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Whirlwind Created By Biofuels Is Good Chaos

Published on: 10:41AM Jul 17, 2008
Dr. Don Panter
President of Sustainable Oils, LLC

The urgency to find a solution to our country’s energy crisis is creating a whirlwind of activity. That’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Whirlwinds can spur creativity and set scientists on diverse tracks towards solutions and the results can lead to innovative technologies and environmentally superior fuels.

But whirlwinds also can create confusion, and that is not necessarily good.

Biofuels are a case in point. In our search for alternatives to petroleum, we have developed technologies that convert plants to fuel. Biofuels, as they commonly are called, can be made from corn and soybeans, and some biofuels such as biodiesel even can be produced from weed-like plants like such as jathropa, camelina, and even algae. This is good.

But sometimes the picture becomes confused. Biofuels can be made from food crops. Food prices are climbing. Food shortages are looming. Crops are being used as fuel, which leads some to question whether our search for alternatives to crude oil has contributed or created a food shortage. This, clearly, is not so good.

It’s time to take a calm look at the issue; to inject fact into conjecture and consider the link, if any, between our food and our fuel. We should consider the strong scientific evidence that suggests biofuels are not causing food shortages nor driving up prices of food, or causing environmental degradation.

As Robert Zubrin wrote in In Defense of Biofuels, “In the last five years, despite the nearly threefold growth of the corn ethanol industry—actually, because of it—the amount of corn grown in the United States has vastly increased. The U.S. corn crop grew by 45 percent, the production of distillers grain (a high-value animal feed made from the protein saved from the corn used for ethanol) quadrupled, and the net U.S. corn production of food for humans and feed for animals increased 34 percent….At bottom, the entire food versus fuel argument boils down to a Malthusian conceit—that there is only so much that can be grown, so if we grow more of one thing, we must necessarily grow less of something else. But this is simply false. Agriculture is not a zero-sum game.”

Certainly, we can create biofuels out of a variety of plant life. Second generation crops for biofuels can be produced more efficiently, generate higher oil-yields and be produced sustainably. Of course, our nation must be wary of any unintended consequences of agricultural policy that could hurt food supplies or farm-land. But it is critical that we continue to encourage the development of next-generation biofuel feedstocks that add to our energy independence, create green jobs, and produce food and fuel in an environmentally efficient way.

New research confirms the efficacy of algae, biomass, and other non-food feedstocks in producing biofuels; biodiesel in particular, demonstrates exceptional assurance for long-term sustainability and reduction of carbon emissions. Biodiesel can be integrated into the existing petroleum system cheaply and efficiently. The Congressional Budget Office and the U.S. Department of Agriculture confirm that the biodiesel alternative energy option is the least-expensive for meeting the Federal government’s EPAct compliance requirements.

Most important to the debate of fuel vs. food is the fact that biodiesel can be produced from non-food crops. Camelina, for example, is a non-invasive, oilseed crop of the mustard family. It can be grown in arid conditions or rotated with cereal crops and requires low amounts of fertilizer and pesticides. Aptly nicknamed “gold of pleasure,” the high-yielding energy-crop boosts farm revenues by creating a food-plus-fuel scenario. The meal produced from crushed camelina can be used to create omega-3 enriched feed for livestock, a significant benefit that has gotten swept away in the controversy. The beauty of non-food crops like camelina is that they are here today and don’t require new technology breakthroughs, just a commitment to see them succeed.

While biofuels may not be the total solution to global energy and environment problems, they are part of the puzzle. With second generation crops and more appropriate but efficient use of our natural resources, biofuels can make a difference, especially in light of how much agricultural capacity we have. Per Zubrin, “ …there are roughly 2,250 million acres of land in the continental United States. About 1,600 million of those acres are arable. Roughly half of that land (800 million acres) is farmland, but only about a third of that (280 million acres) is actually being cultivated. Only about 85 million of those farm acres are presently growing corn, and just a fifth of that land—about 17 million acres—is growing corn that becomes ethanol.”

Biodiesel feedstock options are abundant and viable. If allowed to flourish, the biodiesel industry will pay for itself by adding green jobs and green fuel to sustainably support our nation’s energy independence.

It’s time to clear up the confusion and end the illusive tug-of-war between food and fuel. It’s time to consider the facts. The whirlwind created by the biofuels industry is a good chaos; one that reduces our dependence on foreign oil and encourages new opportunities, such as biodiesel production, for which the agricultural community can position itself as a steadfast champion for American energy independence and a new driver for the green economy.
Dr. Don Panter has over 20 years of professional experience in both the public and private sectors improving agronomic crops through classical and advanced genetic techniques.  Today, Dr. Panter is President of Sustainable Oils, LLC, a vertically-integrated biofuels company devoted to identifying, improving and producing dedicated biofuels crops sustainably and profitably.

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