With several cities near my home proposing the construction of ethanol plants, I've always been acutely aware of the prospect of producing and using fuels made from renewable resources.
Once painted as the solution to the world's oil woes, further investigation into the science and economics behind certain biofuels has caused many researchers to doubt the viability of this particular alternative energy source.
Last week, Jean Ziegler, a United Nations specialist on world hunger, condemned the manufacture of biofuels as a "crime against humanity." This is by far the strongest statement that anyone has ever made in the debate's long history.
I think Ziegler is wrong on many accounts. Let's have a look at the claim.
At first glance, I was confused by his quip. It's a nice little sound bite, but what does it actually mean?
Upon reading more from Ziegler, it is clear to me that what he objects to is creating fuel from arable land that could be used to feed people. Ziegler advocates a five-year moratorium on biofuel production in the hopes that scientists will develop more advanced technology that could convert agricultural waste into fuel.
It's an outrageous statement, but it looks a little more reasonable when deconstructed. However, I still don't think he makes a good argument. Peter Kendall, president of the National Farmer's Union in the United Kingdom, argued that with appropriate management, biofuels don't need to take a bite out of food distribution.
Kendall added that if the UK uses its surplus wheat - which is normally exported to other countries - they could make enough biofuel to replace 5 percent of their fuel usage.
Kendall said that this will benefit the UK's environment and the farmers in poor countries who have problems selling their grains due to foreign vendors dominating their markets.
But can this be done in our country? The United States uses much more gasoline than the UK uses. Therefore, applying their solution to our problem would be ineffective. (A University of Minnesota research team indicates that if all the corn produced in the United States was used to make ethanol, it would only replace 12 percent of our fuel usage.)
In addition, the production of biofuels can be environmentally costly if gone about in the wrong way. To be honest, if biofuels are in fact "a crime against humanity," I'd venture to say that the crime is rooted in the production of corn ethanol and less in the excessive use of arable land.
Corn ethanol production has devastating effects on the environment because the process requires more water than can be sustainably distributed by many areas of the world. The process threatens potable water supply.
Yes, exploiting farmland to produce biofuel exhausts nutrient supply and limits future land use, but does this mean that all biofuels carry a cost too high to bear? No.
While transforming agricultural waste into biofuel is an excellent idea, other avenues can also be pursued without depleting environmental resources. For example, mixed prairie grasses can be grown on idle or marginal land, which would not impact food crops.
Furthermore, prairie grasses remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere by sequestering it below ground in root systems. If the top of the prairie was cleared annually for fuel, the roots would still be left underground, meaning that this carbon would stay sequestered from year to year.
I think prairie grasses sound like a compelling solution. Granted, we'd all have to do our part in conserving fuel so that making biofuel is effective in the long run. Biofuels are still very much a viable solution to the energy crisis. There's still work to be done in regards to effectively converting prairie biomass into ethanol on a large scale, and this is the type of research we should encourage.
Making fuel from prairie grass wouldn't impact food production, and this solution would help fight global warming, which has the potential to be the next big human catastrophe in terms of world food and water production and distribution. It's hard to imagine a solution that could be less of a crime against humanity.