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Mandate for biofuels production requires science-based policy and global perspective

In his State of the Union Address on January 23, 2007, President Bush stated that, in order to substantially lower foreign oil imports, "We must increase the supply of alternative fuels, by setting a mandatory fuels standard to require 35 billion gallons of renewable and alternative fuels in 2017."

This mandate coupled with a $1.01 ethanol refiner subsidy promised in the 2008 Farm Bill and a $45 subsidy per ton of biomass production for growers are putting energy needs ahead of environmental sustainability, according to an article in the October 3, 2008 issue of Science Magazine entitled "Sustainable Biofuels Redux."

"Whether or not the benefits of biofuels are realized will depend on which, where and how these crops are grown," said Michelle Wander, University of Illinois soil scientist and one of the 23 authors of the Science Magazine article.

"Even though there are many questions about biofuel sustainability that remain unanswered, we do know enough to move in the right direction right now by aggressively developing and implementing best management approaches in both the grain and cellulose-based systems," Wander said.

"Increasing the production of cellulosic materials to produce alternative fuels could have many social and environmental benefits, but it could also create problems for the environment and society that we haven't anticipated. In some instances we haven't had time to do the research while, in others, we have overlooked the obvious."

Wander said that the article in Science cautions that although cellulosic feedstocks show promise by lessening the need for nitrogen fertilizer and other chemical inputs, the effects on biodiversity, water and soil could be negative if marginal land is claimed in order to prevent competition with food crops.

"We are going to have to tailor systems and crop choice to site conditions. For example, selection of miscanthus over switchgrass as a cellulosic bioenergy crop would produce more biomass and require less nitrogen but would require more water and would not feed wildlife."

The article goes on to state that globally, to produce an important amount of energy with biofuels requires a large amount of land. This will change the landscape of the Earth, not just in the United States. "One of the least understood aspects of the biofuels roll out is how it will play out on the international stage. U.S. decisions can influence the magnitude and direction of land-use change elsewhere, and vice versa," Wander said.

It calls for research that assesses the energy yield and carbon implications as well as the full impact of biofuel production including implementation of land-management approaches and a better understanding of how policy and management practices will impact food access, food security, farmland, forests, watersheds and the globe.

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


Contact: Debra Levey Larson
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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