly was very hasty. The intentions were in the right place, but transportation fuels create a tough problem that requires more thoughtful analysis.

1:18 PM, April 23, 2008  
Anonymous Tyler Nixon said...

In Brazil the harvesting of sugar cane to feed the country's self-sufficiency-creating ethanol has resulted in pretty much slave labor conditions.

Biofuels have serious consequences in every aspect, many arguably worse than the environmental, economic and political outrages of international petro-business. No matter how you cut, it they put hydrocarbon waste byproducts back into the environment, beyond the earth's capacity to naturally re-process it, e.g. they pollute.

As an alternative biofuels should be the lowest on the priority list, if only because they continue the paradigm of fuel sold as a commodity rather than harnessed freely through technology. But of course this is the very same reason they are such a source of political fixing and subsidy.

The real players behind the energy-as-commoditized-fuel bonanza would happily see people starve and food prices soar so they can turn Con Agra and ADM into the next ExxonMobil and Shell...and bleed us all dry for some more...for as long as they can get away with it.

Homemade photovoltaic hydrogen and on-board water-generated hydroxy fuel for combustion engines are the most clean, efficient, and immediately-achievable way out of this on the greatest scale for personal/residential energy demands.

The conglomerates want us all to think we will always need them and be their economic serfs. The joke will be on them. Energy independence will begin house-to-house, not carbon-fuel-industry-to-government-to-carbon-fuel-industry ad destructum. This process will result in untold opportunities for skilled labor, as a side benefit.

Damnit we must get on this now!

2:01 PM, April 23, 2008  

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