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An Appetizing, and Inedible, Option

With the price of gas hitting new heights, President George W. Bush said last week that he wants to make even more corn into ethanol. But increased biofuel production in the United States and the European Union has been cited as responsible for the steep climb in food costs around the globe.

The recent dramatic price increase has led to food riots in Haiti, Mexico, Mauritania, Egypt and other locations. Leaders in developing countries have told the United Nations that using crops to make biofuels is starving the world’s poor.

(Matt Mahurin)
(Matt Mahurin)

Jean Ziegler, a U.N. official on the right to food, called the drive to use biofuels a "criminal path" leading to the high food prices. Both Ziegler and the International Food Policy Research Institute last week called for an immediate moratorium on food-based biofuels. IFPRI finds biofuels responsible for 30 percent of the rise in food prices from 2000 to 2007.

But not all biofuels drive food prices up. Though fuels derived from food crops like corn and soybeans cut into food production — and contribute to price increases — others have the potential to become major alternatives to fossil fuels, and also reduce the threat of climate change. Food scientists and scientists working on cleaner energy are both now talking about a move away from food-based fuels.

Those seeking alternatives are looking to algae and cellulose-based plants, like switchgrass. These plants don’t cut into with food production because they are not based on grains. In addition, they can be grown in conditions unsuitable for most crops, so they don’t use needed agricultural land.

Algae and switchgrass might do what corn-based ethanol was supposed to: reduce U.S. dependence on foreign oil and cut CO2 emissions that could cause climate change. Some scientists in the biofuels industry promote algae as a viable alternative to gasoline because it can help curb global warming. Algae require CO2 and sunlight for photosynthesis. Since algae feed on CO2, growing algae goes hand-in-hand with reducing CO2 emissions.

Ted Aulich, a process chemist at the Energy and Environmental Research Center at the Univ. of North Dakota gives algae a glowing recommendation. "Algae represent a better feedstock than just about anything else out there in terms of its CO2 balance," he said, "and also I guess the potential for developing much more economical fuel pathways."

One reason is algae’s ability to grow under conditions unsuitable for most crops, Aulich said. Algae can grow in the desert, for example. It can also grow in saline or polluted water that’s unusable for anything else.

Another biofuel considered to have great potential is cellulosic ethanol, made from plants with high cellulose contents — notably switchgrass. Like algae, switchgrass isn’t a food-based crop. It can also grow on marginal land.

Joachim von Braun, director general of the International Food Policy Research Institute, called for an end to food-based biofuel production last week. His institute supports a move toward non-grain crops.

But questions still remain. "We have been saying that there should be a switch to using plant residues or switchgrass or whatever," said the IFPRI spokesman Michael Rubinstein, "but we can’t say yet what the impact would — be because the technology isn’t there. Nobody’s proven yet that these technologies work."

Yet, some firms have developed working technology to convert algae and switchgrass into fuels. As with many other green energy solutions, the major obstacle for both algae and switchgrass biofuels is not technology but cost.

"We have to figure out a better way to get high yields of algae more economically," Aulich said. He says this means developing technology that will allow more algae to be exposed to as much sunlight as possible.

As for switchgrass, Aulich says the costs of production and transportation are still too high. "It’s fairly expensive to harvest and transport switchgrass," he said. "It’s not a very energy-dense material. … If we’re looking at crops like swichgrass and cellulose crops, what we need is a good way to densify those materials — increase their energy density." The idea is to get more energy out of less switchgrass, increasing efficiency and cutting costs.

Lowering the cost of non-food biofuels is the key to replacing the biofuels being used now, which IFPRI and some world leaders say are driving up the price of food globally. IFPRI says that biofuels are responsible for almost a third of the food price hike since 2000. The World Bank has also said that biofuels are a major cause of the world’s food crisis.

If rich nations instituted a moratorium on food-based biofuels, corn prices would drop by 20 percent and wheat prices would drop by 10 percent from 2009 to 2010, according to IFPRI.

The World Food Program says that non-grain-based biofuels have the potential to bring food prices down, but they’re not a viable option for the short term. "It’s great to look ahead," said Jennifer Parmelee, spokeswoman for the World Food Program. "Obviously, producing biofuels from non-food items or non-food crops would have a lot of promise, and could have a lot of promise for poor farmers. … But, again, these farmers have to have land, they have to have the means to get switchgrass in some place where it will be produced into ethanol, and they need all of this infrastructure which is not there right now. In the future, this could be a great thing, but right now, there’s no real bounty coming to poor farmers…"

But it might only be a matter of time before these non-food biofuels become viable, argues Aulich of the University of North Dakota. "It’s logistics, it’s engineering at this point," he said.

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