Second-guessing the Biofuel Solution
With bombs dropping in the Middle East and gas pump prices
topping $3 a gallon, biofuels are being hailed as the great green
hope for an alternative energy policy. But some environmentalists
are starting to raise a red flag.
Environmental Science and Technology,
editor Jerald L. Schnoor acknowledges the benefits of ethanol
and biodiesel: They strengthen the farm economy and make the
United States less dependent on foreign oil. Those pluses,
though, have a negative side, says Schnoor. For example, current
row-crop agriculture saps nutrients from the land and erodes the
soil to a degree that makes the method unsustainable.
Julia Olmstead, a graduate fellow with the Land Institute in
Salina, Kansas, created a ripple of realization with her recent
article in the Prairie Writers Circle,
‘The Biofuel Illusion.’ An economy based on
biofuels is flat-out unrealistic, Olmstead argues. ‘To produce
enough corn-based ethanol to meet current US demand for
automotive gasoline,’ Olmstead writes, ‘we would need to nearly
double the amount of land used for harvested crops, plant all of
it in corn, year after year, and not eat any of it.’ And keep in
mind, she notes, those farm operations rely heavily on fossil
fuels to run farm machinery.
Furthering the case against biofuel, Lester R. Brown, founder
and president of the Earth Policy Institute, predicts in the
Eco-Economy Update that the gasoline
alternative will drive up the cost of food. This already has
happened with sugar, one source for ethanol. The price of sugar has
doubled since producers began redirecting their harvests toward
ethanol production, which now accounts for 10 percent of the
world’s harvest. Brown points out that most ethanol in the United
States is produced from corn, a plant not only eaten by the
nation’s citizens, but by livestock as well. With increased demand,
the price of corn and meat likely will soon be on the rise. Will
grocery shoppers stand a chance against the subsidized ethanol
industry? Will less affluent nations suffer as food crops are
rededicated to fuel cars?
The United States will fare the best, all three authors agree,
if we place our bets on reducing fuel consumption rather than
funding alternative fuel sources. Yet we need not throw our hands
in the air and surrender to Big Oil. Schnoor suggests that, with a
few tweaks to production, biofuel could be efficiently produced
from perennial crops native to the heartland, such as switchgrass.
Cutting back energy consumption, paired with the use of alternative
energy sources — wind, solar, and biofuel — would help create a
more sustainable future.
Biofuels and the Environment
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