In the World Resources Institute (WRI) working paper, “Avoiding Bioenergy Competition for Food Crops and Land,” the authors work off the assumption that land-use decisions are used making an “either-or” approach, i.e., land can either be used to grow food -- or biofuels crops. Land can either store carbon --or grow food and fiber.  Land can either be devoted to wildlife habitat -- or food and fiber production.  The ‘either-or’ approach, while straight forward, lacks a basic understanding of the complexities of agricultural and working forest land use, emerging research on the carbon cycle in working lands, and the very real economic pressures on land owners to divert working lands to development. 

The report, authored by Dr. Searchinger, a Senior Fellow at WRI and scholar at Princeton University, and WRI consultant Ralph Heimlich, leaves no sector of the biofuels economy untouched in their indictment of renewable fuels, as they have concerns about traditional starch based feedstocks (corn starch ethanol, beets, sugar cane), cellulosic feedstocks (such as purpose grown grasses and short-rotation woody trees), and wood wastes (such as waste from pulp, paper and timber industries).  Last week, SBFF promised readers that we would devote more time to understanding the assumptions and conclusions in WRI paper, and we address some of the main conclusions and assumptions employed in our discussion below.   


The ‘Calorie Deficit’ Ignores Inequities Already Present in Food Systems

The basic premise of the report is that no productive land should be directed towards biofuels crops, due to the looming issue of a worldwide food shortage by 2050. This is despite the fact that food currently is over-produced, and worldwide, approximately one third percent of food is wasted. In the United States, as much as 40 percent of food is wasted, and EPA reports that food waste is the number one ingredient in landfills – imagine, nearly every other bite of food is thrown away! Therefore, growing ever more crops is not the answer to issues of individual and community equity in food politics.  In fact, growing more and more food without addressing issues of food distribution, food waste (both in homes and across supply chains) will only exacerbate issues of environmental quality and do nothing to address affordable access to food. 

Instead, EESI and others argue – the time is ripe for a dramatic shift in the food production and distribution system.  Growing ever more food on large farms won’t address the environmental and food justice issues the world faces.  Instead, integrated farms where food, fiber, fuels, feedstocks for chemicals and animal husbandry is practiced in sustainable ways is the food revolution that is so badly needed.  More farmers, with more equity in the food production process is key to the solution. This includes diversifying crop production and providing alternative revenue streams for producers by growing feedstocks for biofuels and biobased products.  In the United States, a flowering regional food system, farmers’ markets and growing recognition of the importance of family farms is a start – but more is needed to provide Americans and people everywhere equitable access to affordable, healthy food.

As for Searchinger’s claim that food prices are affected by biofuels production, a World Bank analysis of the long-term drivers of food prices concluded that 66 percent of food price increases are thanks to oil prices.  Additionally, only a small percentage of usable food crops goes towards biofuels production – globally, 2 percent of grain supplies go to ethanol production, according to the Global Renewable Fuels Alliance.


Biofuels Suffers from a Carbon Accounting Error, Ignores Years of Research

The WRI report continually implies that bioenergy’s potential is overblown due to a ‘carbon accounting error’.  According to Dr. Searchinger, this double counting is a result of “assuming incorrectly that bioenergy can freely divert biomass or land that is already in use.”  This same argument was raised by Dr. Searchinger in 2009, and since then, much research has been devoted to the topic. 

Instead of forcing more land into production – research has actually found the opposite.  Recent research from Dr. Bruce Babcock, an Iowa State University professor and a former California Air Resources Board consultant, finds that “the primary land use change response of the world's farmers from 2004 to 2012 has been to use available land resources more efficiently rather than to expand the amount of land brought into production. This finding is not necessarily new … however, this finding has not been recognized by regulators who calculate indirect land use.” And while drivers of land use change are complicated, and very different depending on a particular county’s forestry and land governance, the growing body of research encouragingly points to no net change in land use because of renewable fuels. This makes sense, since biofuels feedstocks fetch a lower value than food or feed products, their growth is not the number one driver of land-use decisions.

Additionally, the authors falsely conclude that there is an assumption that biofuels are ‘carbon free. ’  Not only does this ignore the complex science of carbon intensity calculations for all types of biofuels and biomass energy sources to identify the carbon footprint of biofuels, it assumes that crops devoted to biofuels growth are somehow removed from the carbon cycle.  The science on land use change is constantly evolving, and new science is incorporated into updates to the Greenhouse Gases, Regulated Emissions, and Energy Use in Transportation (GREET) Model developed by Argonne National Laboratory, which is the standard for comparing the carbon intensity of diverse fuels.   Updates incorporated in more recent versions of GREET include significant reductions in the carbon intensity of ethanol production since 2008; these process improvements include greater energy efficiency, increasing yields per acre, and decreasing water and fertilizer inputs, among other things. 


Paints a Picture of an Inefficient Industry – Ignores Years of Progress in Renewable Fuels

While Searchinger admits that other renewable technologies have seen great improvements in the last decade, he’s unwilling to give biofuels a second look.  That’s despite the evidence of lower inputs and rising yields across the industry. Life-cycle assessment of both biofuels and traditional gasoline has found that while the carbon footprint of biofuels is dropping, it is steadily rising for traditional petroleum fuels.  According to research from Dr. Steffen Mueller, Principal Economist at the University of Illinois at Chicago, Energy Resources Center, over the past 13 years, the amount of water necessary to produce one gallon of ethanol in factories has decreased from 5 gallons to 2.7 gallons of water. The amount of energy it takes to produce ethanol has also decreased from 1.09 kWh/gallon to 0.75 kWh/gallon, while crop yields have steadily increased. Many new technologies have contributed to these efficiency gains, with even greater gains emerging as new biorefineries use corn kernel fiber (previously a waste byproduct) to produce cellulosic ethanol.

According to scientists at Argonne, energy use for the production of corn-based ethanol dropped 25 percent, corn farming energy use has dropped 24 percent, and ethanol yields per bushel have risen three percent since 2008. Soil research also finds that soil organic carbon in corn fields has risen due to increased use of no till and conservation tilling practices.  This is backed up by findings from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) National Resource Conservation Service (NCRS), which also models soil carbon.  According to the most recent GREET model, corn ethanol may already be achieving greenhouse gas reductions much higher than the 20 percent reduction mandated by the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS). Yet, none of this newer information is considered by Searchinger.


Assumption that Other Renewable Technologies Will Save Us, Eventually

Using solar energy as an example, the authors state that “PV systems today can generate more than 100 times the usable energy per hectare than bioenergy is likely to produce in the future even using optimistic assumptions.”  While it is unclear how Dr. Searchinger calculated these numbers, the basic assumption is that we have time to wait for a perfect answer to our transportation needs.  Currently, no country has the electric capacity, or the engine technology, to switch the entire vehicle fleet to plug-in electric.  Most dangerously, Dr. Searchinger is content to wait for a future that’s several years away, at best guess, and ignore the very real benefits of utilizing biofuels today.

In the end, the multiple co-benefits of biofuels are ignored by the WRI study, and a narrow, outdated view of biofuels production is taken instead.  Sustainable biofuels production is possible.  The production of biofuels and biofuels feedstocks will not only reduce GHGs and lower dependence on petroleum but provide immense benefit farmers and communities.  Regionally appropriate biofuels feedstocks have the potential to revitalize agricultural practices, reduce the use of toxic gasoline additives, such as benzene, and enhance rural economic opportunity, thereby increasing rural welfare and economic security.   Instead of dismantling the biofuels industry, our attention should turn instead to making biofuels production and biofuels feedstock growth even more sustainable and equitable, not only to reduce GHG and other toxic emissions, but to assist rural communities keep working lands free of development, provide economic benefit to local communities, and continue to seek ways to feed the world and provide fuels sustainably.   In the search for a low carbon economy, an “all of the above” approach needs to be taken towards renewable electricity and fuels generation.  The U.S. and the world can’t afford to wait – sustainable biofuels are available now.


For more information see: 

Avoiding Bioenergy Competition for Food Crops and Land, The World Resources Institute

Carbon Accounting and Vehicle Fuels: A Research Update, EESI

State and Federal Regulators Continue to Use Outdated Emissions Model, EESI