Biofuels Are Misunderstood

Recently, there have been many murmurs questioning the carbon reducing ability of the biofuel industry. One scientist in particular, Mr. Joe Fargione of The Nature Conservancy, says that statistical research has shown that biofuel production, as it currently exists, produces more carbon pollution than traditional fossil fuels. Keep in mind that this article is in no way an endorsement of the fossil fuel industry. At the end of the article there are some suggestions as to how the biofuel industry can modified to make less impact on the climate.

The two main reasons that biofuels are currently disastrous for the environment have to do with the way in which the alternative fuel source is manufactured.

1. Crops are not being rotated in biofuel farms. Previously, corn farmers would rotate soy bean crops in between harvests of corn. This has been a farming practice since the Renaissance, and helps to insure soil quality improves gradually and requires less fertilization. Previously these corn farms were creating a food stock, and therefore the regulations for food production were in effect; most regulations attempt to insure an edible product as well as mitigate damage to the environment. Producing corn for biofuel is different in that nobody will consume this corn. Since the corn is no longer regulated as a food product, why would you waste money growing a crop of soybeans in between your next harvest of biofuel-bound corn? Instead, it is more financially rewarding to harvest another crop of biofuel and use cheap and semi-toxic fertilizers to insure a large crop of corn. The runoff of toxic, petro-chemically produced fertilizers helps to weaken ecosystems that would otherwise trap carbon in soil, organisms and plants.

2. Converting wild land into a farm with one massive crop of corn releases a huge amount of carbon trapped in soil and wild plants. Joe Fargione says “Let’s say you drain and clear an Indonesian peat bog and replant it with palm oil for biofuel. Over 50 years, the carbon released by the decomposing peat would end up being 420 times greater than the carbon saved by using one year of palm biodiesel. This means that it would take 420 years of using that biofuel to “pay off the debt” of carbon that is released by draining and clearing peatland.” In addition to this, opening up new tracks of agricultural land for nonfood production creates an unsustainable demand on the ecosystem that will accelerate global warming and species extinction.

3. The next problem with biofuel stems from economic supply and demand reasons. Since the aforementioned American farmers are no longer growing soybeans, someone has to step in and grow the product and meet demand. South American farmers have gleefully stepped into this role and are now converting huge tracts of previously wild amazon into soybean farms, hastening the breakdown of these vital ecosystems.

4. Biofuels hold less energy per gallon of fuel, thereby creating more carbon emissions through the transport of the liquid fuel.

Before you black out from the depressing list of problems, remember there is always a new way to look at an old industry. If biofuels were created from cast-off agricultural products and byproducts, then the fuel source would be lowering carbon emissions and bolstering the economy through domestic production of a product. This would limit the amount of production possible at each biofuel distillery, but in the long run would improve the profits of the particular agricultural company because they would lower fuel costs and/or be able to sell excess fuel locally. Intrinsically, there is great value in the production of biofuels, it is just a matter of perfecting the manufacturing process and specifically in harnessing the supplementary energy prospects of intelligent waste management protocols.

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