[Talking heads still can't see the connection between crop and food
waste and biofuel production. E.g., if lignocellulosic feedstock is
required, the short fibre material which is no longer usable in the
paper recycling process could be a viable feedstock. Today, this
material is shipped overseas, sent to landfill or incinerated.]
The food versus biofuels debate
Helen Whitaker 10 Oct 2016
As the human population grows, we are depleting our natural resources
such as oil reserves and land that is suitable for agriculture. In
response to declining fossil fuel reserves, biofuels are increasingly
being explored as a renewable alternative. Most of the world’s biofuel
is produced in the form of ethanol by fermentation of sugar cane, maize
and soy. However, use of these crops for biofuel production rather than
food has attracted some criticism. Lee Rybeck Lynd from the Thayer
School of Engineering at Dartmouth explains more about the food vs fuel
Could you explain a little bit about your background and areas of research?
I have a bachelors degree in biology, masters in both bacteriology and
engineering, and a doctoral degree in engineering – all a long time ago.
The focus of my research career has been fundamentals of microbial
cellulose utilization, biotechnology related to one-step conversion of
lignocellulosic feedstocks to fuels, innovative biomass processing
technologies, and sustainable energy futures.
How sustainable is biofuel production?
The answer depends on how biofuels are produced, including what they are
produced from. Biofuel production has strong interactions with food
production and security, environmental quality, and social development.
If these interactions are managed well, biofuel production can offer
benefits in all dimensions of sustainability far exceeding those
stemming from energy supply per se. It is also possible to manage them
poorly resulting in unsustainable biofuel supply chains.
There is considerable evidence that a sustainable future is more likely
to be achieved with biofuels than without them. In particular, many
analysts think it is likely that liquid hydrocarbons will be used for
the indefinite future for planes, ocean shipping, and a substantial
fraction of long-haul trucking – together representing about half of
anticipated transport energy use.
If the rest of the global economy were completely decarbonized but this
fraction of the transport sector continued to be powered by fossil
fuels, the resulting emissions would be twice those compatible with the
two degree temperature increase recently targeted by the world’s
governments at the COP21 meeting.
Why is there a debate about food versus fuels?
There are folks who point to the limitations of current technologies,
are skeptical that the interactions mentioned above can or will be
managed without sacrificing food security and livelihoods of the rural
poor or the environment, and thus conclude that it’s risky to move
forward with biofuels. There are also folks who point to the potential
for improved future technologies, argue that biofuels have great
potential to foster sustainability outcomes and may indeed prove
necessary to achieve a sustainable world, and thus conclude that it is
risky not to move forward with biofuels. Each side shows no sign of
running out of ammunition or conviction, so the debate continues.
What are the potential solutions to the debate?
Better understand land availability and the factors that determine
it. While many people have the idea that land is either used at
capacity for food production or used for nature, there is in fact a huge
amount of managed land that makes an insignificant contribution to
global food production.
With a particular eye toward climate, I think we need to weigh the
risks of action in the biofuels arena against the risks of continued
inaction. In my view we have reached the point that the latter are greater.
Get the biofuel train back on the rails and learn from experience.
We need to aggressively target development of low-cost technologies and
deployment of socially and environmentally-beneficial biofuels.
What is the US Government policy on biofuels with regard to the food
versus fuel debate?
There is no one policy but rather a diversity of policies, some of which
are not as well aligned as they could be with either reality or each other.
What are the responses from scientists, industry and agriculture on food
Many, diverse, and often conflicting.
How should land use change in the next 20 years to ensure future
Although many think of climate in relation to energy, choices related to
land use have climate impacts comparable to choices related to
deployment of all renewable energy technologies combined (see Global
Calculator). We thus have a critical need to get land use right that
is independent of biofuels.
This means taking measures to prevent destruction of ecosystems that are
rich in carbon or biodiversity. Very large scale biofuel production, as
well as food production, can function quite well within the land
excluded by such measures.
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