Something To Chew On: Are biofuels the scapegoat?

Corn has gone from unknown to savior to villain. - Debbie Phillips-Donaldson

Burning food today to serve the mobility of rich countries is a crime against humanity," said Jean Ziegler, a special rapporteur on the Right to Food for the United Nations, in a radio interview quoted in an April 28 article. Ziegler was condemning the use of food and feed crops such as corn in the production of biofuels.

His harsh criticism echoed that of many others now decrying what seemed like such a good idea less than two years ago, when US and European Union policies encouraged and even mandated increasing levels of ethanol production from corn and other sources. "Food-to-fuel mandates were created for the right reasons," wrote Lester Brown of the Earth Policy Institute and Jonathan Lewis of the Clean Air Task Force in an April 22 essay "But new evidence has shown that the justifications for these mandates were inaccurate."

"In just 15 months, corn went from unknown to savior to villain," says Mark Lyons, PhD, director of international projects for Alltech, an animal health and nutrition company.

A bad rap?

Critics like Brown say ethanol production actually requires more energy than it generates, creates hazardous byproducts and wreaks havoc on the food and feed supply chain, shrinking supplies while driving up prices. (Petfood is not immune; see " The biofuel-petfood connection ")

But proponents of biofuels argue they're getting a bad rap. For example, Brazil has won praise for the success of its sugarcane ethanol industry, which supplies 45% of the country's transportation fuel and is touted as being more environmentally friendly and efficient and less expensive to produce than corn-based ethanol.

"Biofuels are not the villains threatening the food security of poorer nations," says Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, Brazil's president, speaking at a conference and quoted in the article. He says the real crime is regarding all biofuels as the same.

Theoretical vs. proven

Alternatives to corn-based ethanol are starting to earn more attention. Alltech just received a US$30 million grant from the US Department of Energy to help build a biorefinery in Kentucky that will use cellulosic raw materials, such as switch grass, corn cobs and corn stover. It will also be able to produce algae, which the company claims could theoretically produce 5,000 gallons of biofuel per acre per year versus the 400 gallons per acre produced by corn.

It's theoretical because the technology is not yet fully developed. That's the problem with cellulosic-based ethanol, toocurrent technology means its environmental impact isn't much better than that for corn-based. Yet some experts see today's corn ethanol technology and industry serving as important bridges to future, more proven biofuels using more efficient and renewable resources.

Ethanol's response

For example, ICM, a builder of ethanol plants based in Colwich, Kansas, USA, is partnering with a company called Coskata (who also claims General Motors as a partner) to use patented microbes to convert various materials to ethanol on a mass scale. The first plant is scheduled to open in late 2010.

Don Endres, CEO of VeraSun Energy, an ethanol producer based in Brookings, South Dakota, USA, contends in an April 30 Washington Post article that the corn used to make ethanol isn't the same kind people eat, and his plants also produce dried distillers grain sold to farmers as animal feed. He believes yields will increase and someday provide enough corn for food and fuel.

Meanwhile, people around the world are struggling to feed their families - and their pets. Biofuels will probably continue to get some of the blame. Reid Detchon, executive director of think tank Energy Future Coalition, says in the article: "I think the sudden rise in price of food has people looking for causes, and biofuels are a convenient scapegoat."

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