Scientists warn of pitfalls of biofuels use

October 4th, 2008 - 1:20 pm ICT by IANS  

Washington, Oct 4 (IANS) As biofuels from grasses, crop residues and inedible plant parts have the potential to be more efficient and eco-friendly than grain-based biofuels like corn ethanol, more research is needed to reap these benefits, said a group of experts. Purdue University agricultural economist Otto Doering and a team of 22 other scientists wrote that there is an urgent need for more comprehensive and collaborative research.

This will help next-generation fuels avoid the pitfalls of grain-based biofuels, which include increased nutrient runoff and clearing of new land to recoup lost food production, Doering said.

“It’s important that we begin thinking about how to deal with the unintended consequences of cellulosic biofuels as early as possible in order to ensure that they can be produced sustainably,” Doering said.

The ‘renewable fuel standard’ within last year’s energy bill guarantees cellulosic biofuels a relatively bright future, mandating that American companies purchase 21 billion gallons of cellulosic ethanol by 2022, said a Purdue University press release.

But many questions remain unanswered, like how to comprehensively measure the impact of biofuels. To date, measures often reflect a single dimension rather than considering the system as a whole.

“There are a broad array of concerns,” Doering said. “We need to consider biofuels’ likely impact on water use and availability along with water quality, especially nutrient runoff. Greenhouse gas emissions must also be considered, as well as effects on soils and the landscape.”

Rising demand for corn grain ethanol has gone hand-in-hand with increased water use and, oftentimes, increased nutrient run-off, Doering said. There also is mixed evidence that corn grain ethanol reduces greenhouse gas emissions. The intensive corn cultivation encouraged by high ethanol demand can degrade soil and water quality, he said.

Doering, recently appointed to the Environmental Protection Agency’s Scientific Advisory Board, said more work is needed to develop and successfully apply “best management practices” to minimize nutrient, chemical and water use while limiting greenhouse gas emissions.

It’s important to remember, Doering said, that existing best management practices can help soften the impact of increased corn production and intensified agriculture.

Michigan State University researcher G. Philip Robertson was a co-author of the study. The authors hail from universities and institutions from two countries and 16 US states.

The study was published in Science Friday.

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