Biofuels prove harmful

By Brandon Sack

Late last week, The Guardian newspaper of London reported a leaked study from the World Bank that concluded that biofuels are responsible for driving up worldwide food costs by 75 percent, just a smidgen higher than the Bush administration’s figure of 2 percent to 3 percent.

This means that soccer moms all over the U.S. may have to stop patting themselves on the back for pumping 40 gallons of ethanol-enhanced gasoline into their flex-fuel Suburbans.

Here at home, we feel the impact of biofuel use in paying a little more for groceries when we go to Publix. But for 100 million people all over the world, these price increases have meant a descent into abject poverty.

Even though it’s encouraging to see the entire world and the U.S. looking for alternative fuel sources, we need to take this opportunity to look at the risks and benefits of biofuels as well as the motivation behind their development.

One major justification for the use of biofuels has been that they reduce greenhouse gases. The accepted logic is that they achieve this by not only burning cleaner than fossil fuel alone but also by soaking up carbon dioxide during the growing process. Unfortunately, a recently published report found that corn-based ethanol products such as those produced in the U.S. almost double the greenhouse gas emissions as a result of the destruction of forests to make way for new biofuel crops. Even biofuels from switchgrass would result in a 50 percent increase in greenhouse gases when you consider the change in land use.

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Another argument is that biofuels will help wean Americans off foreign oil. In reality, we would need to expand our existing cropland 157 percent to 262 percent in order to replace even half of our fossil fuels with corn-based ethanol.

Although these data are relatively new, the concerns they bring up are far from novel. And unfortunately, politicians of both parties have declined to consider these possible risks. Instead, our leaders seized an opportunity to placate farm lobbyists and voters to whom ethanol seemed like a silver bullet.

Today, we are paying for their irresponsibility to the tune of between $5 billion and $7 billion a year in subsidies for biofuels, subsidies that have only been questioned by one presidential candidate ƒ_” Sen. John McCain. And although Sen. Barack Obama has a more ambitious plan for biofuel research and is, in my view, more likely to implement such a program, he continues to preach the false promises of corn-based ethanol while keeping close ties with many from the ethanol industry.

Is this to say that biofuels are a complete waste of time and should be scrapped altogether? Not necessarily. Biofuels will likely play a key role in our transition to a form of transportation that is not only more environmentally friendly but one that also reduces our dependence on non-renewable sources of energy. However, some key modifications must be made to our policies.

For starters, we must back off of corn-based ethanol immediately. It’s not better for the environment, it’s not cheaper than fossil fuel, and it forces people around the world to compete with cars for food. Furthermore, we should divert some of our current subsidies into the research of more sustainable biofuels that can be grown in areas not used for food production, such as algal and cellulosic ethanol. Only when we are certain we can produce significant amounts of biofuels without inflicting greater environmental or social harm should we consider going full steam ahead with their commercialization.