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The Large-Scale Production of Biofuels in a Food-Insecure World
Volume 13, Number 41: 13 October 2010

In a review article published in the Journal of Plant Nutrition and Soil Science, Rattan Lal of the Carbon Management and Sequestration Center of Ohio State University (USA) introduces the subject of his concern by writing that "the world is faced with the trilemma of climate change, food insecurity, and energy demand," because (1) "there still are more than one billion food-insecure people in the world (FAO, 2009a,b)," (2) "the world food supply will have to be doubled between 2005 and 2050 (Borlaug, 2009) because of the increase in population and change in dietary preferences," and (3) "the world energy demand is also increasing rapidly and is projected to increase by 84% by 2050 compared with 2005." And what makes the problem even worse is the fact that in an attempt to meet the anticipated increase in the global demand for energy, "the emphasis on biofuels is strongly impacting the availability of grains for food and soil resources for grain production."

As people have finally begun to realize the significance of this latter problem, Lal indicates that crop residues are being "widely considered as a source of lignocellulosic biomass." However, he says that removal of crop residues for this purpose "is not an option (Lal, 2007) because of the negative impacts of removal on soil quality, and increase in soil erosion (Lal, 1995)," as well as the loss of the residue's "positive impacts" on "numerous ecosystem services." Therefore, in yet another shift in tactics, Lal reports that degraded soils are being considered as possible sites for establishing energy plantations. However, he notes that with their extremely low capacity for biomass production, the amount of biofuel produced on globally-abandoned agricultural land cannot even meet 10% of the energy needs of North America, Europe and Asia, citing the work of Campbell et al. (2009) in this regard. Yet even these considerations are only half the problem.

In addition to the need for considerable land, Lal writes that the "successful establishment of energy plantations also needs plant nutrients," as well as an "adequate supply of water." And the fact that an adequate supply of water is something on the order of 1000-3500 liters per liter of biofuel produced is, as he puts it, "an important factor." And he notes that this strategy will also "increase competition for limited land and water resources thereby increasing food crop and livestock prices (Wise et al., 2009)."

In closing, Lal writes that we must not take our precious resource base for granted, eloquently stating that "if soils are not restored, crops will fail even if rains do not; hunger will perpetuate even with emphasis on biotechnology and genetically modified crops; civil strife and political instability will plague the developing world even with sermons on human rights and democratic ideals; and humanity will suffer even with great scientific strides." We would only add that in light of the great difficulty mankind will face in attempting to feed itself just a few short decades from now, we are going to need all of the help we can possibly get; and the aerial fertilization effect plus the crop water use efficiency-promoting effect of the ongoing rise in the air's CO2 content are likely what will make the difference between our being able to survive in some semblance of civilized society or disintegrating into something no one really cares to contemplate. Therefore, we must allow the atmosphere's CO2 concentration to continue to rise, which is another reason for not buying into the stupidity of biofuels in a food-insecure world.

Sherwood, Keith and Craig Idso

Borlaug, N.E. 2009. Foreword. Food Security 1: 1.

Campbell, J.E., Lobell, D.B. and Field, C.B. 2009. Greater transportation energy and GHG offsets from bioelectricity than ethanol. Science 324: 1055-1057.

FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization). 2009a. 1.02 billion people hungry. FAO Newsroom,

FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization). 2009b. FAO Statistics Database. FAO, Rome, Italy.

Lal, R. 1995. Erosion-crop productivity relationships for soils of Africa. Soil Science Society of America Journal 59: 661-667.

Lal, R. 2007. There is no such thing as a free biofuel from crop residues. CSA News 52: 12-13.

Lal, R. 2010. Managing soils for a warming earth in a food-insecure and energy-starved world. Journal of Plant Nutrition and Soil Science 173: 4-15.

Wise, M., Calvin, K., Thomson, A., Clarke, L., Bond-Lamberty, B., Sands, R., Smith, S.J., Janetos, A. and Edmonds, J. 2009. Implications of limiting CO2 concentrations for land use and energy. Science 324: 1183-1186.