Will Biofuel Save Us?

Its been a while since I have written on here, and want to get back into the habit!

The a recent TIME Magazine issue really got me thinking. Titled “The Clean Energy Myth”, the main article talks about how biofuels have their own set of moral and environmental issues to deal with. I think it is very important we examine this evidence now before it gets so far down the road that to really revert it would be extremely difficult.

Ethanol and biofuels have been labeled as the “next generation of alternate fuels”. They are said to be clean an renewable, friendly to the environment and totally independent from OPEC who we buy our oil from. Sure, it is a renewable source of energy. But lets examine how this affects the world in a bigger picture.

Ethanol can be made from plant matter, usually soybeans or corn. The problem is.. these are sources of food. As more and more automakers are slowly making the conversion to ethanol, the demand for it will increase. This means more farmers diverting a third (or a certain allotment) of their harvest to sell to refineries. They realize they can make more money by selling it for ethanol than they can selling it to supermarkets or food processing plants. How does this affect us? True, it may lower the price of gas, but we will end up paying for it in the long run as food prices skyrocket.

And then think of the impact it has on third world countries. I think that THIS is the biggest issue and consequence of using ethanol. Farmers in other countries will realize, they too can make a significant profit by selling their corn or soybeans to the US. Because of our countries mammoth energy consumption, we will buy it from them and use it to make fuel. This is directly taking the food away from the mouths of those who need it in that country. It will completely decimate the impoverished, making food become even more scarce, and hinder aid organizations in providing food aid. To quote a scentence from the article by Michael Grunwald of TIME magazine,

“The U.N.’s World Food Program says it needs $500 million in additional funding and supplies, calling the rising costs for food nothing less than a global emergency.”

And an even more powerful quote from the same article:

“The grain it takes to fill an SUV tank with ethanol could feed a person for a year.”

I think that people need to take a stand on this issue, weather it be boycotting ethanol, or raising awareness about this issue. Do we really care about driving our cars more than we are feeding the poor? Have we become so nearsighted that we cannot see the consequences of our actions? Jesus calls us to compassion; can we really achieve that when the fuel we use as a convenience condemns another life to hunger? I hope all who read this were challenged, to really think before we act. To think in the long term, rather than to act on what is easy at the time. We need to help each other as humans, and to do that means being aware of how are actions affect others.

Comments (11)

  1. sarah

    Not to mention that biofuels in many cases are not “friendly to the environment” when it comes to increased land use, pesticide use, water use, and more …

  2. mai ouest

    I was fairly horrified when I read this Gwynne Dyer article on the issue yesterday.

  3. somasoul

    I read somewhere that swedish scientists discovered that biofuel produces air pollutants more toxic than oil.

    People think that Natural=Safe. Bio-fuels seems safe because they are made from corn.

    Solar seemed like the way to go but batteries are way expensive still (there are guys working on that).

    I think that the future depends on the hydrogen fuel cell unless we can come up with something better (We probably will. We usually do).

  4. SRudy (Post author)

    Yea, I really think that the cleanest, safest, and morally aligned form of alternate energy would be hydrogen. That is where energy companies need to invest their time and money.

  5. jeff

    I drive a Jetta TDI and I am currently exploring the feasibility of Biodiesel — mostly from an accessibility perspective. I also have not read the Time article referenced. In spite of, or in light of, that there are a couple of points made in this post that I find troubling. For one, there is a lack of constructive propositions to other alternatives that are anywhere near as ‘ready’.

    Hydrogen has been ‘just around the corner’ for years. Could it be little more than modern day alchemy? The solar/battery option is sexy, but introduces increased materials ultimately requiring special disposal/recycling and the associated environmental/fiscal impact. Now, while biofuels are not clean, biodiesel is carbon neutral and with the efficiency of new generation engines and the reduced levels of particulate matter, the use of catalytic converters will soon be a possibility where they were not before. This combination has the potential to provide transportation much cleaner that the fossil fuel option; and renewable; and carbon neutral…

    Now regarding the economics of increased biofuel usage and the effect on the food supply, why is the assumption one of cheap fuel and expensive food. Is it not more logical to suggest either cheap fuel and continued cheap food? Consider transportation cost on our fuel supply; it is not an insignificant impact. But, even if it means more expensive food (and fuel), I say amen! Bring it on! One of the greatest moral issues of our American ‘system’ is cheap food and the dumping of excess onto international markets that subsequently price the local producer out of competition. Cultures where corn is at the heart of their existence can no longer afford to grow and sell the crop within their own local markets.

    The truth of the matter is that sugarcane is much more efficient for the production of biofuels. Thing is the US does not monopolize the sugarcane production to the degree we do corn. Might we be looking at a shift in possession of resources. Consider Argentina where 80% of their domestic fuel consumption is now biofuel. Biofuel made from their own crops using their own processing and not that of large offshore concerns.

    Are biofuels the ultimate answer? Likely not. But it is certainly a thoughtful step in weaning from fossil fuels and may have an inadvertent, yet very just, impact on conditions overall.

    …I do realize that I may just be full of methane ;-)

  6. dave

    Now, while biofuels are not clean, biodiesel is carbon neutral and with the efficiency of new generation engines and the reduced levels of particulate matter, the use of catalytic converters will soon be a possibility where they were not before.

    See… this is the problem. Biofuels are NOT carbon neutral, at least not when you consider the growing, production, and distribution of the fuel.

    You should probably read the Time article, which will inform that conversation.

    This article, from Mother Jones, is also an excellent resource.

  7. jeff

    Thanks for the recommendations, dave. I’ve now read both the Time article and the piece from Mother Jones. Yes, I found them both very informative. I am a bit disappointed at how poorly the Time material is documented. It would have been nice to explore their ‘trail’ further.

    To the point in your comment, I was maintaining that burning biodiesel is carbon neutral, not biofuels as a whole. To some degree your push back still makes some sense with biodiesel as well although I’m not willing to concede that the transportation and production impact is as heavy as the alternatives. Biodiesel is often a more local endeavor certainly than fossil fuel production; backyard even.

    As I thought about this further I realized that my perspective is considerably more narrow than that of this post and the mentioned articles. I am inclined to speak about biodiesel typically resulting from reclamation of McGrease and my enthusiasm stems from that root. That said, I also realize that biodiesel in this context is not a global solution. I suspect not even Americans eat enough fries to satiate our fuel needs relying on waste fat alone.

    As the dust settles after reading these articles, I am still reluctant to throw out biofuels as a viable alternative. It seems to me the issues put forward are still more manageable than those surrounding fossil fuels and especially as a means to help wean us from them.

    So, I guess I now consider myself better prepared to ask more questions. I do also feel even more inclined to go ahead with plans to move away from fossil fuel.

  8. lukelm

    A note on hydrogen:
    It’s not an energy source, but rather a method of storing/delivering energy. Hydrogen still has to be produced somewhere & an energy source has to be used to produce it – like oil, biofuel, wind, solar, etc. Hydrogen cars would be great because they wouldn’t produce pollution, but you’d still have to have some centralized plant using some other energy source to make the hydrogen. And as far as I know we don’t have cold fusion yet.

  9. micah

    Hydrogen? Hydrogen takes energy to make. It is a transfer of energy, a new form, but it is not a source of energy. And it is a highly unsafe form of energy at that. Hydrogen must be produced with a energy source. You can’t just take a box and go outside and catch some hydrogen to put into your car. It however, may be a good medium for transfering clean energy to a more accesible form of filling a gas tank, but I don’t even think that is the case.

  10. micah

    sorry I didn’t read all the replys and now I look like a big old dummy for repeating what lukelm so wisely posted just above my last post. Right on lukelm, you are a reasonalbe fella. I just get so worked up I can’t finish reading them all sometimes.

  11. lukelm

    lol… you must be a physics or chemistry person micah to get so worked up about the conservation of energy…

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