The debate over ethanol took center stage at the annual Iowa State University biofuels conference Monday as the man who wrote an anti-ethanol article earlier this year in "Science" magazine was part of the keynote session. Tim Searchinger of Princeton University sent ripples through the biofuels community when he published his article linking biofuels to a bigger carbon footprint , in spite of the conventional wisdom they’re good for the environment.
"The reason we think biofuels have the potential to reduce greenhouse gasses is you start by taking carbon out of the atmosphere," Searchinger says. Searchinger’s research shows instead that globally greenhouse gases could come close to doubling if worldwide goals for biofuels are met. Searchinger explains that growing crops for fuel sends grain prices up, so more forests and grasslands get plowed up to grow more grain.
Searchinger says plowing up forests and grasslands gives you a big carbon debt. "And what we did is we said, here is the cost of land use change. And you end up with a 93% increase in greenhouse gas emissions," he says. University of Illinois scientist, Stephen Long, provided the counterpoint to Searchinger’s controversial article. He quotes one study where researchers found that it’s not usually high commodity prices that cause deforestation.
Long says,"They concluded that in only 14-percent of those cases, could they attribute it directly to changes in commodity prices." Long says the opposite is true in other places, in some cases commodity prices and farm income went up and that slowed deforestation. Long quotes what he calls success stories from Africa where when grain prices went up, farmers had more money to invest in better production. They achieved a greater profit without taking out more land.
The sharpest criticism came from a native Iowan and I-S-U, Ted Crosbie who is now vice-presidnet of plant breeding at Monsanto. Crosbie says corn is the best understood crop in the world with the greatest potential for increasing food supplies without putting more forest or grassland in production.
Crosbie says, "If we just apply technology to crops we don’t need any more land in production. We believe you can double the yields of major crops in every country in the world and use a third less total input to produce those crops. All the equations will look different if that turns out to be true." And Crosbie said with all the major seed companies aggressively competing, its’ a question of when not if corn yields increase so much that there’ll be plenty for both food and fuel.
Woven through the day’s remarks were facts and figures and optimism about the potential for creating fuel not just from corn but from other crops as well. Scientists will continue to debate the effects of those crops on greenhouse gas emissions too.