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Biofuels are fuels made from biological sources, such as corn, soybeans, sugarcane, jatropha, palm oil, or cassava. While these fuels are touted as "renewable," their efficiency rests on whether it requires fewer than one calorie of oil or other energy source to grow, process, and transport a biofuel for each calorie of energy produced. Additionally, unlike the renewable energy sources solar power, wind power, and tidal power, biofuels do not solve the problem of greenhouse gas emissions.

Additionally, some debate "food vs. fuel," as biofuel crops are often consumed as food or fed to livestock. Demand for biofuel crops puts upward pressure on crop prices, although there is widespread debate over how much biofuels demand actually impacts commodity prices.

Corn-based Ethanol in the United States

"In 2008, 25% of all corn produced in [the United States] was set aside for ethanol production, and plans show that in 2010 this proportion will reach 33%."[1]

Eliana Monteforte writing in June 2007 notes that:

"As the Bush administration continues to push its alternative fuels agenda, it has become increasingly evident that corn-based ethanol could be as much the global villain as a boon to society. Instead of improving the environment and moderating oil prices, corn-based ethanol could result in mass deforestation, strained land and water resources, increased food prices, augmented poverty and swarms of farmers uprooted from their land. While the negative effects of corn-based biofuels are obvious, Washington continues to emphasize their importance, while increasing the size and number of subventions to the ethanol industry. This is being done despite the adverse ramifications that its cultivation is having on the sites where it already is being produced, with the situation likely to further deteriorate in the near future." [2]

Sugarcane-based Ethanol in Brazil

Brazil, the world's top sugarcane producer, uses a large percent of its sugarcane to produce ethanol.

"Ethanol production based on sugar cane monocultures has resulted in in numerous social and environmental impacts including: provoking a re-organization of land, forcing people off the land, exacerbating conflicts over land, exploiting indigenous labour, and reducing food production, etc."[3]

For more information, see the article on Sugarcane Production in Brazil.

2011 MIT study

In a 2011 study, MIT researchers found that when a biofuel's origins are factored in — for example, palm oil grown in a clear-cut rainforest — conventional fossil fuels may sometimes actually be the "greener" choice. James Hileman, principal research engineer in MIT's Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics, and his team performed a life-cycle analysis of 14 fuel sources, including conventional petroleum-based jet fuel and "drop-in" biofuel alternatives.

In a 2011 Environmental Science and Technology paper, Hileman considered the entire biofuel life cycle of diesel engine fuel compared with jet fuel, and found that changing key parameters can dramatically change the total greenhouse gas emissions from a given biofuel. In particular, the team found that emissions varied widely depending on the type of land used to grow biofuel components such as soy, palm and rapeseed. For example, Hileman and his team calculated that biofuels derived from palm oil emitted 55 times more carbon dioxide if the palm oil came from a plantation located in a converted rainforest rather than a previously cleared area. Depending on the type of land used, biofuels could ultimately emit 10 times more carbon dioxide than conventional fuel.

Hileman said the issue is not so much the technology to convert biofuels - companies like Choren and Rentech have built small-scale biofuel production facilities and are looking to expand in the near future - but is instead the challenge in allocating large swaths of land to cultivate enough biomass, in a sustainable fashion, to feed the growing demand for biofuels. He said one solution to the land-use problem may be to explore crops like algae and salicornia that don't require deforestation, fresh water, or fertile soil to grow. Hileman also suggested using co-products like husks to produce electricity, for animal feed or as fertilizer.[4]

Resources and articles

Related Sourcewatch articles


  1. Sérgio Schlesinger, Lúcia Ortiz, Camila Moreno, Célio Berman, Wendell Ficher Teixeira Assis, "New roads to the same old place: the false solution of agrofuels]," Núcleo Amigos da Terra Brasil – NATFederação de Órgãos para Assistência Federação de Órgãos para Assistência Social e Educacional – FASE, Terra de Direitos, October 2008, p. 5.
  2. [1]
  3. Wendell Ficher Teixeira Assis, Marcos Cristiano Zucarelli, and Lúcia Schild Ortiz, "De-polluting Doubts: Territorial Impacts of the Expansion of Energy Monocultures in Brazil," 2007.
  4. "MIT Study: conventional fossil fuels sometimes 'greener' than biofuels" Eureka Alert, May 11, 2011.

External Resources

Critiques of Biofuel

External Articles

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