A Concerned Scientist Speaks Out

Posted on February 21st, 2013

Someone asked me recently why there was so much confusion in Europe over the best feedstocks to use for biofuels and why there isn’t more unanimous support for crops that produce food and fuel? While it does not directly affect the US biodiesel market, it is an issue I have been watching with concern, because many stakeholders that should be supporting renewable fuels seem to be confused or are confusing the issue for others. Here is the response I crafted for my concerned colleague, and I decide to share it with you, because it may be important for everyone.

It is understandable that the deeply entrenched petroleum lobby is using their immense financial might to support political, legal, and media campaigns to disparage biofuels and prevent renewables from taking over their lucrative market share. It is bewildering that groups such as these do not support renewable alternatives to fossil fuel.

Science is clear that reliance on fossil fuels is responsible for increasing carbon dioxide and methane in our atmosphere. It should also be apparent that volatile crude oil prices threaten the food security of under-developed regions and shock the economies of even the most highly-developed countries. Biofuels are the only alternative to fossil fuels for all of the mobile uses that require liquid fuel. Sourcing energy from biomass harnesses solar energy and brings diversity to our energy portfolio. It is this diversity, which is needed to combat high and volatile crude oil prices.

The important question that we all must consider is; how do we use our available resources in a sustainable way to adopt better alternatives to fossil fuel? Certainly there is a finite carrying capacity of the land to produce food, fuel, fiber, and all of the ecosystem services we desire. If we are going to provide quality of life for nine billion people on this planet, we must optimize the carrying capacity of our natural resources, without outstripping them or causing negative consequences. The unfortunate part of this debate is that those who are opposing biofuels are not grasping the latest science regarding biofuel production capacity. They are inexplicitly locked in a do-nothing position that politically favors the status quo reliance on fossil fuels. We all know the status quo is killing our environment and our climate and making the future more difficult for our children. We have to rely on the best science to lead the way forward, and we cannot afford to fear our success in finding better ways to harness our energy directly from the sun.

Much of the European community has been misled by some predictive modeling that suggested biofuels would raise prices for food and increased food production would increase greenhouse gas emissions. However, there is a significant and growing body of work that suggests that these indirect effects are beneficial. A hallmark of good science is peer review and repeatability. Any new science is bound to get better with time and attention from knowledgeable experts. The European community would benefit greatly from an open and transparent review of the modeling before jumping to a panicked conclusion that leads them in the exact opposite direction of good science and sound policy.

The best work on indirect land use change has been done by agencies such as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, The California Air Resources Board, Purdue University, and the U.S. Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory. These independent efforts have all benefited from expert review that includes expertise from the fields of economics, engineering, agriculture, and biofuel processing. Together, this makes the models more reliable and more likely to predict real-world outcomes. While these independent studies quantify somewhat different specific results, the trend is consistent. The best science on indirect effects shows that we can meet our goals for biofuel production, produce more food around the world, and still reduce greenhouse gases relative to using petroleum alone.

It is true that biofuels have a positive impact on the economics of farming. This brings economic benefits to rural areas and farming communities. It also improves the economics of food production. Oilseed crops, for instance produce protein and oil. Some of the oil may be diverted to biofuels, but all of the protein and much of the vegetable oil remains available for food, feed, and other uses. The U.S. biodiesel industry has demonstrated a significant decrease in the cost of soy protein meal as a result of using some soybean oil for biodiesel production. The combined increase in vegetable oil prices and the decrease in protein prices moderates the net effect on total crop prices. The marginal impact on whole bean prices does have an indirect effect on farmers around the globe. This positive signal makes it economically possible for farmers to produce more food around the world. The qualified agencies named above are improving their techniques for predicting where this new food production is likely to take place. They are also quantifying the temporary emissions of biogenic carbon that may occur through this predicted land use change. The latest modeling is showing that direct emissions of producing biofuels and the indirect emissions of producing this additional quantity of food are still considerably less than if we had just used fossil fuels and produced no additional food for growing populations.

I implore every activist who cares about the environment or the food security of the human race to carefully understand the latest quantification of these impacts. The potential tragedy of reversing course on the EU’s Renewable Fuel Directive has consequences beyond the biofuel industry. If the EU abandons biofuel feedstocks that are co-produced with food and feed commodities, they will eliminate the economic signal to produce more food around the world. Protein prices will rise. Prices for oils and carbohydrates may fall, but so will global production. Decreasing production and investment in yield growth and better agronomics is the opposite direction we need to feed a growing population.

There is great potential in biofuel feedstocks that are not food commodities. However, all biomass will compete in some way for finite resources of land, water, and nutrients. Parallel research must continue to find the optimum use of our resources. This optimization will likely vary significantly from region to region; and it is highly likely that the most efficient strategies will involve the production of food and energy side by side in flexible commodities that serve multiple benefits to society while sustainably harvesting energy from the sun while recycling carbon, water, and nutrients as nature intended.

Don Scott serves as the Director of Sustainability for the National Biodiesel Board.

One Comment

  1. john says:

    There are problems in every kind of advancement. Has anyone ever looked at the osage orange? Large tree, grows like a weed. Tons of fruit. 1/2 pound fruit.

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