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Food and Fuel: Rethinking the debate over biofuel land use.
By Bryan Bals May 29, 2008

Food vs Fuel. We've been hearing an awful lot in the news lately about food riots in other parts of the world, and inevitably how said riots are due, at least in part, to America's insatiable demand for fuel. A demand that leads us to growing crops that could be used to feed people, but rather go into our gas tanks. Immoral? A crime against humanity? Plenty of influential people think so, and governments ranging from the United Nations to the European Union to Texas are starting to question our ethanol philosophy. Maybe they have a point. But I'm an optimist, and I still believe in the ingenuity of America. Rather than flee from the problem, we ought to tackle it, and see if a better solution can be obtained.

So let's take a closer look at the world of agriculture. Yes, it's true that we have a lot of land tied up in ethanol. But is that land replacing our food production? A quick look at our exports would lead us to believe otherwise. It turns out that, for the first 9 months of 2007, we exported 6% more food/feed than the same time period in 2006, despite a massive increase in ethanol production [1]. And Oct. '07 - Feb '08 exports were a whopping 23% more than the same time period a year ago. That includes a 24% increase in corn exports! So what's going on?

The simple fact remains that the United States has an incredibly large amount of land, and is incredibly productive on that land. So we can afford to make both ethanol and food for ourselves, while still feeding a large portion of the world. At least for now. But we only have the capacity to make 8.5 billion gallons of ethanol a year now, a far cry from the 140 billion gallons of gasoline we consume. It's also a far cry from the 35 billion gallon mandated by Washington. So even though we might be doing ok keeping up with exports now, we certainly won''t be able to in the future. Hence, the food vs fuel problem.

But wait, prices are skyrocketing NOW! So what gives? How can there be food shortages when we're still doing our fair share, and then some? That brings us to our second fact about US agriculture: we don't actually grow much FOOD. Instead, we grow FEED for our livestock, which takes up vastly more space. The single largest component of our agricultural land use goes towards feeding cattle, whether it be corn, soybean, or alfalfa. And it's an extraordinarily inefficient use of land. So if we really wanted to bring food prices down, everybody going vegan would help much more than stopping ethanol. But it's a fact of life that as people get richer, they prefer more meats and dairy. And so, when a country the size of China starts a rapid economic expansion, they start demanding more meats, thereby requiring more agricultural land. And there's the other major part of the food shortages and rising prices: increased demand for livestock.

Which brings us to a real problem. How do we take care of rising demand for land use while simultaneously reducing our dependence on the rapidly depleting and openly hostile petroleum market? Do we give up and prepare for the worst? Do we refuse to devote land to energy production in order to conserve as much as possible? Or do we look for a better option? Rising demand for meat and dairy demands another agricultural revolution. And surprisingly enough, the easiest way to bring about that revolution is to support ethanol.

Let me explain: the beautiful thing about ethanol in comparison to petroleum is that it can come from many different sources. We don't need to make ethanol from corn; we can make it from trees, agricultural wastes, grasses, landfills, etc. This incentivizes researchers to look into alternative ways of making ethanol, trying to make it cheaper to produce (and thereby making big bucks for those researching this). Now, the cost is dominated by two factors: how much the feedstock costs and how easy it is for the feedstock to break down (first to simple sugars, then to ethanol). And the first one, the feedstock cost, is dominated by two factors: the amount of material you can make per acre of land, and how easy it is to grow.

Corn is not a winner in the first category. It requires planting every year, it requires a lot of fertilizer, and we're lucky if we can get 3 tons per acre of grain. However, it's very easy to break down, and so that's why we're using it now to make ethanol. It's also why we're using it to feed cattle, by the way.

That may very well be changing. Thanks to the huge increase in biofuels research over the past few years, we're now at the point where cellulosic feedstocks (grasses, trees, waste, etc) can possibly compete with corn grain in terms of total cost. We've developed technologies to make these feedstocks much, much easier to break down. We're also making inroads in how to grow them cheaper (less fertilizer or no irrigation, for example) and making much more of them (over 10 tons/acre, compared to less than 3 tpa for corn) [2]. That's why there's already one factory making ethanol out of wood wastes [3], another on the way [4], and several others using all sorts of material in various stages of planning.

So what does that have to do with food? Go back to cattle. They eat pretty much anything. So the animal farmers decide what to feed them based on the cost of the feed and how easy it is to break down. Notice that those are the exact same criteria as that for making ethanol? That's not a coincidence Mother Nature likes to recycle her work, and and the process of making ethanol is very similar to the process a cow uses to get energy from fibrous, cellulosic material. [5]

So those technologies we're inventing to make it easier to digest grasses? We can adapt them to make it easier for cows to digest those same grasses. This isn't entirely a new idea; farmers have been using low tech methods to increase forage digestion for decades [6]. But those techniques only slightly improved the quality of the hay; with any luck we should be able to do much better than simply pumping ammonia under a tarp. And since we're making it cheaper to create ethanol out of grasses than out of grains, then we will also make it cheaper to feed cows these grasses rather than grains. And since we can grow far more grass per acre than grain, that means it takes less land to feed cows than before.

But don't cattle need more than just energy? Yes, protein is also an important aspect, which is why we invest so much land in soybeans. But, like corn, we grow soybeans not because they're cheap and highly productive, but rather because they're easy to turn to high-protein supplements. But alfalfa and grasses have the potential to produce more protein per acre than soybeans. While alfalfa has been used in cattle operations for years, it's been limited by the low value of its fiber component. In a biofuels market, the fiber can be sold for making ethanol or go for treatment to be made into a more digestible feed, as stated above. In fact, it's been suggested that such an approach would actually make ethanol (or fiber) cheaper to produce [2]! The same holds true for grasses as well as alfalfa. In short, an acre of grass can not only replace an acre of corn, but also an acre of soy at the same time!

In other words, by changing the way we feed our cattle, we can create the exact same amount of FOOD that we are making now while simultaneously taking millions of acres of arable, productive land out of the cattle feeding business. But that's not all. The types of grasses we're talking about can be grown on marginal land, thus simultaneously opening up millions more acres to development. There are over 35 million acres of land retired in the USDA's Conservation Reserve Program. The USDA pays farmers to plant environmentally beneficial crops such as grasses in areas needed to control erosion or protect soil quality. Why not use this land in the exact same way, but only harvest the grass for cattle feed?

35 million acres? That's 1.5 times the amount of Iowa's cropland. Combine that with freed land or other poor quality land that comes into play, and we're talking about the potential of 50 million acres (or more!) that are suddenly free to use. We can feed millions, even hundreds of millions, with this land. Or we could feed less, and feed them steaks and ice cream. Or we could feed our cars and stave off the collapse of civilization. Or any combination of the three.

How's that for an agricultural revolution?

That's not taking into account the added side effects like stabilizing food prices, controlling erosion, decreasing fertilizer use, decreasing irrigation requirements, shrinking the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico, providing better habitation for local wildlife, improving soil quality rather than degrading it, having healthier and happier cows, and hey, for all we know, maybe even more delicious hamburgers.

And it's all BECAUSE of ethanol, rather than in spite of it. Without the research being poured into ethanol, there'd be no incentive to do this until it's too late. The recent inflation in food and energy prices may not be pleasant, but it's throwing into sharp relief what we need to do to continue to improve humanity's standard of living. We need an alternative to petroleum. But corn ethanol alone can't provide that alternative. So we need to look to cellulosic ethanol. But we can create 10s of billions of gallons without potentially harming our food supply. So we need to look into cutting down the acres we need to feed our animals. And thankfully, we're intelligent enough to tackle all of these problems.

Will all of this take place? I don't know, but there's plenty of reason to believe it will. As I said, the concept is already in practice, as farmers ammoniate forages in order to improve their value. We only need to take those practices one or two steps further. An attempt to produce pure proteins from alfalfa commercially was done back in the 60s, but failed primarily due to the lack of value of the remaining fiber and the relatively low priced soybeans that were rapidly expanding into America's farms. We should be able to conquer those problems now. Our research group has seen some very positive results over the past year, although we still have a lot of work to do. A group in Venezuala has seen a great deal of success in obtaining proteins from non-traditional sources. And the idea that digestibility within cows and digestibility within ethanol refineries are one and the same has been dawning on more and more ethanol researchers. The research opportunities are out there. The oppurtunities for commercial success are out there. And therefore, I must believe that the ability to more efficiently use our farms will stay roughly on pace with the need for greater efficiency on our farms.

Ethanol is not a perfect solution to all of our energy needs. Nothing is (otherwise, we wouldn't be using petroleum now, would we?). But that doesn't mean we should throw it away at the first sign of a problem. It doesn't mean we should latch onto poorly thought out arguments that don't match reality (believing we'll all starve to death to feed our cars, for example) or declaring any possible drawback to be completely insurmountable. I have more faith in the ingenuity of humanity than that. We have created the greatest civilization this world has ever known, so surely we can solve one more problem. A biofuels future can be done in either a horribly destructive method or a beneficial (economic and environmental) method, and it is up to us to incentivize the latter option. But to do so requires one to be open to all possibilities and to be honest in their consequences, something the media (and even scientists) sadly do not always keep in mind.


[1] USDA Economic Research Service. http://www.ers.usda.gov/Data/FATUS/

[2] Greene, Nathanael. Growing Energy. NRDC 2004. http://www.nrdc.org/air/energy/biofuels/contents.asp

[3] KL Process Design Group. http://www.klprocess.com/

[4] Range Fuels. http://www.rangefuels.com/our-first-plant

[5] Sendich, Elizabeth. Presented at 30th Symposium for Biobased Fuels and Chemicals, May 7, 2008.

[6] Brown, W.F. Improving the Feeding Value of Hay by Anhydrous Ammonia Treatment. http://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/AA203

About the author:
Bryan Bals has been a research assistant in the Biomass Conversion Research Laboratory at Michigan State University for the past four years. His mission is to develop cost effective and environmentally attractive means of generating fuels, chemicals, materials, foods and feeds from renewable plant biomass. In addition to the scientific approach to improving the technology required to produce these fuels (primarily ethanol), he also understands that the social aspects of this work must be taken into account. Thus, his research also focuses on sustainability issues - modeling both the farm and the refinery in order to determine their environmental impacts - as well as investigating the possibilities of integrating food and biofuel production. He believe he can develop relatively inexpensive processing technology to convert biomass into fuels and chemicals at high efficiency while simultaneously providing economic and environmental benefit to the farms. For more information, please visit http://www.everythingbiomass.org

Copyright © 2008 by Bryan Bals


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