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Stanford researchers question whether biofuel is the answer to U.S. energy independence

By Marra DeGraff | 14 May 2012

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Many scientists hail plant-based fuels as a way to increase U.S. energy independence and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. But a new analysis from Stanford researchers reveals some unanticipated and unfortunate side effects. (Photo courtesy of creative commons Flickr user L*Ali)

Many of us cringe when we drive by the gas station in the morning and see that, once again, prices have gone up. But it’s not just gas prices. For the last four years, the costs of corn and crude oil have been intimately linked, and it was this relationship that Stanford’s Center on Food Security and the Environment addressed in a panel discussion last month.

The oil and corn price correlation stems in part from the fact that every time you fill up your tank, a percentage of what you are pumping into your vehicle — ethanol blended with the gasoline — is actually made from corn. The growth and transport of corn depend on petroleum products, too, from diesel fuel to petroleum-based fertilizers. In essence, gas and grain have become one and the same, and the implications of this relationship affect everything from commodity prices here in the United States to the conditions of agricultural workers in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Addressing a room of Stanford affiliates and a remote audience of policymakers in Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa, Food Security and the Environment Director Rosamond Naylor and colleague Siwa Msangi described the evolution of the biofuels industry from its hopeful past to what they believe is a more sinister present. While the original motivations behind expanding the use of corn-based ethanol and other biofuels were good, the speakers said that the negative effects are becoming increasingly apparent as the industry matures and grows.

Some of the original intentions have indeed come to fruition. As Naylor explained, the expansion of biofuels use has created jobs, income opportunities and an entire export industry in Sub-Saharan Africa. Msangi said that promoting biofuels here in the United States may help us to break free from our crippling and costly dependence on fossil fuels and move towards arguably cleaner, less politically-charged, and more renewable energy sources.

However, a slew of negative effects of the biofuels industry has also cropped up since the United States entered the market in 2005. Economically, increasing demand for corn has led to increasing food prices, and the use of corn in fuel has reduced the amount available for export as feed or food to such places as Asia, the Middle East, and North Africa. Ecologically, deforestation and other destructive practices in the name of agricultural expansion have ruined ecosystems.

Greater agricultural demands have also had significant social implications for families and households in Sub-Saharan Africa. Many traditionally matriarchal households are changing as increased demand for agricultural workers encourages women to move from the home to the field.

Is all this change worth it? Studies have shown that, all things considered, emissions tied to renewable fuels are not even significantly less than those from fossil fuels. Indeed, some practices tied to biofuel production, like the burning of cleared vegetation, have resulted in major increases in carbon dioxide released to the atmosphere.

Despite its shortcomings, the biofuels industry has continued to grow. Some of the most important factors keeping renewable fuels alive are U.S. and European Union policies mandating increased incorporation of these fuels into gasoline. These mandates, Naylor asserted, are the root of most of the problems associated with the industry. And as David Lobell, who studies the interactions between food production, food security, and the environment at Stanford, pointed out, “one of the risks with biofuels is that alternatives don’t get explored; biofuels are sustaining our liquid fuel economy.”

While the speakers at last month’s event focused largely on the complexity and negative aspects of biofuels, not all experts dismiss the expanding industry. Ian Monroe, who teaches energy and climate courses at Stanford, voiced a more hopeful opinion. He said that “the real silver lining in the biofuel debate is that it has forced scientists and policymakers to take a much more in-depth look at how we should balance our land resources between needs for food, fuel, and other uses in a post-oil economy.” In other words, despite their problems, biofuels are helping us to prepare for the future in ways that we may not have considered otherwise.

Due to existing mandates, biofuels are sure to be with us long into that future, together with gas and grain prices that continue rising together. The silver lining seems to be a long way from the silver bullet many once hoped biofuels could be.

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