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The Future of Fuel: Sugar?

by Katie Leo 


Tags: Environment, Energy, Biofuel, Agrofuel, GeneWatch, The Ecologist,

Sugar CubeBehold the next generation of agrofuels. In the Jan-Feb issue of GeneWatch (article not available online), Kathy Jo Wetter examines what many scientists and politicians are hailing as the future of fuel: sugar. But, at what cost will this supposedly eco-friendly fuel be engineered?

Synthetic biologists are working on ways to break down cellulose biomass to be converted into fuels that “resemble petrochemicals” and are “compatible with existing infrastructure.” In other words, they hope that in the future cars will run on sugar derived from the residue of plants like rice and corn, and that the resulting “sugar economy” will be both environmentally friendly and sustainable.

But Wetter likens this idea to the Dr. Seuss character Sylvester McMonkey McBean’s claim that his machine will magically turn regular Sneetches into the star-bellied kind. The dream of low-cost agrofuels without any environmental ramifications is just not realistic.

“What happens when all plant matter becomes potential feedstocks?” Wetter writes. “Whose land will grow the residue?”

The February issue of The Ecologist explores just that question. Helena Paul reports that the popular assertion that second-generation agrofuels can be grown on “marginal” land contains potentially damaging assumptions about what exactly constitutes “marginal” land, who owns it, and how much of it exists.

Paul quotes the Indian magazine Mausam, which states: “Rural and forest communities […]say that there is no such thing as wastelands. Most of these lands are grazing lands, common-pastures, degraded forests and also lands of small and marginal communities. They not only support a multitude of livelihoods but also have a critical ecological role. This is where the government and corporations are pushing for their fuels, displacing thousands of people.” 

Sources: GeneWatch, The Ecologist

Image by Uwe Hermann, licensed under Creative Commons