Food Or Fuel? Researchers Critical Of Biofuel Targets

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Biofuel crops (photo: Texas A&M University biofuels research alliance)

Biofuel crops (photo: Texas A&M University biofuels research alliance)

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On the face of it, biofuels seem like an ideal short to medium-term solution for reducing our reliance on fossil fuels.

After all, they could not only be grown at home--reducing dependence on foreign oil--but growing crops is also a renewable process, and net CO2 emissions are lower than burning fossil fuels because the crops absorb CO2 as they grow.

Everybody wins. Apart from, that is, consumers of domestically-produced food. That's the warning from William Kolby Smith, a doctoral candidate at the University of Montana.

As Wards Auto reports, Smith predicts that almost 80 percent of existing U.S. farmland would have to be devoted to producing corn for ethanol, if current biofuel production objectives are to be met.

That would take away a huge amount of the current land devoted to food crops. While the U.S. could import the deficit, that seems as counter-productive as relying on imports for oil.

The current Energy Independence and Security Act, published in 2007, sets a U.S. biofuel target of 35.9 billion gallons of ethanol by 2022--up from 10.6 billion gallons today.

Smith's study, published in the American Chemical Society's Environmental Science & Technology journal, admits that those targets are achievable. However, unless biofuel technology moves on significantly from current levels, 80 percent of the current crop harvest would have to be displaced.

Alternatively, Smith suggests the conversion of 60 percent of rangeland productivity. Rangeland is non-farmed land, such as grasslands, prairies and savanna. It's typically used for livestock grazing, and current figures show that as much as 36 percent of U.S. land is classified as rangeland.

The report warns that such widespread change in land use could pollute freshwater and even accelerate global climate change.

It seems that the debate over the viability of biofuels will continue to rumble on for the forseeable future.

What do you think our best option is for the future production of biofuels? Let us know in the comments section below.

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