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Biofuels, the Next Generation

The promotion of biofuels is a central component of president Obama’s energy policy. But biofuel crops, which are mostly corn, sugar cane, oil palm and soy, are in big trouble because of the overwhelming and continuously growing evidence of the environmental harm that they cause. And besides, all large-scale industrial agriculture requires large amounts of fossil fuel, so biofuels are hardly a cure for petroleum addiction.

The Obama administration and an increasing number of biofuel supporters acknowledge these problems but they wager that these will be solved by a new generation of biofuels made from cellulose.

And what’s so great about cellulose? For one, it is everywhere. Cellulose is the most common organic compound on earth and a key structural component of the cell walls of green plants and many forms of algae. About one third of all plant matter in the world is cellulose.

In spite of the best efforts of scientists, the cellulose molecule stubbornly resists all cost-effective attempts at transforming it into fuel. So they are now looking to nature for answers: fungi and certain bacteria found in the guts of termites and ruminant mammals (such as cows) that produce enzymes that can digest cellulose.

The ability to turn cellulose into fuel would make it possible to use any vegetable matter, living or dead, to this end- corn stalks, suburban lawn clippings, dead wood, you name it. According to their enthusiastic supporters, the main advantage of cellulose-based fuels is that they will not compete with food crops. You can get a Nobel prize for less than this.

And that’s where biotechnology comes in. The biotech industry proudly claims to be a major player in both the energy business and global warming prevention strategies by virtue of its cutting edge research and development into, among other things, cellulose biofuels.

The president’s cabinet is equal to the task. When he was Iowa governor, current agriculture secretary Tom Vilsack was named Governor of the Year 2001 by the Biotechnology Industry Organization for his passionate defense of the biotech industry and its products. And energy secretary Steven Chu was the main architect of a controversial $500 million dollar deal between the BP corporation and the University of California’s Berkeley campus. This money, a sum that has no precedent in the history of academia, will be used to develop novel biofuels through biotechnology.

But some scientists and environmentalists warn that the cellulose boom will in no way solve the problems of the current generation of biofuels, and in fact will create new ones.

Last January a coalition of diverse groups, that included Food First and the Institute for Social Ecology, issued an open letter that denounced biofuels as a false solution to global warming and specifically contested the assertion that cellulose-based fuel production will not compete with food production.

The open letter’s basic arguments are not new at all. Back in 2007 a group of eleven non-governmental organizations, from countries such as Argentina, Indonesia and Denmark, produced a report titled “Agrofuels: Towards a Reality Check”. The document was particularly emphatic in warning that using so-called agriculture “waste” to meet global energy needs is not a smart idea at all.

What the numerous objections to the biofuels revolution- whether the current generation or yet-to-exist biotech fuels- come down to is that the feedstock for this energy source must come from somewhere. Looking at the promo literature for new generation biotech biofuels one gets the impression that these are made out of thin air. But the fact is that all those fuels come from organisms, hence the prefix “bio”. And all those organisms, whether they be farm crops or engineered microbes, ultimately need to be nourished with physical inputs like nutrients and water, which are not cheaply available. They are renewable but not infinite.

So how much raw material would the cellulose boom require? The U.S. Departments of Energy and Agriculture set out to find the answer and in 2005 issued a joint report which concluded that the use of wood, grasses, and “plant waste” for the production of cellulosic ethanol would require 1.3 billion tons of dry biomass a year. Obtaining this amount would be possible only by removing most of the country’s agricultural residues, planting an area three times the size of Missouri with perennial cellulose-rich crops like switchgrass, and putting all U.S. farmland under “no-till” agriculture, say the report’s authors.

In these times of economic and ecological collapse it is hard not to get carried away by the lure of technological quick fixes, like biofuels. I beg to differ from most renewable energy advocates: this is not a matter of “bad” non-renewable energy sources vs. “good” renewable ones. The ultimate root problem behind environmental catastrophe and the energy crisis is the voracious and ever-increasing energy demand, which unfortunately many environmentalists and eco-entrepreneurs have come to accept as a given.

Rather than jumping headlong into a dubious biofuels revolution, our best bet for survival will be the realization that increased energy consumption and higher standards of living are not synonymous.

CARMELO RUIZ-MARRERO, a self-described renaissance hack and impractical humanist, is a Puerto Rican journalist, environmental educator and author. He is as Senior Fellow of the Environmental Leadership Program, a Fellow of the Oakland Institute, and directs the Puerto Rico Project on Biosafety (http://bioseguridad.blogspot.com/). Whenever he is not writing or working at a call center, he distributes farm produce for something that resembles a CSA. Ruiz-Marrero, a compulsive blogger, blogs away at: http://carmeloruiz.blogspot.com/

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Carmelo Ruiz-Marrero is a Puerto Rican journalist.

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