Wishful Thinking on Cellulosic Ethanol

Supporters of ethanol, stung by the backlash over its unintended but foreseeable consequences (see, e.g., here and here), namely, increasing hunger due to a run-up in global food prices and increased threats to biodiversity, now tell us that cellulosic ethanol will come to the rescue. The theory is that cellulosic ethanol, which is still in the research and development phase, would be produced from non-edible plant material, e.g., switchgrasses, crop residue and other biomass that is not currently grown or used as edible crops. Thus, it is implied, it would have no effect on food prices.

But this is wishful thinking.

If cellulosic ethanol is indeed proven to be viable (with or without subsidies), what do people think farmers will do?

Farmers will do what they’ve always done: they’ll produce the necessary biomass that would be converted to ethanol more efficiently. In fact, they’ll start cultivating the cellulose as a crop (or crops). They have had 10,000 years of practice perfecting their techniques. They’ll use their usual bag of tricks to enhance the yields of the biomass in question: they’ll divert land and water to grow these brand new crops. They’ll fertilize with nitrogen and use pesticides. The Monsantos of the world – or their competitors, the start-ups – will develop new and genetically modified but improved seeds that will increase the farmer’s productivity and profits. And if cellulosic ethanol proves to be as profitable as its backers hope, farmers will divert even more land and water to producing the cellulose instead of food. All this means we’ll be more or less back to where we were. Food will once again be competing with fuel. And land and water will be diverted from the rest of nature to meet the human demand for fuel.

Does this mean that biomass – and farmers – should play no role in helping us meet our energy needs? Not necessarily. If farmers can profitably grow fuel rather than food through their own efforts, so be it. But we shouldn’t favor growing one over the other either through subsidies or indirectly through government mandates for so-called renewable fuels. And if anything should be subsidized or mandated, it shouldn’t be growing fuels. That would inevitably compete with food.