The use of crops such as corn to produce ethanol or other biofuels is in the national spotlight as policymakers look for alternatives to the increasingly costly foreign oil. The debate is often cast as a competition over land, with corn-based ethanol displacing the use of corn for other puposes and raising food prices. Illinois plant biology professor Evan DeLucia believes the challenge of developing new transportation fuel sources is more complex than that. He was interviewed by News Bureau Life Sciences Editor Diana Yates.
What is useful about the current debate over the use of biofuels?
In the first place, biofuels are ancient. Wood is a biofuel. Dung is a biofuel. So what we're really talking about now is liquid biofuels for transportation purposes. There continues to be great enthusiasm about it but as people have started to explore the issues more closely, some pretty serious concerns have been raised. I'm still very optimistic about biofuels, but it would be foolhardy to go down this path without keeping our eyes wide open to managing it in the best possible way.
As an ecologist, I started with the very simple belief that if we grow a plant that's using solar energy to make reduced carbon compounds we can then use that energy for human good. But then you get past that as you start debating all these other issues: What are the ancillary ecological costs? Are you fertilizing this crop? Do you have to irrigate it? So are you just replacing the energy that you would have burned from fossil fuels with the energy needed to irrigate or make nitrogen fertilizer to make a biofuels crop? These are all important questions.
Many people see this as a choice between food and fuel. Are people going hungry because we're dedicating 20 percent of our corn crop to ethanol production?
That's a really complicated question, at least in the United States, because, in the first place, how much of that grain really is going to food, and how much of it is going to stuff that's arguably non-essential and perhaps bad for human beings, such as high-fructose corn syrup? The majority of our corn crop is going into cattle feed. And so when we say food for fuel, what are we really talking about?
It's a very different thing if you're in Indonesia and you're taking palm oil and using that as a diesel fuel. In that case, you're taking palm oil off somebody's plate. Somebody is getting a significant proportion of their daily caloric intake from cooking with palm oil, and when you take that palm oil and raise the price because it's now more valuable as a fuel, that person can't afford to buy that same product. We don't have that direct connection to Midwest grain. It's not like that corn is on my plate at night. It's in my pop and it's in my steak and it's in my beer, but it's not my subsistence. So figuring that out is a very complicated thing.
How can other potential biofuels crops, such as perennial grasses, potentially change the biofuels equation?
Growing crops specifically for fuel production, crops that are bred for maximizing fuel production, may help us avoid some of the pitfalls such as the food-for-fuel problem and may have a positive effect on the environment. By using perennial grasses, for example, that require minimal fertilizer and no irrigation, we can keep the cost of producing biofuels very low. Low fertilizer requirements also mean less contamination of groundwater. Perennial grasses also help restore carbon that has been lost from the soil over decades of plowing, and they ultimately improve soil health. Currently, when we use corn to produce ethanol for fuel, only the grain is fermented. New technologies will help us reduce the cost of converting the entire plant - all of the cellulose that makes up most of the plant body - into "second generation" biofuels. This would increase the efficiency of fuel production and would translate into less land allocated to biofuels. I am guardedly optimistic that biofuels can help us achieve energy independence while at the same time improving our environment, but it is important that we develop this new approach with our eyes open to potential problems.