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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Comments (9)
  1. I am not in favor of expanding the use of corn ethanol as it is not a very efficient biofuel. But the food vs fuel myth is like a bad penny.

    1) It is misleading to chose what is probably the worst biofuel option and then paint all biofuels with the same brush.

    2) Even with corn ethanol what's left after production is still a useful commodity. Corn mash is still great animal feed! Currently a lot of corn gets ground into animal feed so, ethanol production does not necessarily take ANY food out of the system.

  2. Couldn't agree more. Some ethanol myths are busted in this interesting wired article:

    -Even the rather inefficient corn ethanol isn't energy negative;
    -it doesn't reduce food supply because Only 1 percent of all corn grown in this country is eaten by humans and there is a lot of animal feed byproduct;
    -It does reduce CO2 emissions;
    -It doesn't use too much water;
    -Cars don't necessarily get lower mileage from ethanol

    ...and that's before you switch to much more efficient switchgrass.

  3. Cars don't get lower mileage using ethanol? Gasoline has 50% more BTUs per gallon than ethanol. For an ethanol engine to get the same mpg it would have to be 50% more efficient. I don't think so.

  4. "I don't think so."

    Using BTU's per gallon [Open-Flame-Burner Tech] as *the* determinant in higher/lower mpg's is an indicator of a misunderstanding of the internal combustion motor [ICM]. A combustion chamber setup for alcohol is different than gasoline and therefor increases mpg and power. [higher octane]

    The gentleman's statement [Chris O] is correct.


  5. Making ethanol from corn is idiotic. At least the subsidies ended. But if we could switch to switchgrass somehow then we would kick @ss and no one would suffer. The next step would be having the algae spit out biofuels and we could seal off the middle east and let them live in the dark ages forever.

  6. Good lord, this is incorrect and will not bode well for Mr. Smith's chance at getting his doctorate. EISA 2007 does not set a target of 36 billion gallons of Ethanol by 2022. It sets a target of 36BilGal of renewable fuel by 2022. This includes fuel from cellulosic sources, advanced biofuels and biomass-based diesel. It only requires 15BilGal of Conventional(corn) Ethanol, and that's by 2013. After 2013, the amount of corn ethanol required is capped at 15bilGal. The other 21Billion Gallons will come from other sources, all advanced (has to achieve a 50%GHG reduction)

  7. In reading the whole paper, it is clear to me that Mr Smith understands the EISA but took an unfortunate shortcut in summarizing his findings.

  8. Having read through William Kolby Smith's paper, I find the paper very interesting. He has a lot of research about the theoretical efficiency of energy production in plants based on satellite imagery and other data.

    The paper makes it clear that he is at odds with other industry experts that overestimate (in his opinion) the amount of plant energy that can be produced on US cropland and rangeland.

    It is really difficult to argue with his data, however, the paper reads as if he has found every possible excuse why we will not be able to get 36 of renewable fuels in the USA by 2022, which is quite a prediction given how quickly we have gone from 0 to 15 bil.gals of ethanol.

    But there is one interesting admission, cont.

  9. Toward the end of the paper the author includes this one statement.

    "Alternatively, our results suggest that the cellulosic-derived
    energy target of 79 billion L or 4.7 EJ could potentially be
    exceeded utilizing only current harvest residues, requiring no
    additional harvest land (Table 3; Figure 4)."

    In other words, get cellulosic ethanol to work and the leftovers from current crops already have all the energy we need to meet these EISA targets which is very cool. This also knocks the food vs fuel debate down to the ground (except for the 15 corn starch ethanol that we already produce.)

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