November 13, 2011
Driven by political concerns related to the reduction of dependence on oil, improvement of environmental conditions, and increase in food production for a growing population; experts around the world are looking to biofuels. Yet the undesirable impacts of biofuels, including the exploitation of multiple feed stocks, threat of biodiversity and habitat loss, overuse of water resources, and impact on food prices leave many experts questioning if the net benefits outweigh the cost of using biofuels.
As described in David Tilman’s article “Beneficial Biofuels—The Food, Energy, and Environment Trilemma”, the topic of biofuels is a complex issue that, done right, can offer “global greenhouse-gas emission reduction and the local environmental and societal benefits.” With dramatic improvements in technology and policy, biofuels have the potential to be the answer to increased food and biomass productivity on current farmlands, large reduction in global greenhouse-gas emission, and a considerable portion of energy necessary for transportation.
However, an investment in biofuel production will adversely impact such scarce environmental resources as land and water as well as lead to the potential increase of greenhouse gas emissions and increase in food prices. Biofuels demand a considerable amount of land to grow the resources necessary for its production. “Sometimes, the most profitable way to get land for biofuels is to clear the land of its native ecosystem”, be it primary forests, grasslands, a savanna, etc. (Tilman) The conversion of these lands results in a drastic release of carbon dioxide and loss in biodiversity from slashing and burning the biomass, which contradicts any greenhouse gas reduction that results from using biofuels.
Carbon emissions from the conversion of land by global biofuels program can result in twice as many emissions from lands directly used for biofuel production.
In addition to the loss of habitat and biodiversity from converting these lands for the use of biofuels is a substantial demand upon stressed water resources. Bio refineries consume close to four gallons of water per gallon of bioethanol produced from the evaporative loss during the distillation of ethanol. Further, although one of the primary reasons for using biofuels is to stabilize food security, the production of biofuels requires extensive use of existing feedstock, land, and water. Such leads to a considerable impact on food prices. Biofuels deserve blame for increased food prices due to its use of preexisting feedstock [such as corn] which contributes to tightening corn supply and rising prices. Many people are at an even greater risk of food deprivation and malnutrition due to the inflation of food prices.
While there are many benefits in using biofuels, there are also many more disadvantages, especially with regard to the current state and use of biofuels. While the use of biofuels can help eliminate greenhouse gas emissions and lessen the dependence on fossil fuels, it comes at a substantial cost. Biofuels exploit such environmental resources as water and land, inflates food prices, and leads to greater greenhouse emissions from converting land for biofuel use. Yet, the transition from fossil fuels to biofuels is one that, while gradual, is also highly feasible. By also adopting other clean, renewable, and efficient sources of energy–such as solar, hydroelectric, geothermal and wind energy—we lessen the negative effects of relying solely on biofuels and thus lessen much of the negative environmental impacts on the Earth.
About the authors: Victoria Chu and Mabel Nevarrez are undergraduate students in the USC Dana and David Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences.