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Biofuels Sustainability

The Ecological Society of America, the nations professional organization of 10,000 ecological scientists, today released a position statement ( that offers the ecological principles necessary for biofuels to help decrease dependence on fossil fuels and reduce carbon dioxide emissions that contribute to global climate change. The Society warns that the current mode of biofuels production will degrade the nations natural resources and will keep biofuels from becoming a viable energy option.

Current grain-based ethanol production systems damage soil and water resources in the U.S. and are only profitable in the context of tax breaks and tariffs, says ESA. Future systems based on a combination of cellulosic materials and grain could be equally degrading to the environment, with potentially little carbon savings, unless steps are taken now that incorporate principles of ecological sustainability.

Three ecological principles are necessary:

1) SYSTEMS THINKING: Looking at the complete picture of how much energy is produced versus how much is consumed by extracting and transporting the crops used for biofuels. A systems approach seeks to avoid or minimize undesirable production side effects such as soil erosion and contamination of groundwater. Consistent monitoring is critical to ensure that biofuel production is sustainable.

2) CONSERVATION OF ECOSYSTEM SERVICES: Maximizing crop yield without regard to negative side effects is easy. On the other hand, growing crops and retaining the other services provided by the land is far more challenging, but very much worth the effort. For example, lower yields from an unfertilized native prairie may be acceptable in light of the other benefits, such as minimized flooding, fewer pests, groundwater recharge, and improved water quality because no fertilizer is needed.

3) SCALE ALIGNMENT: How agriculture is managed matters at the individual farm, regional, and global level. Policies must provide incentives for managing land in a sustainable way. They should also encourage the development of biofuels from various sources.

The current focus on ethanol from corn illustrates the risks of exploiting a single source of biomass for biofuel production, says ESA.

Continuously-grown corn leads to heavy use of fertilizers, early return of land in conservation programs to production, and the conversion of marginal lands to high-intensity cropping. All of these bring with them well-known environmental problems associated with intensive farming: persistent pest insects and weeds, pollution of groundwater, greater irrigation demands, less wildlife diversity, and the release of more carbon dioxide. Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas that contributes to global climate change. Ironically, one of the touted benefits of biofuels is to help alleviate global climate change, a benefit that is considerably diluted under a high-intensity agriculture scenario.

The Ecological Society of America will contribute more to this timely issue in a few months when it convenes a conference devoted to the ecological dimensions of biofuels. The conference, which will be held on March 10, 2008 in Washington, DC, will bring together a wide variety of experts in the biofuels arena. The conference will cover the various sources of biofuelsagriculture and grasslands, rangelands, and forestsand will encompass the private sector and socioeconomic perspectives. Jose Goldemberg, Global Energy Assessment Council & Universidade de Sao Paulo, Brazil, will give the keynote address.

Like other organizations, ESA is also concerned about the hardship on the nations poor communities as higher crop prices drive up the cost of food.

It has been said that biofuels have achieved cult-like status and in the rush it is only too easy to overlook the big picture of environmental implications. Iowa alone has planted more than a third of its land surface with corn and, according to the U.S. Department of Energy, the federal government has some 20 laws and incentives to boost ethanol use.

A biofuels infrastructure that incorporates systems thinking, conserves ecosystem services, and encompasses multiple scales can best serve U.S. citizens, the economy, and the environment.


Contact: Nadine Lymn
Ecological Society of America

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