Future of Biofuels Is Uncertain, Say Speakers at ISU Conference

Iowa State University's 6th annual Bioeconomy Conference features its own "food vs. fuel" debate.

Published on: Sep 16, 2008

Technology will enable farmers to produce higher yields of corn and soybeans, but there are a number of other concerns that remain in the continuing debate over whether food crops should continue to be made into fuel.

That was the conclusion after a debate among six experts on the "food vs. fuel" question, which took place last week at Iowa State University's 6th annual Biobased Industry Outlook Conference at Ames.

Ted Crosbie, who has a doctorate in agronomy from ISU and is head of Monsanto Co.'s global plant breeding program, believes corn yields will double in the next 20 years, providing ample harvests to feed and fuel the world. "The competition in the seed industry will guarantee those higher yields," said Crosbie.

Increased yields are a needed alternative

Timothy Searchinger of Princeton University also spoke. He criticized the use of prime farmland to grow crops for fuel. He said he hopes Crosbie is right about increased crop yields. "If Ted is not right, we'll have to cut down much of the rain forests in the world just to grow food."

Searchinger, a lawyer formerly associated with the Environmental Defense Fund, earlier this year published a paper asserting that the production of ethanol would double the amount of greenhouse gas emissions during the next 30 years. He argues that with increased corn production farmers will use more diesel fuel and natural gas, thus increasing greenhouse emissions.

In addition, "to produce biofuels farmers can plow up more forest or grassland, releasing to the atmosphere much of the carbon previously stored in plants and soils," says Searchinger, who acknowledges that his research is unlikely to make him popular in the Midwest. "But I think that people like Ted Crosbie and Iowa farmers are doing a good thing by feeding the world. They should keep doing it. They should not use prime farmland to produce crops for biofuels."

Biofuels being put on defense politically

ISU's Bioeconomy Conference this year addressed the food vs. fuel issue as ethanol and other biofuels have been put on the defensive politically. Record high corn prices earlier this year stimulated ongoing criticism from U.S. livestock groups and food manufacturers. Third World nations and others are saying biofuels share the blame for rising food prices.

David Tillman, a University of Minnesota mathematician and ecologist, also spoke at the conference. "We have $100-a-barrel oil, and we're moving toward the equivalent of $100 per barrel food. How many people can afford that?"

Crosbie, who grew up on a farm in northwest Iowa, says the U.S. can expect to harvest a 25 billion bushel corn crop within the next 25 years - almost double the 13.1 billion bushels produced in 2007. At the same time, he says, nations will be- come self-sufficient in corn production as a result of better genetics and crop production methods.

Ethanol is being unfairly blamed

Ethanol is being unfairly blamed for recent food price rises, says Crosbie, who adds, "if the economics of ethanol work and if there continues to be a need for renewable fuel, it won't matter how many scientific articles are written."

University of Illinois professor Stephen Long, who's done considerable research on switchgrass and miscanthus to replace corn for ethanol production, is sympathetic to corn farmers. He points out that five years ago there were large surpluses of corn and American farmers were accused of dumping surplus corn into Third World markets and hurting local farmers in those countries. "Today the situation is reversed," says Long. "The surpluses are gone but U.S. farmers are still being blamed."

How do biofuels affect global warming?

Long says the question of how biofuels will affect global warming is far from settled. There are remarkably few studies on the exchange of biofuels and greenhouse gases. But he warned that "global climate change may be coming faster than we think."

Cellulosic ethanol was discussed by Charles Wyman, a University of California researcher, who says government subsidies alone aren't enough to sustain the industry. "Eventually you need private investment," says Wyman, "and investors are always afraid the government will change its mind and take the subsidies away." Also, new technologies are emerging from their beginning stages but are finding it hard to attract capital, he says.

Another speaker, John Regalbuto, a University of Illinois professor, believes advances in chemical processes will be made that can produce a new generation of petroleum-based biofuels that are more environmentally friendly and also get better mileage than ethanol.