Tortillas serve as the main protein staple of the Mexican diet, particularly for the poor. While most observers related this to the North American Free Trade Agreement and its consequences on small Mexican farmers, what struck me was the increased focus of American industry on growing corn for ethanol, diverting it from the food supply, and also increasing its market value.
I tucked this worrisome anomaly away in my mind for further investigation, and here, one year later it re-emerges: two separate studies published in the recent issue of Science magazine conclude that the rosy scenario of producing ethanol from corn and other feedstocks as an alternative fuel that would reduce emissions causing global warming—is actual a scenario for potentially double those greenhouse gas emissions, because enormous swathes of cropland are being converted to grow this new valuable commodity. As the lead author of one of the reports and an environmental researcher at Princeton University, Timothy Searchinger explained to the International Herald Tribune:
“When you take this into account, most of the biofuel that people are using or planning to use would probably increase greenhouse gasses substantially.”
We know that biofuels have been widely promoted by Congress and this administration as key to replacing our dependence on foreign oil. Ground-breaking energy legislation was recently passed mandating a six-fold increase in the use of ethanol by 2022. Proponents argue that from 20 – 70% fewer emissions (with switchgrass-based ethanol) than gasoline is reason enough to put full weight behind its amped up production.
As a “renewable” energy source, meaning, we just grow more instead of drill more of the finite stuff, the ethanol equation was appealing. According to the Science studies, however, what was missing from the equation was the huge increase in land use and the resultant loss of carbon sinks, or carbon absorbing forests, wetlands, croplands, that would result from the mad rush to produce this new heavily subsidized “oil” boom.
The European Union’s experience with biofuels is instructive. Long before the US they were mandating that biofuels be integrated into the fuel supply system; later, to avert the rush to “grow” more fuel and maintain their sources as “sustainable”, they required that the biofuel come from sustainably harvested sources ensuring that their biofuel use was carbon neutral. The consequence, however, was that the exporting country simply exported crops from the existing croplands—designated “sustainable,” but the farmers and poor, in response to the lack of croplands just cleared more land to grow their own foodcrops.
While this is not the end of the biofuel story–for there is evidence that a more careful approach to production, especially using waste products instead of feedstocks, may still provide some useful gasoline substitutes—this is a great lesson for those wishing to rush forward with solutions, however well intentioned.
Here’s another great one! Let’s make gasoline from air!!!
For a minute there, I thought I would have egg all over my face—and my biodiesel Bug.