Nathanael Greene and Lee Lynd: The land can provide both food and biofuels

  • May 11, 2008 - 5:00 PM

Biofuels were riding a wave of popularity only a few months ago, but now they're being condemned in light of rising food prices and recent studies showing that biofuel production can exacerbate climate change. While these concerns should motivate greater efforts to do biofuels right, we must not throw the baby out with the bath water. Rather than retreating from current policies, Minnesota and the nation should follow California and Massachusetts in building on this foundation.

The current rise in food prices is causing a humanitarian crisis that we must address. But if we want to fix the problem, we first need to understand what's behind it. Biofuels are a modest part of the food price picture, consuming only 4 percent of world grain, and there is little evidence that food prices would be much lower if we did not produce biofuels. The primary reasons for skyrocketing food prices include our rising energy costs, increased demand for meat in developing countries, drought and misguided agricultural policies.

Global warming is also a crisis, and two recent papers in the journal Science identify issues that we must pay attention to if biofuels are going to help lower global-warming pollution. The papers point out that if the demand for biofuels causes unmanaged forests or grasslands to be converted to row crops, we must account for the global-warming pollution that results -- and that these emissions can overwhelm the benefits of displaced gasoline or diesel consumption. There are solutions, however.

We can make biofuels from nonfood biomass (woody material, grasses, stalks and stems) in ways that neither compete with food production nor cause the increase in global-warming pollution that comes from converting wild landscapes to row crops. In other words, using the right part of plants and producing them in the right ways take biofuels out of the food-price equation and make them part of the solution to global warming.

Such cellulosic biomass is available from a greater diversity of sources than row crops, including wastes; land that cannot grow food crops or is not needed for food production, and new approaches that coproduce food and biofuel feedstocks. Several studies have shown that wastes from the forest-products industry, crop residues and winter cover crops could provide hundreds of millions of tons of biomass annually.

The renewable-fuel standard signed into law in December mandates a shift in our production practices that directly addresses global-warming pollution. And by promoting sustainable cellulosic biofuels, it will indirectly address the food-production challenge. The Energy Independence and Security Act establishes global-warming pollution standards for biofuels and creates critical land-use safeguards. New biofuels projects that increase global-warming emissions are not permitted. Most of the mandated 15 billion gallons of corn ethanol production capacity required by the act is already in place or under construction. As expansion beyond this level is unlikely, the ceiling of corn ethanol production appears to be in sight.

The low-carbon fuel standard, first embraced by California and recently by Massachusetts, goes beyond setting a minimum standard and rewards the best solutions. This approach requires that oil companies reduce the average global-warming pollution of their fuels but lets the market decide the best mix of options. Biofuels that provide the greatest reductions will certainly play a big role, but so can other technologies such as vehicles that use electricity or natural gas.

In April, six committees of Minnesota's House and Senate jointly gave the low-carbon fuel standard a full initial hearing. We should build on the foundation provided by the renewable-fuel standard and follow the state level leadership with a federal low-carbon fuel standard as part of comprehensive climate legislation.

We also need to realize that better biofuel policies are no excuse for not addressing world hunger head-on through better agriculture and food-aid policies.

More generally, we should go beyond all-or-nothing headlines and pursue a transition to biofuel strategies that realize the compatible objectives of replacing oil, expanding opportunities for existing producers and securing both food supplies and a sustainable future.

Nathanael Greene is a senior policy analyst for the Natural Resources Defense Council; Lee Lynd is a professor of engineering at Dartmouth and chief scientific officer of Mascoma Corp.

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