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Another failing biofuel "miracle"

By Dennis T. Avery
web posted February 22, 2010

My wife is complaining about our increased costs at the supermarket. I remind her that every pound of meat, milk, and butter we buy requires several pounds of corn to produce—and biofuel mandates have shoved the corn price up from about $ 2 per bushel to $3.60. Many hog producers, dairymen, and egg farms have gone bust due to the inevitably higher cost of feed for livestock.

The higher food costs come on top of the already-higher prices we pay at the pump for the lower-energy ethanol being mixed with our gasoline.

Now, comes word of another failing biofuel "miracle." Thousands of farmers in the developing world were told that biofuel from an oily tree fruit, jatropha, could be grown on marginal land. Thus it could produce massive amounts of renewable fuels without competing with food crops.

Now it turns out the experts were wrong about jatropha growing well on marginal land. Jatropha will grow on marginal land, but it needs good land to produce economically viable yields. Indian farmers, for example, find the forecast yields of 2–5 tons per hectare are actually less than 2 tons.

Jatropha treeMeanwhile, millions of jatropha trees are being grown instead of food on farms from Ghana and Guatemala to Mozambique and India. EU companies have reportedly leased 5 million hectares of land for biofuel production, much of it in Africa, where it will compete with already-inadequate food production and threaten unique wildlife. 
 
Major question: In the name of all that is environmentally holy, why are we trying to grow fuel crops on "marginal land"?  Marginal land is where the world's wild species live. There isn't any "spare" land anywhere in the world.

Fuel crops are a fundamentally bad idea because we get so little fuel per acre. The U.S. burns 135 billion gallons worth of gasoline per year, and corn produces about 90 gallons worth of gasoline-equivalent per acre per year. How many million acres of corn ethanol would it take to make a significant difference in our "energy independence"?  We're already farming 37 percent of the earth's land area, and unless research double per-acre food yields again, we'll need to clear another 30–50 percent of the earth's land surface just to feed ourselves in 2050. Count on at least 8 billion people, with at least 7 billion of them affluent enough to demand meat, milk, and pet food.

Europe is making biodiesel out of its rapeseed crop—but also importing lots of palm oil from Indonesia. There, thousands of Great Apes (orangutans) are being slaughtered to make room for the palm seedlings. This is conservation?

Ironically, some of the farmers who have planted jatropha are finding no one wants to buy it because the costs of refining and distribution are too high. The oil giant BP, for example, has pulled out of a planned $50 million jatropha joint venture in Africa. "As other technologies came up," said a spokesman, "we looked again at whether jatropha was going to be the best biofuel source that could be scaled up. We have decided to look elsewhere." 

Thus far, no alternative energy source works well. Nuclear power seems to be the best hope and the Obama administration is finally adjusting to that reality. Even inadequate, erratic sources such as solar panels and wind turbines are less destructive to conservation than using scarce land for biofuels. ESR

Dennis T. Avery is a senior fellow for the Hudson Institute in Washington, DC. He is an environmental economist and was formerly a senior analyst for the Department of State. He is co-author, with S. Fred Singer, of Unstoppable Global Warming Every 1500 Hundred Years, Readers may write him at PO Box 202, Churchville, VA 24421 or email to cgfi@hughes.net.

 

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