×
  • ×

    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.

    Writing for
    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
    organization’s
    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.

    Go there>>
    Biofuels and the Environment

    Go there, too>>
    Supermarkets and Service Stations Now Competing for
    Grain

    The Biofuel Illusion

    Related Links:
    Biofuels are No Quick Fix
    Forests Paying the Price for Biofuels
    The Biofuel Dilemma

    Related Links From the Utne Archive:
    The
    Grease Trip

    My
    Vegetarian Car


    Green Your Ride
    ($$)

    Comments? Story tips?
    Write a letter to the editor

    Like this? Want more?Subscribe to Utne
    magazine

    Published on Jul 1, 2006

    UTNE

    In-depth coverage of eye-opening issues that affect your life.