Biofuels are Here To Stay: What To Do About Food Supply?

Editor’s Note: I’m in Houston, TX, this week, celebrating the International Year of the Planet by posting on topics covered at the first ever joint meeting between the American societies of Soil Science, Geology, Crop Science and Agronomy. With a significant focus on biofuels, this conference should be rife with interesting materials.

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In a wide-ranging session on Tuesday dealing with global biofuel, food security and poverty issues, there was plenty for the presenters to disagree about — but the one thing they could all concur on was that the biofuel genie is out of the bottle and he’s here to stay.

Several times during the session the presenters highlighted the fact that biofuels have finally brought an inherent value to agriculture that was previously missing. This, more than anything else, is why biofuels are not going to go away. Up to now, the lack of agricultural value has caused a deep deficiency in the level of funding and investment that governments worldwide have provided for their agricultural security and infrastructure.

As pointed out by Dr. Kenneth Cassman, a professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, energy and food consumption are linked to human wealth. As a society’s wealth increases, its energy consumption rises far more quickly than its food consumption – in fact, food consumption eventually plateaus because people can only fit so much into their stomachs. This very fact is leading to a revolution — the result of which will be that, in the future, we will view fuel as a more important outcome from growing crops than food.

So, if biofuels are here to stay, how can the global community prevent millions of people from falling into famine due to competition of food land with biofuel land when biofuel land turns out to be more profitable? Several ideas were floated, but the most agreed upon solution was that crop yields need to be drastically improved to pack more food value into the same amount of land — otherwise, the amount of crop land needed to feed the world will lead to an environmental catastrophe of its own.

The argument came down to a major difference between those that think the only answer is to genetically engineer our way out of the problem and those that think the simpler and better solution would be to provide farmers with the education, equipment and strategies to bring their currently low yields up to the maximum yield possible without spending huge amounts of resources on research into genetic modification.

It was a clear and stark difference: those in the genetic engineering corner think that the panacea of GMOs can provide all of the above: higher yields, drought resistance, pest resistance, and crop nutrient use improvements. But those in the non-GMO corner are skeptical of these claims, and feel that the money currently sunk into genetic engineering research might be being wasted.

The trick, the non-GMO group says, will be to simultaneously increase yield and reduce the environmental impact of farming. It’s very easy to increase one at the expense of the other, but turns out to be very hard to find ways to do both together — and without a huge diversion of money from the current glut the biotech industry is receiving to more traditional sorts of agricultural research, that goal may be damn near impossible to reach.

Dr. Cassman’s closing points sum it up rather perfectly:

“For those of you that do think that genetic engineering is going to deliver on many of these promises — quantum leaps in yield, drought tolerance, nutrient use efficiency — I feel it’s a lot like the problems we face in the world financial system today. There’s no transparency.”

“If [the genetic engineering boom] had happened 30 years ago, much of the information underpinning those claims would be in the public domain. We’d be able to look at it, and challenge it and see if it’s real.”

“We’re in a very dangerous system now where the policy makers believe [what the biotech companies say] and then change what they fund and how they invest research dollars nationally and globally [to divert money to the biotech industry]. The end result is that these [biotech] companies are telling them what they have in the pipeline and the policy makers don’t realize that what [these companies] are selling is seed, and they have no responsibility to publish the underpinning science.”

“We’ve got to be very careful here as a global community. We have such a great potential now to harness the value that biofuels have brought to agriculture. All of our careers we have fought because agriculture has no value, and countries were not investing in it because there was no value in it. The world bank told you to build a road to a resort on a beach, don’t build a road to an agricultural market inland because our financial analysis tells us it’s not worth it.

“We finally have a chance for true agricultural value, we have got to get it right this time.”

Regardless of how we get there, we must plan to meet the needs of 9 billion people who are much wealthier and have a much higher demand for energy than food.

The final point that all participants agreed on was that our current funding portfolio will not get us there. There has got to be a global concerted effort by all economic superpowers to increase yield and reduce competition between biofuels and food by funding research that has, for a long time, been virtually ignored.

Panelists participating in the discussions were: Dr. Kenneth Cassman, Dr. Adam Liska, Dr. Martin Bohn, Dr. Hernán Ceballos, Dr. Peter Hazell, Dr. David Zilberman, Dr. Wilfred Vermerris, and Dr. Mark Winslow.

Other Posts From the Joint Meeting in Houston:

Image Credit: existentist‘s Flickr photostream under a Creative Commons license.

 

Nick Chambers

Not your traditional car guy.