Monday, August 03, 2009

The Food, Energy and Environment ‘Trilemma’

Energy Cane
Michael Stravato for The New York Times
A farmer stands near a patch of energy cane near New Iberia, La.

At the 2009 Bio World Congress on Industrial Biotechnology, held in Montreal last week, industry players and scientists found themselves pondering two seemingly contradictory concerns.

One focused on how rapid advances in genetic engineering and biotechnology can expand the market for cellulosic ethanol and other “second-generation biofuels,” which are touted as low-emission substitutes for corn ethanol (itself a partial substitute for gasoline).

The other involved the problem of ensuring that exponential growth in the global biofuel market — which is projected to grow 12.3 percent a year through 2017, according to one recent study of the industry — will not hurt the environment and divert vast tracks of arable land needed for food or grain production.

A paper published in Science earlier this month, referred to the triple challenges of energy, environment and food as the biofuel “trilemma.” The authors identified five “beneficial” sources of biomass: perennial plants grown on abandoned farm fields, crop residue, sustainably harvested wood residue, double or mixed crops, and industrial/municipal waste.

“In a world seeking solutions to its energy, environmental, and food challenges, society cannot afford to miss out on the global greenhouse-gas emission reductions and the local environmental and societal benefits when biofuels are done right,” the authors state. “However, society also cannot accept the undesirable impacts of biofuels done wrong.”

Another assessment, from a biofuels study group established by Scientific Committee on Problems of the Environment, part of an international science body, discusses the challenge of dedicated energy crops:

A small number of food-crop species like corn, sugarcane, oil palm and rapeseed are currently used globally to produce biofuels. Their continued use as biofuel feedstocks in light of increasing food demand, limited land resources, and stagnant agricultural yields is problematic. Dedicated energy crops like switchgrass in temperate areas and jatropha in the tropics have been proposed as a way to produce energy without impacting food security or the environment. However, such special energy crops require land, water, nutrients, and other inputs, and therefore compete with food crop for these resources. This competition contributes to conversion of grasslands, to deforestation, to and other land-use changes, with the associated adverse environmental effects.

The paper, which was published last year, estimates that if biofuels account for 10 percent of transportation fuels, as some governments hope, production could eventually account for at least 8 percent of the world’s supply of arable land and perhaps much more, as well as consume large quantities of water.

For the comments go to the original post at The NY Times.

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