On February 16, scientists at Argonne National Laboratory, a Department of Energy laboratory, offered comments on the World Resources Institute’s paper “Avoiding Bioenergy Competition for Food Crops and Land.” The basic premise of Dr. Searchinger’s paper is that growing crops for bioenergy will impact food availability and cost.  (EESI’s response may be found here). There is a distinction to be drawn between biofuels done right and done wrong, but according to Argonne scientists Michael Wang and Jennifer Dunn, “Searchinger and Heimlich bluntly denied a role that bioenergy may play in the future for sustainable environmental development and energy supply.”

Scientists at Argonne National Laboratory have devoted 20 years to studying life-cycle emissions of various fuels, and have developed the Greenhouse Gases, Regulated Emissions, and Energy Use in Transportation (GREET) Model, which is the standard for comparing the carbon intensity of fuels, including biofuels.  The Argonne scientists recognize that “land is a resource that must be well managed to provide sufficient food, fiber and energy for society,” but by ignoring much of the recent research and evidence on land-use change and efficiencies in biofuels production, Searchinger and Heimlich have missed the mark in their indictment of biofuels.

Drs. Wang and Dunn do agree with WRI that “bioenergy from land extensification with significant soil carbon loss” should not occur – but their results find that examples of biofuels ‘done right’ are numerous. Using their own research as well as the significant body of peer-reviewed work on land-use change, Drs. Wang and Dunn find that:

  • While corn acreage increased between 2004 and 2013, total crop area has remained constant, at 311 million acres.
  • Significant areas of marginal lands exist that can be used for cellulosic crops.
  • Bioenergy production can help raise farmer income in the developing world.
    • At an ethanol mill, one third of the corn leaves as animal feed,
    • Co-production of electricity can boost energy output by 12 percent.
  • Grasses and trees for biofuels production will not be grown on food crop land.
  • Bioenergy potential from crops, residues, and wood waste is 40 percent of total global energy use, not 24 percent, as the WRI report concludes.
  • While all renewable technologies will benefit from falling prices, solar is currently more expensive than biofuels: corn ethanol costs $0.017 per megajoule (MJ), cellulosic ethanol is at $0.027/MJ, and solar systems are at $0.033/MJ.
  • Argonne has found that the use of corn ethanol reduces greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 34 percent relative to gasoline. 


For more information see: 

Comments on Avoiding Bioenergy Competition for Food Crops and Land by Searchinger and Heimlich, Argonne National Lab

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