The use of crops for energy has become a multi-billion-dollar industry worldwide.  Corn-based ethanol and soy diesel have become staples of a booming market for fuel that can be grown in fields rather than gouged from the Earth.  Liquid fuel from sugar cane is at the core of powering the entire fleet of motor vehicles in Brazil. 

Bio-fuels are thus an important and rapidly advancing form of renewable energy.  In essence, they convert the sunlight that grows them into industrial fuel.

But they are not without complications.  Like any other technology---even a green one---nature has limitations and requirements that can turn what seems like a good idea into one that can be counter-productive and even destructive.

In this case, the reality is that bio-fuels can be hugely important for our green-powered future.  But corn, soy and sugar (as well as sugar beets) may be the wrong crops to make them so.

One major problem is that these are food crops, on which millions of human beings depend.  The demand for them in the production of fuel can and has raised their price considerably, forcing human beings to compete with machines for their basic sustenance.

Corn and soy are also annual crops, meaning they must be planted every year, an energy-intensive operation.  In most instances, they are currently raised with chemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides.  In some cases, the agri-business mega-corporations raising these crops for energy are also using genetically modified seed.

In addition, the soaring price of bio-fuels has led some corporations to decimate virgin forests and other pristine eco-systems in order to raise energy crops, especially where profitability ratios have become highly attractive.  Large sugar companies, whose presence in the Florida Everglades is inappropriate and ecologically problematic, are now justifying their presence there by touting sugar as a crucial energy crop. 

All this must stop.  Soy can be substantially more efficient than corn in producing a net gain over the energy that was expended to grow it.  But it is inedible perennials that must ultimately bring us the bulk of our bio-fuels.  Among those crops are switchgrass, hemp, poplar trees, willow trees, miscanthus, and more.  The idea of using kudzu, a horrifically prolific and unwelcome invader species, has widespread appeal.  The many varieties of algae, which can be easily grown in many circumstances, are attracting intense, well-funded research.

In the long run, there is little doubt bio-fuels will play an important and growing role in fueling our conversion to a green-powered planet.  But to be entirely welcome, it will be crucial to pick the right crops, and to grow them in ways that will truly enhance our natural eco-systems.  As with all other renewable technologies, being green is not always easy---but it's certainly necessary and, with the right research, can be extremely profitable. 


Pacific Bio-Diesel

Biomass for Fuel, Fibre, Fertiliser and Feed: Agro-industrial Reports CD-ROM

Green Chip Review - The Only Biofuel That Can Take Oil

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