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Published on February 25th, 2009 | by Clayton

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MIT Study Says Cellulosic Ethanol Could Have “Unintended” Environmental Consequences

agriculture

The aggressive, worldwide production of cellulosic ethanol could both “contribute substantially to future global-scale energy needs” and have “significant unintended environmental consequences” says a study from MIT’s Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change.

Producing cellulosic ethanol from non-food feedstocks has been studied extensively at a local scale, but it’s difficult to estimate the environmental impacts on larger, heterogeneous regions. In this study, researchers evaluated two potential consequences of diverting usable land to biofuel production: either existing agricultural operations are intensified, or large areas of natural forest are cleared to increase cropland. Sound familiar?

Could cellulosic ethanol cause more harm than good? As always, it depends on how it’s actually implemented:

Cellulosic biofuels may yet serve as a crucial wedge in the solution to the climate change problem, but must be deployed with caution so as not to jeopardize biodiversity, compromise ecosystems services, or undermine climate policy.

-MIT Report

See the 34-page study for more: Unintended Environmental Consequences of a Global Biofuels Program

[Via: GreenCarCongress]

Image Credit: vsz via Flickr under Creative Commons License.



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About the Author

In a past life, Clayton was a professional blogger and editor of Gas 2.0, Important Media’s blog covering the future of sustainable transportation. He was also the Managing Editor for GO Media, the predecessor to Important Media.



  • CNCMike

    Ethanol has nothing to do with the consequences they are talking about. Clear cutting rain forests is the problem and that has been going on for more than the 50 years I have been alive. OK 51 really but I sopped counting at 50.

    The only unintended consequences of switching to ethanol from pertoleum is cleaner air, cleaner water and richer and deeper top soil if the right crops are used and all the co-products of distillation are used to their full potential. They can be used for animal feed, fertilizer(eliminating petroleum based), pesticides(again eliminating perto based). They can be used to generate methane, the cleanest burning fuel next to H2. They can be used to grow algea and raise fish on farms. The fish then produce all the nitrogen you will need for fertilizer. Archer Daniles Midland is doig just that and just 5 acres of fish ponds fed with stillage and algea grown provides more nitrogen than they can use on 100 acres of food crops.

    Why do none of these Universities ever go to Brazil and study the system they have come up with. They produce 45% of their motor fuel needs with 1% of their agricutural land. The other 55% is handled by diesel and bio diesel. They also export many Billions of gallons every year. They burn the wet bagasse left after shredding and juicing the sugar cane and produce all of their own heat and electricity. In fact they produce so much electricity that they sell 77% of what they generate back to the grid. The distilleries have become the most reliable source of power in the country.

    They recently started using some of the bagasse to make cellulosic ethanol at a cost of 50 cents a gallon(same as the sugar ethanol) using a weak acid hyrolysis method that has proven effective for over 100 years. That plant is so efficient that they also generate all of their heat and power needs and sell power back to the grid. All that and they forbid sugar cane to be planted on rain forest lands. They also collect all of the smoke and perticulates from burning in a simply genious spray chamber and combine that with the ash left and make a very good fertilizer for the next cane crop. Making ethanol only removes the carbhydrates form whatever crop is used. All the proteins, fats and other naturally ocurring minerals are left after distillation to be used in many ways. Even the CO2 is a very valuable byproduct. It can be sold to soda companies for carbonation. It has many industrial uses. Coke is even using it as a refrigerant in all their coolers. It can be fed into green houses or fields to double or triple the food or fuel crop output. One oil company even buys the CO2 from a nearby distillery to pump into the ground to pressurize those hard to get oil deposits. They used to burn natural gas to generate the CO2. In fact burning valuable resources is how most CO2 is produced so that could also be eliminated.

  • CNCMike

    Ethanol has nothing to do with the consequences they are talking about. Clear cutting rain forests is the problem and that has been going on for more than the 50 years I have been alive. OK 51 really but I sopped counting at 50.

    The only unintended consequences of switching to ethanol from pertoleum is cleaner air, cleaner water and richer and deeper top soil if the right crops are used and all the co-products of distillation are used to their full potential. They can be used for animal feed, fertilizer(eliminating petroleum based), pesticides(again eliminating perto based). They can be used to generate methane, the cleanest burning fuel next to H2. They can be used to grow algea and raise fish on farms. The fish then produce all the nitrogen you will need for fertilizer. Archer Daniles Midland is doig just that and just 5 acres of fish ponds fed with stillage and algea grown provides more nitrogen than they can use on 100 acres of food crops.

    Why do none of these Universities ever go to Brazil and study the system they have come up with. They produce 45% of their motor fuel needs with 1% of their agricutural land. The other 55% is handled by diesel and bio diesel. They also export many Billions of gallons every year. They burn the wet bagasse left after shredding and juicing the sugar cane and produce all of their own heat and electricity. In fact they produce so much electricity that they sell 77% of what they generate back to the grid. The distilleries have become the most reliable source of power in the country.

    They recently started using some of the bagasse to make cellulosic ethanol at a cost of 50 cents a gallon(same as the sugar ethanol) using a weak acid hyrolysis method that has proven effective for over 100 years. That plant is so efficient that they also generate all of their heat and power needs and sell power back to the grid. All that and they forbid sugar cane to be planted on rain forest lands. They also collect all of the smoke and perticulates from burning in a simply genious spray chamber and combine that with the ash left and make a very good fertilizer for the next cane crop. Making ethanol only removes the carbhydrates form whatever crop is used. All the proteins, fats and other naturally ocurring minerals are left after distillation to be used in many ways. Even the CO2 is a very valuable byproduct. It can be sold to soda companies for carbonation. It has many industrial uses. Coke is even using it as a refrigerant in all their coolers. It can be fed into green houses or fields to double or triple the food or fuel crop output. One oil company even buys the CO2 from a nearby distillery to pump into the ground to pressurize those hard to get oil deposits. They used to burn natural gas to generate the CO2. In fact burning valuable resources is how most CO2 is produced so that could also be eliminated.

  • http://greenoptions.com Clayton B. Cornell

    CNCMike:

    I think a few things need to be clarified here:

    * Any time that land use is intensified in areas where land is scarce, there will be competition for it, which can cause more land to be put into use.

    *”The only unintended consequences of switching to ethanol from pertoleum is cleaner air, cleaner water and richer and deeper top soil..”

    Please try to be clear what type of ethanol you’re talking about. Corn-based ethanol has clear consequences. Cellulosic-based ethanol will have different consequences in different parts of the world, depending on the amount of land used for production.

    * The system used in Brazil is something completely different: it’s sugarcane-based ethanol, and not exactly comparable to what we’re talking about here.

    * The main point here is that the net impacts of large-scale production depend entirely on how new biofuel crops are deployed.

  • http://greenoptions.com Clayton B. Cornell

    CNCMike:

    I think a few things need to be clarified here:

    * Any time that land use is intensified in areas where land is scarce, there will be competition for it, which can cause more land to be put into use.

    *”The only unintended consequences of switching to ethanol from pertoleum is cleaner air, cleaner water and richer and deeper top soil..”

    Please try to be clear what type of ethanol you’re talking about. Corn-based ethanol has clear consequences. Cellulosic-based ethanol will have different consequences in different parts of the world, depending on the amount of land used for production.

    * The system used in Brazil is something completely different: it’s sugarcane-based ethanol, and not exactly comparable to what we’re talking about here.

    * The main point here is that the net impacts of large-scale production depend entirely on how new biofuel crops are deployed.

  • michaelBryant

    I agree it all depends how it is deployed. Grasslands will have less amount of impact since tall grass are idea bio fuel crop. A bigger impact is forest regions.

  • michaelBryant

    I agree it all depends how it is deployed. Grasslands will have less amount of impact since tall grass are idea bio fuel crop. A bigger impact is forest regions.

  • Doug

    Why should CNCMike have to be more exact when MIT was allowed to paint all cellulosic ethanol with the same large brush. Of course changing to a CE based economy could have serious consequences, but that is the case with any new tech.

  • Doug

    Why should CNCMike have to be more exact when MIT was allowed to paint all cellulosic ethanol with the same large brush. Of course changing to a CE based economy could have serious consequences, but that is the case with any new tech.

  • Cromagnum

    Flaw of the study: Assume we only produce biomass on forests or land best suited to normal agriculture. The argument for bio mass was to use the horid soild where we (maybe) grow hay or switchgrass. If biomass is a perrenial, then you also have no plowing, and less erosion and runoff.

    Not only can we produce biomass on horid soils, researchers found that salty soil might be good growing ground.

    Brigham Young U. researchers took an arid saline field, planted salt tolerant grass Panicum turgidum and companion plant Suadea fruticosa, and irrigated it with salt water. The resulting crop grew so fast it had to be harvested monthly, and produced the animal feed nutrition equivalent of corn. The companion plant can be turned into soap.

    (google the names for the articles and documents. Research was done in Pakistan)

    Earth First!, we stripmine the other planets later.

  • Cromagnum

    Flaw of the study: Assume we only produce biomass on forests or land best suited to normal agriculture. The argument for bio mass was to use the horid soild where we (maybe) grow hay or switchgrass. If biomass is a perrenial, then you also have no plowing, and less erosion and runoff.

    Not only can we produce biomass on horid soils, researchers found that salty soil might be good growing ground.

    Brigham Young U. researchers took an arid saline field, planted salt tolerant grass Panicum turgidum and companion plant Suadea fruticosa, and irrigated it with salt water. The resulting crop grew so fast it had to be harvested monthly, and produced the animal feed nutrition equivalent of corn. The companion plant can be turned into soap.

    (google the names for the articles and documents. Research was done in Pakistan)

    Earth First!, we stripmine the other planets later.

  • http://greenoptions.com Clayton B. Cornell

    But that isn’t what the study is saying. It’s saying that if we produce biomass on normal land, it makes that land unavailable for other human needs, which means we then cut down forests for those needs.

    I don’t think this will be the case in the US, but it could be the case in other parts of the world. Some calculations for the US:

    http://gas2.org/2008/08/01/dedicated-energy-crops-could-replace-30-of-gasoline-ceres-inc-wants-to-make-it-happen/

    “The U.S. uses 390 million gallons of gasoline for motor vehicle transport per day. That’s a bit over 142 billion gallons of gasoline each year. Using a back of the envelop calculation, if we took just 5% of rangeland in the U.S. (30 million acres), and converted it to switchgrass production, assuming we could produce 100 gallons of fuel from every dry ton, that’s 30 billion gallons of fuel, or 21% of U.S. gasoline consumption.”

  • http://greenoptions.com Clayton B. Cornell

    But that isn’t what the study is saying. It’s saying that if we produce biomass on normal land, it makes that land unavailable for other human needs, which means we then cut down forests for those needs.

    I don’t think this will be the case in the US, but it could be the case in other parts of the world. Some calculations for the US:

    http://gas2.org/2008/08/01/dedicated-energy-crops-could-replace-30-of-gasoline-ceres-inc-wants-to-make-it-happen/

    “The U.S. uses 390 million gallons of gasoline for motor vehicle transport per day. That’s a bit over 142 billion gallons of gasoline each year. Using a back of the envelop calculation, if we took just 5% of rangeland in the U.S. (30 million acres), and converted it to switchgrass production, assuming we could produce 100 gallons of fuel from every dry ton, that’s 30 billion gallons of fuel, or 21% of U.S. gasoline consumption.”

  • TheGreench

    And if the land is used to grow corn that goes to make twinkies and feed cattle to feed Americans who grow ever more unhealthy and obese – then I think we should turn it over to fuel production and make Americans healthier by starving them of the rubbish they dont need to eat. It all makes sense to me.

  • TheGreench

    And if the land is used to grow corn that goes to make twinkies and feed cattle to feed Americans who grow ever more unhealthy and obese – then I think we should turn it over to fuel production and make Americans healthier by starving them of the rubbish they dont need to eat. It all makes sense to me.

  • CNCMike

    If you want calculations all we need to look at is something that is considered a pesky weed by a lot of ranchers. Mesquite trees. There are currently over 70 million acres growing in this country. If we just harvest the seed pods from those trees we could produce 23.9 billion gallons of ethanol a year with no crop land or farm land used and no planting, irrigating or fertilizing. Just using something that is going to waste.

    As far as corn is concerned, we don’t need to plant any more corn than the 78.7 million acres that was recently already planted. Currently 87% percent of all US corn is fed to animals. Most of the rest is used to make high fructos corn syrup, corn chips, corn flour, corn meal, etc… The animals, especially cattle cannot digest the starch in corn very well and it creates a lot of health problems and veterinary bills for the farmers. If that 87% was used to first make ethanol it would produce a much higher quality animal feed that produces more meat and milk in less time with none of the health problems and it would produce 26.8 to 30.8 billion gallons per year. Just those 2 sources produce 50.7 billion gallons of the 142 billion we use every year and we did not touch one acre of land to change it from what it is currently being used for.

  • CNCMike

    If you want calculations all we need to look at is something that is considered a pesky weed by a lot of ranchers. Mesquite trees. There are currently over 70 million acres growing in this country. If we just harvest the seed pods from those trees we could produce 23.9 billion gallons of ethanol a year with no crop land or farm land used and no planting, irrigating or fertilizing. Just using something that is going to waste.

    As far as corn is concerned, we don’t need to plant any more corn than the 78.7 million acres that was recently already planted. Currently 87% percent of all US corn is fed to animals. Most of the rest is used to make high fructos corn syrup, corn chips, corn flour, corn meal, etc… The animals, especially cattle cannot digest the starch in corn very well and it creates a lot of health problems and veterinary bills for the farmers. If that 87% was used to first make ethanol it would produce a much higher quality animal feed that produces more meat and milk in less time with none of the health problems and it would produce 26.8 to 30.8 billion gallons per year. Just those 2 sources produce 50.7 billion gallons of the 142 billion we use every year and we did not touch one acre of land to change it from what it is currently being used for.

  • Martin Fraguio

    I live in Argentina, I just read the MIT report and found that on the map where they draw the most severe impact of “deforestation” there are no forests and there have never been. Argentina has been always known for its grasslands. Extensive grasslands that are excellent for biomass production for any use.

    I think it is a shame that these people use the good name the MIT has to publish such enormous LIES, I invite them to come to Argentina and to check with their own eyes the area they claim will be deforested. Most grasslands ecosystems tend to accumulate excessive dry biomass, experts call this biomass “fuel”, and when you accumulate fuel what happens is that it might burn, therefore, the extraction and use of excess celullosic material actually improves ecosystems viability because it decreases extensive fires hazard that destroy biodiversity and property, and generate a new source of income vital for developing countries and poor economies.

  • Martin Fraguio

    I live in Argentina, I just read the MIT report and found that on the map where they draw the most severe impact of “deforestation” there are no forests and there have never been. Argentina has been always known for its grasslands. Extensive grasslands that are excellent for biomass production for any use.

    I think it is a shame that these people use the good name the MIT has to publish such enormous LIES, I invite them to come to Argentina and to check with their own eyes the area they claim will be deforested. Most grasslands ecosystems tend to accumulate excessive dry biomass, experts call this biomass “fuel”, and when you accumulate fuel what happens is that it might burn, therefore, the extraction and use of excess celullosic material actually improves ecosystems viability because it decreases extensive fires hazard that destroy biodiversity and property, and generate a new source of income vital for developing countries and poor economies.

  • Jeff

    Ethanol contributes exactly the same amount of CO2 as gasoline … you can’t pipe ethanol nearly as easily as gasoline … ethanol is highly corrosive and requires vast changes to storage, pumping and vehicle infrastructure … growing anything as feed stock for ethanol does not enhance the soil it depletes it just like nearly every other plant does when grown (thats why fertilizers are required or crop rotation plus fertilizer) …

    cars in Ca. are nearly zero emission today burning 90% gasoline … face it ethanol was a nice try but it has failed to live up to the hype as all faith based science does …

  • Jeff

    Ethanol contributes exactly the same amount of CO2 as gasoline … you can’t pipe ethanol nearly as easily as gasoline … ethanol is highly corrosive and requires vast changes to storage, pumping and vehicle infrastructure … growing anything as feed stock for ethanol does not enhance the soil it depletes it just like nearly every other plant does when grown (thats why fertilizers are required or crop rotation plus fertilizer) …

    cars in Ca. are nearly zero emission today burning 90% gasoline … face it ethanol was a nice try but it has failed to live up to the hype as all faith based science does …

  • http://arlinghaus.typepad.com bearing

    And if the land is used to grow corn that goes to make twinkies and feed cattle to feed Americans who grow ever more unhealthy and obese – then I think we should turn it over to fuel production and make Americans healthier by starving them of the rubbish they dont need to eat.

    Except that Americans, being rich, will be able to afford Twinkies and beef even if the price goes up quite a bit. We’ll just pay more for the same amount of Twinkies. Maybe we’ll eat a bit less beef—maybe.

    Meanwhile, when global corn prices skyrocket, so will the price of — say — tortillas. There are a lot of people in the world for whom that will be a real hardship. I think the term “starving” that you used might be well applied in that case.

  • http://arlinghaus.typepad.com bearing

    And if the land is used to grow corn that goes to make twinkies and feed cattle to feed Americans who grow ever more unhealthy and obese – then I think we should turn it over to fuel production and make Americans healthier by starving them of the rubbish they dont need to eat.

    Except that Americans, being rich, will be able to afford Twinkies and beef even if the price goes up quite a bit. We’ll just pay more for the same amount of Twinkies. Maybe we’ll eat a bit less beef—maybe.

    Meanwhile, when global corn prices skyrocket, so will the price of — say — tortillas. There are a lot of people in the world for whom that will be a real hardship. I think the term “starving” that you used might be well applied in that case.

  • Aureon Kwolek

    CRITIQUE of the recent study: “Unintended Environmental Consequences of a Global Biofuels Program”, Jerry M. Melillo, Angelo C. Gurgel, David W. Kicklighter, John M. Reilly, Timothy W. Cronin, Benjamin S. Felzer, Sergey Paltsev, C. Adam Schlosser, Andrei P. Sokolov, and X. Wang, Report No. 168, January 2009, MIT:

    This study is based on hypothetical assumptions, not fact. The MIT study is a false impression of how cellulosic ethanol could impact the planet 40 years from now. No matter how bright these MIT minds are, their predictions are not correct. Furthermore, indirect land use change has not been scientifically proven and is based on false assumptions and fuzzy math. Biofuels are not the primary cause of deforestation:

    In Indonesia, the number one cause of deforestation is the ravenous lumbering of forests for paper pulp and valuable hardwoods, which are shipped all over the world. Then, after the big timber and the paper pulp feedstock has been taken, the use of the land changes, to cattle grazing, cassava fields, agriculture, or palm plantations, etc. 70 percent of all palm oil goes to food. Does the study assign 70% of the palm deforestation to food production? No. Does the study assign deforestation to paper pulp and hardwood lumber production, or meat production? No. If cassava is grown on deforested land, food, feed and fuel are derived from the same crop. Does the study spread the effects of deforestation across all three products? No. The study blames biofuel.

    In Brazil, again the value of the lumber is the origin of deforestation, not biofuels. Amazon deforestation occurs when rainforest is illegally cut by unscrupulous fly by night lumber companies. They cut the big timber and run. They leave the smaller trees behind and do not burn the waste. Next, cattle grazers move in and squat on the land. They are the ones who burn what’s left, the smaller trees, the lumbering waste, and the underbrush. They grow grass and graze cattle on the land, for years, until the grass and the soil is depleted. And finally, farmers move in with agricultural crops, and typically grow soybeans, which restores nitrogen to the soil. By the way, 75 percent of a soy crop is high protein feed that produces food. The oil extracted from the soybeans is a smaller component that goes to food or fuel. Did the study specify that 75% of the crop went to food and not biofuel?

    Did the study assign deforestation to the production of lumber, cattle meat, and the feed and food portion of the soybean crop? No. Deforestation is falsely blamed on the oil component of the soy crop, produced years after the actual deforestation occurred.

    In her study, Holly Gibbs uses 20 years worth of irrelevant data, from 1980 to 2000, long before biofuels had any impact. During this time frame, rainforests were being cut for lumber, paper pulp, cattle grazing, and agricultural crops, not biofuels. Deforestation has been taking place long before biofuels was even a factor. Again, biofuels are not the primary cause.

    What kind of biofuel is MIT talking about anyway? Corn ethanol? Grain sorghum ethanol. Sweet sorghum ethanol? Cassava ethanol? Algae ethanol? How about cellulosic ethanol made from waste? What kind of waste? From Biomass? What kind of biomass? Biodiesel, made from what? Soybeans, corn, winter canola, cambre, rapeseed, algae, palm, jatropha? Is it a winter crop, doubling up with corn or soybeans? Biogas from manure? From Biomass? From food waste? They all have different effects on the environment. They all have different byproducts. They all have different energy returns. They’re grown in different climates under different conditions. Not all biofuels are the same. Ethanol, biodiesel, and biogas are three different animals. Painting all biofuels with the same brushstroke is totally un-scientific and not credible.

    Biofuel critics typically drag ethanol into the argument against biodiesel. And they drag biodiesel into the argument against ethanol. Like the Gibb’s study, many other biofuel warnings refer to biofuels as one big entity that they can slash and burn, regardless of what they’re derived from or how they’re produced. It is a false claim to smear all biofuels as a major cause of deforestation and climate change. Especially when biofuels are derived from crops that also produce feed and food. And especially when other industries are the primary cause of deforestation.

    Biofuel critics falsely claim that food crops are going totally to fuel, and that food acreage is being diverted to fuel acreage. In the U.S., we only use one third of the arable land. There is zero displacement of food acreage by fuel acreage. And the average person is overweight. Corn ethanol for example is also feed and food, not just fuel. Only the starch in feed corn goes to ethanol, which cattle and dairy cows have difficulty digesting. The byproduct of corn ethanol, high protein distillers grains is a better feed product than the whole corn itself. It’s what you call a value-added product. This corn ethanol byproduct supplements a large livestock, dairy, poultry, and fish farming industry. Feeding distillers grains to livestock and dairy cows increases meat and milk production. Last time I checked this was FOOD. Corn oil is also extracted from distillers grains. That can go to human consumption or biodiesel. Agricultural waste such as corn cobs and stover are now being used for cellulosic ethanol. Are these anti-biofuel studies accurately taking into account the value of all the byproducts? No.

    Here in the U.S. and around the world, we deforest land to produce lumber, which creates urban sprawl. We deforest land to build furniture and many other products. We deforest land to clear the way for roads, power lines, railroads, you name it. Why no warnings about this? What we need is a study that evaluates all causes of deforestation and puts them in the proper order, based on how much impact they have. This study falsely implies that biofuel is the main cause of deforestation, when it is not. It also implies that biofuel crops will be a major cause of climate change, when it is not. The main cause of climate change is coal burning and burning transportation fossil fuels. Where is the MIT warning addressing these? The study does mention the release of methane into the atmosphere caused by feedlots. Methane is 22 times more potent than carbon dioxide and is a much bigger problem than hypothetical biomass crops. But the study implies just the opposite, because it falsely assumes future deforestation will be caused primarily by biofuels. By the way, the methane problem from landfills, feedlots, dairy farms, poultry farms, hog farms, widespread septic systems and sewage disposal plants, which also contaminate the watershed. These are here now. Not hypothetically 40 years from now.

    Coal burning, fossil fuel burning, methane, urban sprawl, and deforestation from other causes. These are the real threats. Not the false impression we get from this study.

  • Aureon Kwolek

    CRITIQUE of the recent study: “Unintended Environmental Consequences of a Global Biofuels Program”, Jerry M. Melillo, Angelo C. Gurgel, David W. Kicklighter, John M. Reilly, Timothy W. Cronin, Benjamin S. Felzer, Sergey Paltsev, C. Adam Schlosser, Andrei P. Sokolov, and X. Wang, Report No. 168, January 2009, MIT:

    This study is based on hypothetical assumptions, not fact. The MIT study is a false impression of how cellulosic ethanol could impact the planet 40 years from now. No matter how bright these MIT minds are, their predictions are not correct. Furthermore, indirect land use change has not been scientifically proven and is based on false assumptions and fuzzy math. Biofuels are not the primary cause of deforestation:

    In Indonesia, the number one cause of deforestation is the ravenous lumbering of forests for paper pulp and valuable hardwoods, which are shipped all over the world. Then, after the big timber and the paper pulp feedstock has been taken, the use of the land changes, to cattle grazing, cassava fields, agriculture, or palm plantations, etc. 70 percent of all palm oil goes to food. Does the study assign 70% of the palm deforestation to food production? No. Does the study assign deforestation to paper pulp and hardwood lumber production, or meat production? No. If cassava is grown on deforested land, food, feed and fuel are derived from the same crop. Does the study spread the effects of deforestation across all three products? No. The study blames biofuel.

    In Brazil, again the value of the lumber is the origin of deforestation, not biofuels. Amazon deforestation occurs when rainforest is illegally cut by unscrupulous fly by night lumber companies. They cut the big timber and run. They leave the smaller trees behind and do not burn the waste. Next, cattle grazers move in and squat on the land. They are the ones who burn what’s left, the smaller trees, the lumbering waste, and the underbrush. They grow grass and graze cattle on the land, for years, until the grass and the soil is depleted. And finally, farmers move in with agricultural crops, and typically grow soybeans, which restores nitrogen to the soil. By the way, 75 percent of a soy crop is high protein feed that produces food. The oil extracted from the soybeans is a smaller component that goes to food or fuel. Did the study specify that 75% of the crop went to food and not biofuel?

    Did the study assign deforestation to the production of lumber, cattle meat, and the feed and food portion of the soybean crop? No. Deforestation is falsely blamed on the oil component of the soy crop, produced years after the actual deforestation occurred.

    In her study, Holly Gibbs uses 20 years worth of irrelevant data, from 1980 to 2000, long before biofuels had any impact. During this time frame, rainforests were being cut for lumber, paper pulp, cattle grazing, and agricultural crops, not biofuels. Deforestation has been taking place long before biofuels was even a factor. Again, biofuels are not the primary cause.

    What kind of biofuel is MIT talking about anyway? Corn ethanol? Grain sorghum ethanol. Sweet sorghum ethanol? Cassava ethanol? Algae ethanol? How about cellulosic ethanol made from waste? What kind of waste? From Biomass? What kind of biomass? Biodiesel, made from what? Soybeans, corn, winter canola, cambre, rapeseed, algae, palm, jatropha? Is it a winter crop, doubling up with corn or soybeans? Biogas from manure? From Biomass? From food waste? They all have different effects on the environment. They all have different byproducts. They all have different energy returns. They’re grown in different climates under different conditions. Not all biofuels are the same. Ethanol, biodiesel, and biogas are three different animals. Painting all biofuels with the same brushstroke is totally un-scientific and not credible.

    Biofuel critics typically drag ethanol into the argument against biodiesel. And they drag biodiesel into the argument against ethanol. Like the Gibb’s study, many other biofuel warnings refer to biofuels as one big entity that they can slash and burn, regardless of what they’re derived from or how they’re produced. It is a false claim to smear all biofuels as a major cause of deforestation and climate change. Especially when biofuels are derived from crops that also produce feed and food. And especially when other industries are the primary cause of deforestation.

    Biofuel critics falsely claim that food crops are going totally to fuel, and that food acreage is being diverted to fuel acreage. In the U.S., we only use one third of the arable land. There is zero displacement of food acreage by fuel acreage. And the average person is overweight. Corn ethanol for example is also feed and food, not just fuel. Only the starch in feed corn goes to ethanol, which cattle and dairy cows have difficulty digesting. The byproduct of corn ethanol, high protein distillers grains is a better feed product than the whole corn itself. It’s what you call a value-added product. This corn ethanol byproduct supplements a large livestock, dairy, poultry, and fish farming industry. Feeding distillers grains to livestock and dairy cows increases meat and milk production. Last time I checked this was FOOD. Corn oil is also extracted from distillers grains. That can go to human consumption or biodiesel. Agricultural waste such as corn cobs and stover are now being used for cellulosic ethanol. Are these anti-biofuel studies accurately taking into account the value of all the byproducts? No.

    Here in the U.S. and around the world, we deforest land to produce lumber, which creates urban sprawl. We deforest land to build furniture and many other products. We deforest land to clear the way for roads, power lines, railroads, you name it. Why no warnings about this? What we need is a study that evaluates all causes of deforestation and puts them in the proper order, based on how much impact they have. This study falsely implies that biofuel is the main cause of deforestation, when it is not. It also implies that biofuel crops will be a major cause of climate change, when it is not. The main cause of climate change is coal burning and burning transportation fossil fuels. Where is the MIT warning addressing these? The study does mention the release of methane into the atmosphere caused by feedlots. Methane is 22 times more potent than carbon dioxide and is a much bigger problem than hypothetical biomass crops. But the study implies just the opposite, because it falsely assumes future deforestation will be caused primarily by biofuels. By the way, the methane problem from landfills, feedlots, dairy farms, poultry farms, hog farms, widespread septic systems and sewage disposal plants, which also contaminate the watershed. These are here now. Not hypothetically 40 years from now.

    Coal burning, fossil fuel burning, methane, urban sprawl, and deforestation from other causes. These are the real threats. Not the false impression we get from this study.

  • Bruce

    Ethanol is worse than gasoline because it produces N2O which is a much more potent greenhouse gas than CO2.

    http://www.aei.org/publications/pubID.28396/pub_detail.asp

  • Bruce

    Ethanol is worse than gasoline because it produces N2O which is a much more potent greenhouse gas than CO2.

    http://www.aei.org/publications/pubID.28396/pub_detail.asp

  • CNCMike

    I suggest you read the many papers available from the EPA, DOT the Society of Automotive Engineers Tech Papers and you will see that ethanol reduces nitric oxide emissions by 80 to 98%.

  • CNCMike

    I suggest you read the many papers available from the EPA, DOT the Society of Automotive Engineers Tech Papers and you will see that ethanol reduces nitric oxide emissions by 80 to 98%.

  • Mark in Texas

    Meanwhile, when global corn prices skyrocket, so will the price of — say — tortillas. There are a lot of people in the world for whom that will be a real hardship. I think the term “starving” that you used might be well applied in that case.

    Yeah, because there is no chance that farmers in Mexico or Africa or any other third world nation who have been unable to compete with very low priced food dumped into their markets by the US and EU agricultural policies would respond to higher food prices by growing food.

    Meanwhile, in the US the reaction to higher prices for corn might be that high fructose corn syrup would not be added to every single thing that we eat.

  • Mark in Texas

    Meanwhile, when global corn prices skyrocket, so will the price of — say — tortillas. There are a lot of people in the world for whom that will be a real hardship. I think the term “starving” that you used might be well applied in that case.

    Yeah, because there is no chance that farmers in Mexico or Africa or any other third world nation who have been unable to compete with very low priced food dumped into their markets by the US and EU agricultural policies would respond to higher food prices by growing food.

    Meanwhile, in the US the reaction to higher prices for corn might be that high fructose corn syrup would not be added to every single thing that we eat.

  • Awolfe

    This article puts the cart before the horse. What energy form isn’t going to have effects on the environment if not managed correctly? Wind can be noisy and harm birds, hydro is now a bad word in certain circles, so is natural gas and solar. It’s all about management. Diversifying our fuel generation from multiple sources so as not to overwhelm the earth with our presence is what we should strive for. Secondly, biomass ethanol could come from corn fodder, straw, soybean fodder, i.e. all waste material from growing food crops. (Not to mention lawn clippings and waste wood from industrials.) Cover crops could be either interplanted or seeded after harvest to stop erosion and harvested in the spring for a second biomass crop. If a legume that fixated nitrogen was used for the cover it would add nitrogen naturally to the soil. (corn/ryegrass single year rotation.) Also the move from ethanol to cellulose bio-butanol seems to be where this is heading anyways since it is a better product and can be used in pipelines. The best thing to happen would be to diversify our transportation fuel source. The population is growing too fast to use just oil, just ethanol or any one fuel. Lastly, everyone is always concerned when land is cleared for agriculture, but hardly ever is concern raised when it is for a condo or hotel. Forest, farmland, parks all should be preserved to a degree as it will only become less available.

  • Awolfe

    This article puts the cart before the horse. What energy form isn’t going to have effects on the environment if not managed correctly? Wind can be noisy and harm birds, hydro is now a bad word in certain circles, so is natural gas and solar. It’s all about management. Diversifying our fuel generation from multiple sources so as not to overwhelm the earth with our presence is what we should strive for. Secondly, biomass ethanol could come from corn fodder, straw, soybean fodder, i.e. all waste material from growing food crops. (Not to mention lawn clippings and waste wood from industrials.) Cover crops could be either interplanted or seeded after harvest to stop erosion and harvested in the spring for a second biomass crop. If a legume that fixated nitrogen was used for the cover it would add nitrogen naturally to the soil. (corn/ryegrass single year rotation.) Also the move from ethanol to cellulose bio-butanol seems to be where this is heading anyways since it is a better product and can be used in pipelines. The best thing to happen would be to diversify our transportation fuel source. The population is growing too fast to use just oil, just ethanol or any one fuel. Lastly, everyone is always concerned when land is cleared for agriculture, but hardly ever is concern raised when it is for a condo or hotel. Forest, farmland, parks all should be preserved to a degree as it will only become less available.

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