Julia Olmstead

The Biofuel Illusion

There's been a lot of talk lately about the promise of biofuels -- liquid fuels like ethanol and biodiesel made from plants -- to reduce our dependence on oil. Even President Bush beat the biofuel drum in his last State of the Union speech.  

Fuel from plants? Sounds pretty good. But before you rush out to buy an E-85 pickup, consider:  

-- The United States annually consumes more fossil and nuclear energy than all the energy produced in a year by the country's plant life, including forests and that used for food and fiber, according to figures from the U.S. Department of Energy and David Pimentel, a Cornell University researcher.  

-- To produce enough corn-based ethanol to meet current U.S. demand for automotive gasoline, we would need to nearly double the amount of land used for harvested crops, plant all of it in corn, year after year, and not eat any of it. Even a greener fuel source like the switchgrass President Bush mentioned, which requires fewer petroleum-based inputs than corn and reduces topsoil losses by growing back each year, could provide only a small fraction of the energy we demand.  

-- The corn and soybeans that make ethanol and biodiesel take huge quantities of fossil fuel for farm machinery, pesticides and fertilizer. Much of it comes from foreign sources, including some that may not be dependable, such as Russia and countries in the Middle East.  

-- Corn and soybean production as practiced in the Midwest is ecologically unsustainable. Its effects include massive topsoil erosion, pollution of surface and groundwater with pesticides, and fertilizer runoff that travels down the Mississippi River to deplete oxygen and life from a New Jersey-size portion of the Gulf of Mexico.  

-- Improving fuel efficiency in cars by just 1 mile per gallon -- a gain possible with proper tire inflation -- would cut fuel consumption equal to the total amount of ethanol federally mandated for production in 2012.  
Rather than chase phantom substitutes for fossil fuels, we should focus on what can immediately both slow our contribution to global climate change and reduce our dependence on oil and other fossil fuels: cutting energy use.  

Let's be bold. Let's raise the tax on gasoline to encourage consumers to buy fuel-efficient cars and trucks. We can use the proceeds to fund research and subsidies for truly sustainable energy.  

Let's raise energy efficiency standards for vehicles, appliances, industries and new buildings.  

Let's employ new land-use rules and tax incentives to discourage suburban sprawl and encourage dense, mixed-use development that puts workplaces, retail stores and homes within walking distance of each other. Let's better fund mass transit.  

Let's switch the billions we now spend on ethanol subsidies to development of truly sustainable energy technologies.  

And why not spend money to make on-the-shelf technology like hybrid cars more affordable? Fuel-efficient hybrids aren't the final solution, but they can be a bridge to more sustainable solutions.  

The focus on biofuels as a silver bullet to solve our energy and climate change crises is at best misguided. At worst, it is a scheme that could have potentially disastrous environmental consequences. It will have little effect on our fossil fuel dependence. We must reduce energy use now if we hope to kick our oil addiction and slow climate change. Pushing biofuels at the expense of energy conservation today will only make our problems more severe, and their solutions more painful, tomorrow.    

Our Reckless Chemical Dependence

Telling people to wash their faces with DDT would be like the insult "go jump off a cliff." We all know the chemical is extremely hazardous both to humans and wildlife. But it is said that 50 years ago, in the agronomy department of my university, some faculty argued the pesticide was indeed that safe.

In the same way, a fellow student in my plant breeding graduate program hurled an unintended insult last fall when he said Roundup, one of the most commonly applied weed killers in the world, was safe enough for me to drink a glass daily. I was seven months pregnant at the time. In the past few months, two published studies showed Monsanto's herbicide kills some amphibians and might cause reproductive problems in humans.
 
Since its introduction in 1974, Roundup and its active ingredient, glyphosate, often have been touted as harmless to human and ecological health. Glyphosate, most often sold under the Roundup commercial name, is now the second most commonly applied herbicide in the United States. Nearly 113 million pounds of it is used annually on farms, in parks and around homes, the Environmental Protection Agency reports. From 1990 to 2000, its use increased tenfold because of Monsanto's introduction of Roundup Ready crops: corn, soybeans and cotton genetically engineered for glyphosate resistance.
 
Proponents say that Roundup Ready crops reduce the need for nastier herbicides. Farmers can spray their fields, kill everything but their resistant crops and not worry about causing any harm to themselves, their children or wildlife.

Roundup might be less acutely toxic than other herbicides, but safer isn't the same thing as safe. A study published in June by Environmental Health Perspectives, a journal of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, showed that Roundup killed human placenta cells in lab culture at one-tenth its concentration for field use. At concentrations one-hundredth of intended use, the herbicide inhibited an enzyme crucial to sex hormone regulation.
 
And an April paper in Ecological Applications showed that Roundup, when applied at label-recommended concentrations, was "highly lethal" to amphibians, wiping out tadpoles of two species and nearly killing off a third.
 
Monsanto insists that the herbicide's chemical properties make it unlikely to leach from soils into groundwater or persist in surface water, a claim that might ease fears about the real-life ramifications of these papers. But several studies have detected significant concentrations of glyphosate in streams near farm fields, some up to four months after application.
 
Roundup's full potential to cause health problems for humans and wildlife populations is unknown. But these studies make its unbridled use and promotion as a "safe" choice terribly reckless. We don't understand enough about the effects of pesticides on human and ecological health to claim that any chemical is completely safe. Developing an agriculture that depends on large scale chemical application, like Roundup Ready crops, means we're playing a game whose outcome we cannot predict.

Rather than seek out "less harmful" pesticides, we should be making an agriculture that cuts or ends our need for such chemicals. We should look to organic agriculture and to farming techniques that use more natural systems of pest control. Crop rotations that incorporate greater diversity than just alternating between corn and soybeans are chemical-free ways to control weeds. And incorporating livestock into a farming system contributes chemical-free fertilization and can be a natural check on pests.
 
Our experience with DDT should have taught us long ago the fallacy of making assumptions about the safety of any agricultural chemical. And rather than spouting glib comments that discount the potential hazards of pesticides, we -- agricultural researchers, parents, consumers -- need to support safe alternatives through actions like buying organic food and promoting chemical-free farming and home landscaping.
 
We already have enough evidence on Roundup to be concerned about its effects on human and animal health. The time to take action is now, before the next round of studies comes out.

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