Scientists call for sustainable biofuels policy

October 3rd, 2008 - 3:27 pm ICT by IANS  

London, Oct 3 (IANS) Scientists are calling for sustainable practices in biofuels industry that will, as one of them described it, “reshape the earth’s landscape in a significant way”.Jerry Melillo, Marine Biological Laboratory’s (MBL) Ecosystems Centre and 22 co-authors of a recent paper called for science-based policy in the emerging global biofuels industry, which by 2050 could command as much land as is currently farmed for food.

“The identification of unintended consequences early in the development of alternative fuel strategies will help to avoid costly mistakes and regrets about the effects on the environment,” the authors wrote.

Their paper was published in the Friday issue of Science.

Melillo is co-director of the Ecosystems Centre and the other authors are environmental scientists, agronomists, and economists from organisations in the US and Brazil.

The biofuels industry in the US has significant momentum, but no environmental performance standards are currently in place. In May, the 2008 Farm Bill was passed, which provides subsidies for growers of biofuel crops and for refiners who convert those crops to ethanol.

Also, the US legislature approved a mandate in 2007 for the production of 16 billion gallons of cellulosic ethanol per year by 2022, said an MBL press release.

“We have a lot of information that can help policy makers think through the long-term consequences of this kind of mandate,” Melillo said. “We can help society avoid or at least reduce some of the negative consequences of the expansion of biofuel programmes in the US and around the world. Science can help all of us use renewable resources, such as biofuels, in a sustainable way.”

The Farm Bill specifically subsidises the production of “advanced” or cellulosic biofuels, which are biofuels such as ethanol, derived by processing the complex organic molecule, cellulose, which makes up a large amount of most plant materials.

In the US today, most of the biofuel ethanol is produced from the fermentation of sugars and starches from corn kernels. Melillo said: “The new Farm Bill promotes the use of the inedible parts of corn, the cellulose-rich stalks and stover, for biofuels.”

“Many of the problems associated with biofuels are more generally problems with agriculture,” he said. Current grain-based biofuel cropping systems are known to cause environmental harm, including soil erosion and depletion, nitrogen fertiliser pollution, and a decline in biodiversity leading to pest management issues.

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