Report: Biofuels Are Inefficient, Crowd Out Food Production

January 30, 2015 09:36 AM
 
Report: Biofuels Are Inefficient, Crowd Out Food Production

Biofuel advocates note that ethanol makes gasoline burn cleaner, improving air quality.

Turning corn and sugar into energy is inefficient and crowds out land that could be better used to produce food, according to an environmental advocacy group.

“The quest for bioenergy at a meaningful scale is both unrealistic and unsustainable,” the World Resources Institute said in a report Thursday. The Washington-based nonprofit group recommended governments phase out biofuel subsidies and limit the amount of ethanol that must be blended with gasoline.

Supporters of bioenergy say it offsets the use of fossil fuels, providing a cleaner, renewable resource in lieu of oil. The report concludes that using biofuels to meet 20 percent of the world’s energy by 2050 would require harvesting twice as much plant material as current levels. At the same time, such an effort has the potential to widen the gap between what’s needed to feed the world and what’s grown, the institute said.

Ethanol produced from sugarcane converts about 0.2 percent of sunlight into energy. Solar panels, meanwhile, can generate more than 100 times the usable energy per hectare, Tim Searchinger, author of the report and a research scholar at Princeton University in New Jersey, said in an interview.

“It would be nice to believe that there was this massive quantity of bioenergy that was available, it’s just unfortunately not true,” Searchinger said. “People need to improve their understanding of this issue.”

The world faces a 70 percent “food gap” between available crop calories this year and what’s needed for 2050, the report found. If all crop-based biofuels ended, that gap would shrink to 60 percent. More ambitious targets, such as those proposed in Europe and the U.S., could mean biofuels consume about 30 percent of the world’s crops, according to the report.

Sugars, Starches

The report overstates the value of corn and sugar in feeding humans, said Pat Gruber, chief executive officer of Gevo Inc., an Englewood, Colorado-based biofuel producer that uses corn and plant waste to make ethanol and isobutanol. Sugars and starches don’t contribute to nutrition.

“They don’t consider food properly,” Gruber said of the report’s authors. “The starch in corn doesn’t add value to anything -- it’s just calories.”

Ethanol offers a 40 percent net energy gain from farm to pump and it reduces greenhouse-gas emissions, South Dakota corn grower Keith Alverson said in an e-mailed statement from the National Corn Growers Association.

“There is more than enough corn to meet all demands: food, fuel, feed, and fiber,” said Alverson.

‘No Alternative’

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in November punted on setting quotas for the use of renewable fuels last year. Under a 2007 law, refiners are required to blend billions of gallons of renewable fuels like ethanol and biodiesel with gasoline. A slowdown in U.S. gasoline demand meant adding biofuels to a level that might push them above a maximum percentage and damage engines.

Even so, use of biofuels is necessary to oxygenate gasoline, making it burn cleaner and reducing smog. “In the U.S., there’s no alternative anymore” to ethanol, said Salim Morsy, a Bloomberg New Energy Finance analyst.

“I don’t see this report as having any sort of material impact on the demand for ethanol and biofuels and the current market dynamics globally,” Morsy said.

 

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Comments

 
Spell Check

Matt
Marshall, MN
1/30/2015 11:56 AM
 

  If I am understanding this articles brief on the subject correctly, we have to double the amount of plant fiber to get to the 20% margin of renewable fuel but in doing so we create a 70% food gap. However, if we went away from ethanol/biofuels in this report, we can get that gap down to 60%. Sounds to me, and any other logical person, eliminating biofuels won't solve the hunger problem at all. What is the potential effect of eliminating biofuels on climate/fossil fuel consumption? One final thing, were do they plan on putting all these solar fields at?

 
 
Ron Groskreutz
norwalk, IA
1/30/2015 10:40 PM
 

  A bushel of corn weighs 56 pounds, and is about 9% protein. So, a bushel of corn contains 5.3 pounds of protein. After using that bushel of corn for ethanol, there is about 19 pounds of DDG's (Dry distiller Grains) left over. These ddg's are about 28-30% protein (5.4 pounds of protein), and fed to livestock. All of the protein in the corn is fed, and we get 19 pounds of ethanol to boot.

 
 
Chris Baggott
Greenfield, IN
1/30/2015 11:42 AM
 

  So I sure don't understand this statement then: "The report overstates the value of corn and sugar in feeding humans, said Pat Gruber, chief executive officer of Gevo Inc., an Englewood, Colorado-based biofuel producer that uses corn and plant waste to make ethanol and isobutanol. Sugars and starches don’t contribute to nutrition." If this is true and we are worried about our responsibility to 'feed the world' then why are we not encouraging our farmers to grow food instead of starches & sugars that have no nutritional value? The us produces more than 30% of the worlds corn and it consumes over 80,000,000 acres of farmland. Wouldn't we be better served producing food?

 
 

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