Featured Research

from universities, journals, and other organizations

Thinking It Through: Scientists Call For Policy To Guide Biofuels Industry Toward Sustainability

Date:
October 27, 2008
Source:
Marine Biological Laboratory
Summary:
As the United States and other nations commit to the path of biofuels production, 23 scientists call for sustainable practices in an industry that will, as one of them says, "reshape the Earth's landscape in a significant way."

The Farm Bill promotes the production of "advanced biofuels" made from the inedible parts of corn and other cellulosic plant matter.
Credit: U.S. Geological Survey

As the United States and other nations commit to the path of biofuels production, a group of scientists is calling for sustainable practices in an industry that will, as MBL scientist Jerry Mellilo says, "reshape the Earth's landscape in a significant way."

Related Articles


In a paper published in the Oct. 3 issue of Science magazine, Melillo and 22 co-authors call 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 write. Melillo is co-director of the Marine Biological Laboratory's (MBL) Ecosystems Center, and the other authors are environmental scientists, agronomists, and economists from numerous organizations in the United States and Brazil.

The biofuels industry in the United States 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 biofuels crops and for refiners who convert those crops to ethanol. Also, the U.S. Legislature approved a mandate in 2007 for the production of 16 billion gallons of cellulosic ethanol per year by 2022.

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

The Farm Bill specifically subsidizes 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 United States today, we produce most of the biofuel ethanol from the fermentation of sugars and starches from corn kernels. Melillo says, "The new Farm Bill promotes the use of the inedible parts of corn, the cellulose-rich stalks and stover, for biofuels. Further down the line, it is expected that perennial, cellulose-rich plants such as switchgrass, miscanthus (a tropical grass), willow, and poplar will be grown specifically for biofuels production."

"Many of the problems associated with biofuels are more generally problems with agriculture," Melillo says. Current grain-based biofuel cropping systems are known to cause environmental harm, including soil erosion and depletion, nitrogen fertilizer pollution, and a decline in biodiversity leading to pest management issues. The switch to perennial biofuels crops, such as grasses, shrubs and trees, can mitigate some of these problems and prevent competition with food production. Still, if these crops are sited on marginal lands rather than on cropland, the land could require sizeable inputs of water, nutrients, and energy to become productive.

"If it takes a lot of inputs and if negative environmental consequences persist, then you clearly diminish the benefit you would derive from biofuels production," Melillo says. All the tradeoffs between alternative biofuels strategies need to be carefully considered, the authors write.

One motive for biofuels production is to increase domestic energy security by reducing reliance on imported oil. In addition, introducing biofuels into the nation's energy portfolio promises to reduce the amount of CO2 and greenhouse gases going into the atmosphere by fossil-fuel burning. But this, too, must be carefully thought through by the use of scientific analyses, Melillo says. In some parts of the world, the decision is being made to burn forests to clear land for biofuels crops, which releases a large amount of CO2 into the atmosphere just to set the cropland up. "You have to go into that game knowing you are creating a carbon debt; knowing you are borrowing a lot of carbon from nature where it is stored in plants, and putting it into the atmosphere. In this case, you must recognize that you will not invoke carbon savings from biofuels for a while, perhaps a very long while," Melillo says. "You don't want this to be an unrecognized, unintended consequence."

"Sustainable biofuel production systems could play a highly positive role in mitigating climate change, enhancing environmental quality, and strengthening the global economy," the authors conclude, "but it will take sound, science-based policy and additional research effort to make this so."


Story Source:

The above story is based on materials provided by Marine Biological Laboratory. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.


Journal Reference:

  1. G. Philip Robertson et al. Sustainable Biofuels Redux. Science, 2008; 322 (5898): 49-50 DOI: 10.1126/science.1161525

Cite This Page:

Marine Biological Laboratory. "Thinking It Through: Scientists Call For Policy To Guide Biofuels Industry Toward Sustainability." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 27 October 2008. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/10/081002172438.htm>.
Marine Biological Laboratory. (2008, October 27). Thinking It Through: Scientists Call For Policy To Guide Biofuels Industry Toward Sustainability. ScienceDaily. Retrieved December 18, 2014 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/10/081002172438.htm
Marine Biological Laboratory. "Thinking It Through: Scientists Call For Policy To Guide Biofuels Industry Toward Sustainability." ScienceDaily. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/10/081002172438.htm (accessed December 18, 2014).

Share This


More From ScienceDaily



More Science & Society News

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Featured Research

from universities, journals, and other organizations


Featured Videos

from AP, Reuters, AFP, and other news services

UN: Up to One Million Facing Hunger in Ebola-Hit Countries

UN: Up to One Million Facing Hunger in Ebola-Hit Countries

AFP (Dec. 17, 2014) Border closures, quarantines and crop losses in West African nations battling the Ebola virus could lead to as many as one million people going hungry, UN food agencies said on Wednesday. Duration: 00:52 Video provided by AFP
Powered by NewsLook.com
Los Angeles Police To Receive 7,000 Body Cameras

Los Angeles Police To Receive 7,000 Body Cameras

Newsy (Dec. 17, 2014) Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti announced the cameras will be distributed starting Jan. 1. Video provided by Newsy
Powered by NewsLook.com
Ivory Trade Boom Swamps Law Efforts

Ivory Trade Boom Swamps Law Efforts

Reuters - Business Video Online (Dec. 17, 2014) Demand for ivory has claimed the lives of tens of thousands of African elephants and now a conservation report says the illegal trade is overwhelming efforts to enforce the law. Amy Pollock reports. Video provided by Reuters
Powered by NewsLook.com
Indictments in West Virginia Chemical Spill Case

Indictments in West Virginia Chemical Spill Case

AP (Dec. 17, 2014) A grand jury indicted four former executives of Freedom Industries, the company at the center of the Jan. 9, 2014 chemical spill in Charleston, West Virginia. The spill contaminated the Elk River and the water supply of 300,000 people. (Dec. 17) Video provided by AP
Powered by NewsLook.com

Search ScienceDaily

Number of stories in archives: 140,361

Find with keyword(s):
Enter a keyword or phrase to search ScienceDaily for related topics and research stories.

Save/Print:
Share:

Breaking News:

Strange & Offbeat Stories


Science & Society

Business & Industry

Education & Learning

In Other News

... from NewsDaily.com

Science News

Health News

Environment News

Technology News



Save/Print:
Share:

Free Subscriptions


Get the latest science news with ScienceDaily's free email newsletters, updated daily and weekly. Or view hourly updated newsfeeds in your RSS reader:

Get Social & Mobile


Keep up to date with the latest news from ScienceDaily via social networks and mobile apps:

Have Feedback?


Tell us what you think of ScienceDaily -- we welcome both positive and negative comments. Have any problems using the site? Questions?
Mobile: iPhone Android Web
Follow: Facebook Twitter Google+
Subscribe: RSS Feeds Email Newsletters
Latest Headlines Health & Medicine Mind & Brain Space & Time Matter & Energy Computers & Math Plants & Animals Earth & Climate Fossils & Ruins