I was recently invited to present at the 2nd Annual BioEnergy Symposium sponsored by the Infrastructure, Design, Environment & Sustainability (IDEAS) Center at the University of North Carolina – Charlotte. I was asked specifically to discuss agricultural and land use considerations of biofuel production and use. I was honored and as usual jumped at the opportunity to discuss environmental and agricultural issues with a diverse group of individuals that included other academics, folks from industry, government agencies and the general public.
A theme that emerged from talking with those in attendance and listening to the various speakers was that challenges facing the sustainable biofuel industry are also opportunities. For example, some biofuels (such as corn based ethanol) are not sustainable (despite current perceptions). Additionally, we are faced with a chicken/egg dilemma with regard to biofuel demand and infrastructure. With a lack of demand for 100% biofuel (i.e. lack of cars running on pure biofuel) there is little interest in building fuel stations. With few biofuel stations many will balk at buying a vehicle that runs on biofuel. These challenges provide excellent opportunity for American scientists, entrepreneurs, businesses and public.
My presentation focused on the sustainable agriculture perspective on biofuels. Specifically, I addressed some of myths and valid concerns in the food vs fuel debate. Although there are some real concerns with using corn for ethanol (such as the use of fossil fuels for corn production and soil degradation) the displacement of land for growing fuel rather than food is not at the heart of the world’s food crisis (high food prices and more than 1 billion undernourished), at least not in the United States. Granted, the destruction of tropical rainforest and other areas containing significant biodiversity for food OR fuel production is a cause for concern. However, our current issues with global hunger has more to do with a lack of infrastructure in impoverished countries and poor food policies (domestically and abroad) then it does with a lack of food production. Globally we already produce enough food to feed everyone on this planet. However, poor food policies, food waste, over indulgence and poor infrastructure make it difficult for everyone to get what they need. This doesn’t mean that we’ll be able to keep doing this indefinitely. Increases in human population, land use conversion, water resource depletion and soil degradation will be significant challenges facing food production and human hunger in the future. It’s just that currently, there is room on this planet for biofuel production and development AND food production. I just hope we get off of corn-based ethanol and on to 2nd generation (cellulostic) or algae based fuels sooner rather than later.