The worst moment in history to demand biofuels
By Dennis T. Avery
This is the worst moment in history to demand billions of gallons of biofuels from our farms.
I told the Sustainable Agriculture students at Iowa State University last month, "Human numbers are still expanding rapidly. With more people and higher incomes, we'd need to double farm output by 2050 even without biofuels. . . . Food needs will stabilize and then decline after 2050, but any wildlife species crowded off the planet by the huge land requirements of biofuels in the next 40 years will be gone forever."
Unfortunately, at least three-fourths of the world's wild species are in the warm tropics where we're now going to grow millions of acres of sugar cane for ethanol and put in huge palm oil plantations for biodiesel.
I told my Iowa audience, "the Great Plains where we sit today had 60 million bison, 100 million antelope, prairie dogs and an interesting set of grasses. That isn't many species, and those species have not gone extinct. But biofuels threaten thousands of species. Sugar cane takes less land per gallon of ethanol produced, but it's produced on tropic lands with much more biodiversity than the Great Plains. Indonesia sits at the juncture of two incredibly species-rich ecosystems, yet we're clearing it for biodiesel. Every bit of poor-quality land we sacrifice for biofuels carries far more species risk than growing high yields on high-quality land with pesticides, fertilizers and biotech seeds."
Meanwhile, burning those biofuels worsens the greenhouse gas problem. Two new studies in the journal Science (T. (Searchinger, 319:1238-40 and J. Fargione, 319: 1235-1238) point out that if the biofuels are grown on land converted from forest or grasses, the stored soil carbon gasses off into the air as CO2.
As a result, I explained, corn ethanol is twice as bad for global warming as burning gasoline or diesel. And we are already using virtually all of the world's good farmland to produce food and feed. Essentially, all of the cropland for biofuels will have to come from clearing forests, plowing grasslands, or draining wetlands. This is ecologically criminal.
Biofuels also threaten the whole future of the sustainable farming movement. A world in which food prices have tripled, in which the World Food Program can't afford to buy food for the famine-stricken, in which the orangutans and the Sumatran tiger are being displaced from their tropical forests to grow biodiesel—this is not a world asking how to grow low-yield crops without pesticides. This is a world that wants higher crop yields.
Why did no one warn us about releasing the soil carbon before President Bush and the European Commission installed their mandates for huge amounts of corn ethanol and palm-oil-based biodiesel? Would the biofuel plants have been built if the Greens and the press had told us the whole truth? And for that matter, why did the governments allow themselves to be pressured into this black hole of higher food prices, lost forests, slaughtered endangered species?
The Consumer Federation of America claims that biofuels are lowering gasoline prices, but oil still costs close to $100 per barrel. We've tripled the world price of grain in the past two years without making any dent in gasoline prices. When we rule out coal and nuclear energy, (thanks to the Greens) we automatically make gasoline impossibly expensive.
Corn ethanol is showing itself to be a massive error. Now how will the governments get out of the mandate before world wildlife disappears for all time?
Dennis T. Avery is a senior fellow for the Hudson Institute in Washington, DC and is the Director for the Center for Global Food Issues. He 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 2442 or email to email@example.com.
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