Scientists, or at least science writers, perpetuating fuel vs. food mythology, while admitting the uncertainty of ILUC

(article by Harvey Leifert, contributing editor of Environmental Research Web)

The increasing use of biofuels, mainly ethanol derived from plants, such as corn (maize), has sparked a bidding war that has raised the price of food.

(Editor’s note: We have to stop right here in the article and point out that sources as varied as the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office and the United Nations have accepted the economic reckoning that ethanol demand contributed to ten percent of the food price rise in 2008—the remainder came from astronomical energy price increases, and increased post-farm labor costs from the increasing volume of processed foods Americans consume. We also mention at this point that corn prices have fallen to half of what they were at their peak, but we have yet to see any significant drop in food prices [and now, back to the Environmental Research Web article]).

The makers of ethanol are competing with makers of corn chips and all other products in which corn is an ingredient.

(A second editor’s note: This is only an indirect competition at best—growers of food-grade white and yellow corn use specific hybrids and keep them separate from acreage of field corn intended for animals, so that the different corn varieties will not cross pollinate. Also, a good portion of food grade corn is grown under contract with food processing companies and only a portion of it is sold on the open market [back to the Environmental Research Web article]).

Addressing participants at the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s annual meeting in San Diego, California, last month, scientists described this and other difficult issues facing themselves and policymakers regarding biofuels.

John Sheehan of the University of Minnesota, U.S., titled his talk, “Biofuels as a contact sport,” borrowing from Stephen Schneider’s recent book, Science as a Contact Sport, on the politics of climate change. Sheehan said that the politics of biofuels mirrors, and may even exceed, that surrounding climate change. What both issues have in common, he said, is that at their core lies the question of sustainable development.

For Sheehan, sustainable development has to do with the quality of life and is fundamentally a “profoundly ethical issue”. The debate over biofuels has been a dysfunctional dialogue, he said, involving both technical scientific issues and questions of societal preferences. He stressed the need to be clear about the difference between controversial value choices and genuine scientific uncertainty.

One key area of debate and uncertainty is the impact of indirect land-use change, (ILUC), referring to land put into production of biofuel crops that was previously used for other purposes. Uwe Fritsche of the Institute for Applied Ecology in Darmstadt, Germany, pointed out that whether land-use change is indirect or direct actually depends upon one’s point of view.

The European Union and its 27 member countries are grappling with the issue, said Fritsche, seeking to develop models of ILUC effects under various scenarios. Any governmental mandate, or even recommendation, to increase the use of biofuels represents a change from business as usual and poses several questions.

First, how will markets react, and what changes in land use will result, and where will they occur? Then, one must ask what the net change in carbon flux will be as a result; it may be positive or negative.


Our Take:
We appreciate our own U of M Professor John Sheehan trying to disentangle value judgments from questions under scientific debate. We especially appreciate his pointing out that Indirect Land Use Change is still a hypothesis that is informing a growing number of models that try to predict how land use will change according to changes in American agricultural practices. ILUC is not close to becoming a theory that represents any substantial scientific consensus).

A number of market analysts, in advance of the USDA planting intentions report due out at the end of the month, have predicted that U.S. farmers will add several million acres in both corn and soybeans this year. This makes sense for the most productive agricultural producers in the world, who are feeding a planet that adds the equivalent of a Germany in new population each year.

Will ILUC models then show stagnation or slowing in conversion of land to agricultural use in the developing world? An even better question—even if there are more agricultural acres being added in these countries, will the science decide the value question of whether it is more important for these societies to feed and enrich themselves, or to lower their carbon footprint?

Two parting thoughts: ILUC models we have heard reported do not seem to account for even a modest diffusion of agricultural technology—a lack that flies in the face of all trends in human history. The Third World still uses open field pollination to grow corn and other crops—a technique surpassed more than half a century ago here. We suggest that a modest but significant rise in world commodity prices could result in widespread adoption of modern corn varieties and increased use of inputs that boost soil fertility. If a market arises, we cannot imagine Pioneer, Monsanto, Syngenta and the other seed companies would not sell to it. In other words, Third World farmers would do what farmers do here—grow more crops per acre. This may slow or reverse land use change in the developing world.

Finally, we would ask, why are ILUC calculations limited to biofuels? The premise of ILUC begs the question—doesn’t any economic growth potentially spur the conversion of land to other uses. When people have more money in their pockets, land is converted to retail commercial space and the roads and parking lots that service those malls and shopping strips. Economic growth also leads to capitalization of businesses, which then build more properties to produce their products or sell them to businesses or consumers.

We think that underlying the ILUC debate is a value judgment about whether economic growth has a place in the world. Having experienced a national economy shedding jobs for the past two years, we have a very definite opinion.

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