Food, Fuel and Society panel discusses complexity of biofuels issue

Tuesday, October 12, 2010 | 4:34 p.m. CDT

COLUMBIA — Both supporters and detractors of biofuels have credible evidence on their side, a panel observed at the Food, Fuel and Society conference Tuesday, making biofuels one of the most controversial forms of renewable energy.

The panel featured an economics professor from Iowa State University, a communications professor from Radford University, the international affairs program director from MU's Food and Agricultural Policy Research Institute and a scientific communications manager from Monsanto.

Together, the panelists shared their research and highlighted the complexity inherent in the biofuels debate. Too often, they said, reporters fail to provide a nuanced perspective on the costs and benefits of bioethanol, a common biofuel.

Dave Swenson of Iowa State University devoted his speech to exploring the job creation a bioethanol-based economy might yield. His research concerned the total number of jobs each plant would create.

Swenson's findings flew in the face of official estimates from the Iowa Renewable Fuels Association. The fuels association in 2006 estimated that switching to corn ethanol would create 50,000 new jobs in Iowa, but Swenson's research indicated biofuels would net Iowa only an extra 4,500 jobs. 

"I'm not going to say 'fraud' or 'lie,' " Swenson said of the fuels association's estimates. "I'll instead say 'misperception of value for this enterprise.' "

Swenson estimates that the current government mandate calling for 8 billion gallons per year of biofuel production by 2016 will net almost 90,000 new jobs.

"Yet analysts and policy makers promise over a million jobs from biofuels," Swenson said. "To that I say, 'not in my lifetime.' "

Proponents of biofuels may have overstated their economic benefits, but research from panelist Pat Westhoff of the research institute at MU suggests that detractors of biofuels have oversold its role in the 2008 food inflation crisis.

Although an increase in biofuels production from 2004 to 2008 had a strong correlation with an increase in food inflation during the same period, biofuels production continued to increase from 2008 to 2010 while food inflation leveled off, Westhoff said. The argument that biofuels create food inflation is exaggerated, Westhoff said.

"There's lots of spin," Westhoff said. "It's difficult when you have these issues that are difficult to summarize."

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Mark Foecking October 12, 2010 | 6:59 p.m.

"Swenson estimates that the current government mandate calling for 8 billion gallons per year of biofuel production by 2016"

That's a whopping 6-10% (depending on fuel yields from varying grades of petroleum) of our current petroleum consumption, and biofuel production is dependent on petroleum and natural gas. If biofuels had to be used to produce biofuels, most of the fuel would be used in production, leaving much less for sale.

Biofuels are business ventures, not energy solutions. They are simply ways of converting fossil fuels into other fuels, at a profit (and none would even be profitable without hefty subsidies), with a little boost from the sun.

Nothing we have on the table today will replace fossil fuels at the scale we use them. Solutions will come much more from efficiency and conservation than from technology.


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