biofuels… and beyond

Today’s Our View tries to push back on the biofuels hype, but for all the wrong reasons. Oklahoma’s annual biofuels conference has its share of over-optimistic claims by energy and agriculture companies just looking to make money. They play up the benefits and downplay drawbacks of whatever pet technology has the spotlight at that moment. But just because any one technology may not be a cure all, that doesn’t mean biofuels won’t be a important part of where we get energy.

A claim in the Our View is that while switchgrass doesn’t directly compete with food like corn-based ethanol, it will indirectly do so because of farmers switching what they produce. But one reason switchgrass is so touted is that it will grow on poor soils unsuited for other crops. If grown mixed with other beneficial plants and rotated with nitrogen fixing crops such as legumes, it can be produced with a minimum of fertilizer and pesticides. All of these involve changes in many common farming practices, but that is the reason for a conference: to bring together the researchers, businesspeople, farmers, and politicians who all need to combine their efforts towards this goal.

The Our View’s description of the supply and demand of food production also greatly oversimplifies the picture. The biggest single factor on corn prices in the United States today is an absurd system of farm tariffs and subsidies. Big agriculture hasn’t been left to the whims of supply and demand in a long time, and if we didn’t provide unfair protection against crops from the developing world (like we insist they do with our designer drugs and Hollywood movies), then we would have plenty of cheap food for everyone and provide a boost to poor economies around the world.

Biofuels are part of the same dynamic. Brazil, the biggest producer of ethanol from sugarcane, can’t even find a market for its biofuels because of tariffs in the United States and European Union.

I don’t want to get too far into the biofuels weeds here. It’s obviously a very complicated subject. But it comes down to this: biofuels are one part of an overall strategy that will also include solar, wind, and possibly nuclear power sources, much improved energy conservation and efficiency, improvements in mass transit and denser living patterns, and so on and so forth. In that sense, it’s pointless to criticize one part among many for not answering all of our problems.

It’s not a magic bullet. But it’s a piece of the puzzle.

Photo by Flickr user bamakodaker used under a Creative Commons license.

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