World can’t grow enough crops for food, energy — report 

Source: Amanda Peterka, E&E reporter • Posted: Friday, January 30, 2015

The world cannot meet its future food needs and produce bioenergy at the same time, a new report from the World Resources Institute found.

Using land to grow plants for fuels and energy takes away from land that’s needed to feed a burgeoning world population, the report found. The study also casts doubt on analyses that find greenhouse gas benefits from bioenergy, charging that their conclusions are the result of accounting errors.

Lead study author Tim Searchinger, whose 2008 paper started the debate on the contribution of indirect land-use change emissions to biofuels’ carbon footprint, said the study made the case for halting bioenergy production and world policies that spur its growth.

“The essence of the report is that it recommends against making dedicated use of land to produce bioenergy,” said Searchinger, a senior fellow at the World Resources Institute. “Don’t use land to grow crops for bioenergy, don’t use land to harvest trees, don’t do things that actually undermine the other outputs of land.”

According to the WRI report, the globe will have to close a 70 percent gap between the food calories that were available in 2006 and those that need to be available in 2050 to support an expected population of 9 billion.

Any dedicated use of land for fuel or energy, the study says, takes away from using that land to either close the gap or store carbon. If biofuels were to continue to grow to at least 10 percent of transportation fuel by 2050, the gap would increase to 90 percent. If biofuels were eliminated, on the other hand, the gap would shrink to 60 percent.

“This 30 percentage point spread indicates how even relatively modest biofuel production makes achieving a sustainable food future significantly more difficult,” the WRI paper says.

The challenges come because most crops grown for fuels or energy are grown on lands that could sustain food crops, said Searchinger, who spoke with reporters in advance of the paper’s publication.

“Basically, the world is already full, and bioenergy promises to dramatically increase that competition,” he said. “We need 70 percent more from crops. … That’s already a huge increase without an increase in bioenergy.”

The report also cast doubt on analyses that attribute greenhouse gas reductions to bioenergy. According to the paper, those analyses tend to assume that the production of bioenergy will lead to increases in overall biomass that stores carbon, thereby offsetting emissions that come from burning the crops and leading to reductions in overall greenhouse gas emissions.

But what mostly happens, the report said, is that bioenergy crops are grown on lands that previously sustained either food crops or some other kind of plants that were already taking in carbon.

“The typical case for biofuels is simply taking crops that would grow otherwise — corn — and just use that for biofuels, and that doesn’t absorb more carbon,” Searchinger said. “If you want to be richer in carbon, you need to be richer in plant growth, and that’s hard to do.”

Bioenergy production generally is an “extremely inefficient” method of meeting renewable energy goals because photosynthesis is “extremely inefficient,” the report said. It calls for the elimination of all federal policies that support bioenergy.

A much better renewable energy choice would be solar power, the study concludes, because photovoltaic panels can be used on land that’s not suitable for crops.

The Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, U.N. Development Programme, U.N. Environment Programme and World Bank provided financial support for the project.

Bob Dinneen, president and chief executive of the Renewable Fuels Association, which represents U.S. ethanol producers, slammed the study as a rehashing of the “food vs. fuel” arguments that “are as wrong today as they were seven years ago when Searchinger first gained notoriety with his doomsday predictions.”

The world has experienced less deforestation and global hunger, as well as a global slowdown in the rate of cropland expansion, since biofuels became a part of the fuel mix, Dinneen said.

“Providing a cursory update of a failed theory is not science and does nothing to enlighten the debate about biofuels,” he said.