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Biofuels as Religious Fodder
Volume 11, Number 5: 30 January 2008

Sir John Houghton, formerly of the IPCC, has recently championed "very large growth in renewable energy sources," among which he lists biomass in second place after solar, as a moral imperative in an attempt to make people think they would be helping mankind (and thereby doing God service) by cultivating plants for the purpose of producing large amounts of biofuels to replace large amounts of fossil fuels. As we note in our editorials of 26 Sep 2007, 10 Oct 2007 and 24 Oct 2007, however, this crusade is misguided in the extreme; and we here discuss the recent Science editorial of Borlaug (2007) that sheds further light upon the matter.

Borlaug begins his mini-treatise on "feeding a hungry world" by noting that "some 800 million people still experience chronic and transitory hunger each year," and that "over the next 50 years, we face the daunting job of feeding 3.5 billion additional people, most of whom will begin life in poverty."

Discussing a bit of history, the father of the Green Revolution recounts that "over a 40-year period, the proportion of hungry people in the world declined from about 60% in 1960 to 17% in 2000," primarily because of the effectiveness of the movement he was instrumental in initiating. Had that movement failed, he says that environmentally fragile land would have been needed to be brought into agricultural production, and the resulting "soil erosion, loss of forests and grasslands, reduction in biodiversity, and extinction of wildlife species would have been disastrous." And that same result is what awaits the world of tomorrow if the scheme of Sir John Houghton is ever implemented.

Borlaug notes, for example, that "for the foreseeable future, plants - especially the cereals - will continue to supply much of our increased food demand, both for direct human consumption and as livestock feed to satisfy the rapidly growing demand for meat in the newly industrializing countries." In fact, he states that "the demand for cereals will probably grow by 50% over the next 20 years [our italics], and even larger harvests will be needed if more grain is diverted to produce biofuels."

Noting that most food increases of the future "will have to come from lands already in production [our italics]," and that "70% of global water withdrawals are for irrigating agricultural lands," Borlaug's facts suggest that crop water use efficiency (biomass produced per unit of water used) will have to be increased dramatically if we are to meet humanity's food needs of the future without creating the disastrous consequences he outlines above; and it should be evident to all but those most blinded to the truth that this requirement can only be met if biofuels are not a part of the picture, while the aerial fertilization and anti-transpiration effects of atmospheric CO2 enrichment are.

Although Borlaug notes that conventional plant breeding, improvements in crop management, tillage, fertilization, and weed and pest control, as well as genetic engineering, will help significantly in this regard, we will in all likelihood need the beneficial biological byproducts of concomitant increases in the atmosphere's CO2 concentration in addition. Without them, to borrow a chilling phrase from Borlaug, "efforts to halt global poverty will grind to a halt," and much of the world of nature will be no longer.

Sherwood, Keith and Craig Idso

Borlaug, N. 2007. Feeding a hungry world. Science 318: 359.