The Great BioFuels Debate
Biofuels, which are industrial fuels derived from plant material, have recently been hailed as having great potential to reduce global warming and increase our energy security. Biofuels such as corn-based ethanol or soy-based diesel emit less carbon than fossil fuels, can improve air quality and can be grown all over the world. So it's not surprising that biofuel production has become a multi-billion dollar industry. However, there are significant problems associated with the biofuel production. While plant materials may very well play a large role in our green-powered energy future, the current crops that are being used - corn, soy and sugar - may not be the most appropriate. In fact, the use of these plants for fuel may actually be making the problem worse.

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 has raised their price considerably and this rise in global food prices has led to hunger and increased social unrest in many parts of the world.

Additionally, farmers worldwide are making nearby fertile land suitable for fuel-producing crops by cutting down native forests and destroying native ecosystems. Ironically, clearing this land actually releases carbon into the atmosphere. Studies show that the amount of carbon released from clearing the land is more than would be reduced by using the resulting biofuel.

Corn and soy are annual crops, meaning they must be planted every year, an energy-intensive operation. In most instances, the crops are grown with chemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides. In some cases, agribusiness companies are using genetically modified seed. Studies have shown that raising corn for fuel uses more energy than it produces in fuel.

These problems must be part of any energy discussion to ensure that we institute just and sustainable policies. Is there any role for biofuels in our energy future? Absolutely. Inedible perennials such as switchgrass, hemp, poplar trees, willow trees and miscanthus can provide fuel while avoiding the challenges mentioned above. The idea of using kudzu, a prolific and unwelcome invader species, has widespread appeal. The many varieties of algae, which can easily be grown in many circumstances, are attracting significant and well-funded research.

In the long run, it is very likely that biofuels will play an important role in the development of a sustainable energy policy. But to be entirely welcome, it will be crucial to choose the right crops and grow them in ways that will not damage our natural ecosystems nor the markets that depend on them. As with all other renewable technologies, sustainability is not always easy, but it is necessary and, with the right research, can be extremely profitable.


Time Magazine: The Trouble With Biofuels (February 14, 2008)

Keep It Green, by Ana Unruh Cohen (December 8, 2006)

By the People, For the People, by David Morris (December 8, 2006)

Biofuel Skeptic Extraordinaire: An interview with David Pimentel, by Tom Philpott (December 8, 2006)

Air Traffic Control: A Look At Biofuels (May 22, 2008)

Seattle Post-Intelligencer Chart Comparing Biofuels (May 3, 2008)

National Biodiesel Board Website

Los Angeles Times: The Old Man Who Farms with the Sea (July 10, 2008)

Honesty About Ethanol (NY Times - November 18, 2008)