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December 5, 2006


A look at the impacts of biofuels production, in the U.S. and the

[Rachel's introduction: We want to believe we can replace fossil
fuels with biofuels (ethanol and biodiesel from crops). But a
burgeoning biofuels market in the U.S. is creating massive
deforestation in the Third World.]

By Julia Olmstead

Great news! We can finally scratch "driving less" off our list of ways
to curb global warming and reduce our dependence on foreign oil!
Biofuels will soon not only replace much of our petroleum, but improve
soil fertility and save the American farmer as well!

Sound too good to be true? Well, yes. But you could be excused for
buying the hype.

Ethanol and biodiesel are being promoted as cures for our energy and
environmental woes not just by flacks for corporations like Archer
Daniels Midland, BP, and DuPont, but by many eco-minded activists and
some prominent environmental groups like the Natural Resources Defense
Council as well.

As intuitive as it may seem that fuel from plants would be more benign
than petroleum-based fuels, the ecological impacts of biofuel
production are more complicated, and wider-reaching, than an
environmentalist might first imagine.

For years, some critics have claimed that corn-based ethanol has a
negative "net energy balance" -- that is, that ethanol requires more
energy to produce than it delivers as fuel. But as biofuel production
efficiencies have improved, critics have turned their focus to broader
sustainability issues.

"Even if corn and soy biodiesel have positive energy balances, that's
not enough," says Andy Heggenstaller, a graduate student at Iowa State
University researching biofuel crop production. "Large-scale
production of corn and soybeans has negative ecological consequences.
If biofuels are based on systems that exacerbate soil erosion and
water contamination, they're ultimately not sustainable."

Stalk in Trade

Corn is one of the planet's most energy-intensive crops. Industrial
corn production requires huge quantities of synthetic nitrogen
fertilizers (derived primarily from natural gas) and petroleum-based
pesticides like atrazine, a known endocrine disrupter. Soybeans need
less nitrogen, but farmers douse bean fields with other nutrients and
with chemicals like Roundup to keep them pest-free.

The effects of corn and soybean production in the Midwest include
massive topsoil erosion, pollution of surface and groundwater with
pesticides, and fertilizer runoff that travels down the Mississippi
River to deplete oxygen from a portion of the Gulf of Mexico called
the dead zone that has, in the last few years, been the size of New

As ethanol use pushes corn prices higher, farmers are increasingly
abandoning the traditional corn-soybean rotation to what's known in
farm country as corn-on-corn. High prices have encouraged farmers to
plant corn year after year, an intensification that boosts fertilizer
and pesticide requirements.

Water use has also become a concern as corn production expands into
drier areas like Kansas, where the crop requires irrigation. The
ethanol boom has sent water demands skyrocketing, putting pressure on
already suffering sources like the Ogallala aquifer.

And according to a recent report by the World Resources Institute,
stepped-up corn ethanol production means not only increases in soil
erosion and water pollution, but increases in greenhouse-gas
emissions. "If your objective is reducing greenhouse-gas emissions,
you need to be aware of what's happening in the agricultural sector,"
says Liz Marshall, coauthor of the WRI study.

Ethanol proponents say the fuel emits up to 13 percent fewer
greenhouse gases than gasoline. But an increase in emissions on the
farm could cancel out benefits from emission decreases at the

A Kinder, Gentler Crop?

These environmental concerns have led researchers like Heggenstaller
to join a wave of interest in a new generation of biofuels, the much-
hyped but yet-to-be-seen-on-the-market cellulosic ethanol. Cellulosic
differs from grain ethanol in that the fuel comes from the fiber in
the plant, rather than the starches in the grain. Any type of plant
material can be a source of cellulose, and even cow manure could be
processed into fuel.

Fans of cellulosic ethanol are interested in perennial grasses like
prairie native switchgrass and towering miscanthus, which require much
lower quantities of fertilizers and pesticides than corn and eliminate
the need to plow fields annually, a major cause of soil erosion. They
say these crops could produce much greater quantities of biomass than
corn, and on lands less suitable for crop production.

Indeed, if biofuels are going to make a substantial dent in meeting
our fuel needs, processors will need to look beyond corn. If all the
corn currently grown in the U.S. were turned into ethanol, it would
replace only 15 percent of our annual gasoline demand. (By way of
comparison, we could eliminate 15 percent of our gasoline demand by
increasing average fuel efficiency of U.S. cars by just four miles per
gallon -- an attainable goal using on-the-shelf technology.)

Due to soybeans' relatively low oil yield, soy biodiesel production in
the U.S. has already been written off as marginal by most researchers.
So many academic and industry leaders are intensely optimistic about
the transition to cellulosic sources.

"There's no doubt cellulosic ethanol can supply our energy needs,"
says Emily Heaton, manager of Energy Crop Product Development at
Ceres, Inc., a California-based plant biotechnology company that's
working to develop high-yield biomass crops. She agrees with
projections from the U.S. Department of Energy that say fuel from
perennial grasses could replace more than a third of our petroleum
needs by 2030. "We'll be producing more than a billion tons of biomass
a year in an environmentally sustainable way," Heaton says.

But even the advent of cellulosic ethanol -- which is not expected to
come on line for at least several more years -- could mean more corn,
according to Charles Brummer, a professor of plant breeding at the
University of Georgia who works with switchgrass and other perennial
biomass plants. Corn stalks and other residues from the corn harvest
could be used to make cellulosic ethanol just as readily as

"Farmers will produce what makes money," Brummer says. "As long as
farm programs support corn production, we're not going to see them
growing much of anything else."

Meanwhile, in the Rest of the World

The hype over biofuels in the U.S. and Europe has had wide-ranging
effects perhaps not envisioned by the environmental advocates who
promote their use. Throughout tropical countries like Indonesia,
Malaysia, Brazil, and Colombia, rainforests and grasslands are being
cleared for soybean and oil-palm plantations to make biodiesel, a
product that is then marketed halfway across the world as a "green"

In Southeast Asia, and increasingly in the Amazon, plantations of the
African oil palm have become wildly lucrative. After monocropping the
palms on recently cleared rainforest land, growers press the palm
fruit and kernel for oil that can be used in both food and industrial
applications, including -- and increasingly -- as biodiesel.

The palm oil industry is booming: global exports increased more than
50 percent from 1999 to 2004. To meet the growing demand, producers in
Malaysia and Indonesia have ramped up production by clearing thousands
of square miles of rainforest for new plantations.

In Indonesia, rainforest loss for oil palms has contributed to the
endangerment of 140 species of land animals, while in Malaysia animals
like the Sumatran tiger and Bornean orangutan have been pushed to the
brink of extinction. Fish kills have become common in waterways
surrounding plantations and palm-oil mills, as soil erosion from the
cleared land and mill effluents have left waterways clogged with
sediment and unviable.

The boom hasn't been limited to Southeast Asia. In one of the most
disturbing examples of the biofuel hype's hidden effects, right-wing
paramilitary groups in Colombia -- a country mired in a four-decade-
old civil war -- have in recent years begun planting oil palm
plantations over wide swaths of the territory they control. These
areas of tropical forest, which lie in the northwestern coastal region
known as the Choco and rank among the planet's key storehouses of
biodiversity, have been almost entirely expropriated through violence,
including massacres of Afro-Colombian and indigenous communities that
have forced those populations out of the region.

Farther south, another biodiversity hotspot is being rapidly cleared
to plant a biodiesel crop. Nearly 80 percent of Brazil's Cerrado
region -- a woodland savanna mix -- has been cleared for agricultural
production, mostly for soybeans, according to a Conservation
International report.

Despite being home to thousands of endemic plant and animal species,
the Cerrado has been promoted as "the last agricultural frontier" by
green-revolution hero and Nobel Peace Prize winner Norman Borlaug. Low
land and labor costs and high yield potential have sent investors from
as far away as Iowa scrambling to buy up these Brazilian grasslands,
frequently in collaboration with U.S. agribusinesses like Archer
Daniels Midland, whose first Brazilian biodiesel production facility
is currently in the works.

Tad Patzek, a professor in UC-Berkeley's Department of Civil and
Environmental Engineering who's known primarily as a critic of corn
ethanol, says what's happening in tropical ecosystems is much more
serious than the biofuel situation in the U.S. "We've already
destroyed the prairie, and the topsoil in the Midwest is going, going,
gone," Patzek says. "But the expensive noise we're making here is
being translated there into the total obliteration of the most
precious ecosystems on earth."

- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -

Julia Olmstead is a graduate student in plant breeding and sustainable
agriculture at Iowa State University and a graduate fellow with the
Land Institute in Salina, Kan., and a freelance writer on agricultural
and environmental issues.

Copyright 2006. Grist Magazine, Inc.