By Tom Still

STEVENS POINT – The official bogeyman of Earth Week 2008 is biofuels. A top United Nations official has called use of food crops to produce ethanol “a crime against humanity,” environmentalists are blaming ethanol production for destruction of rain forests, and food riots from Haiti to Egypt are being cited as examples of what happens to prices when land is used to grow fuel instead of food.

It’s only a matter of time before the plight of the polar bears is somehow blamed on biofuels, as well.

Somewhere between the irrational exuberance of those who believe biofuels will solve the world’s energy problems tomorrow and the equally overblown fears of those who would smother an emerging industry in its crib lies the truth about biofuels. The debate is vital to Wisconsin, where the raw materials, research capacity and industrial know-how required for production of “next-generation” biofuels is abundant.

The food-versus-fuel debate was center stage at last week’s Wisconsin Biofuels Destiny conference at UW-Stevens Point, which attracted 120 people with different stakes in biofuels – from today’s corn-based ethanol to future fuels more likely to stem from the state’s huge and largely untapped “forest biorefinery.”

Few participants argued that corn-based ethanol will forever remain the world’s primary biofuel, given the need for greater energy efficiency and rapid changes in technology. However, those same participants were adamant that other factors are far more responsible for rising food prices worldwide than the intensely local production of corn- or sugar-based ethanol. Some examples:

-    Commodity prices typically make up about one-fifth the cost of food to consumers; transportation, packaging and labor account for the rest. With oil prices surging Tuesday to $118 per barrel of sweet crude, the ripple effect is finally hitting the food chain. If there is a “crime against humanity” to be alleged, perhaps the UN could take a closer look at the major oil-producing countries of the world.
-    Global climate change, which increased use of biofuels could eventually help to mitigate, may be causing major disruptions in food production. In Australia, for example, a six-year drought has helped to reduce rice production by 98 percent and mothballed a mill that once processed enough grain to feed 20 million people. The drought alone is not responsible for the Australian rice crop’s demise, however. Some rice farmers there have sold their water rights to farmers who grow other crops, such as grapes for wine.
-    Demand for food is soaring as the world’s population continues to grow. With rice, which is not used for biofuels production, there has been a growing supply problem. Little of the world’s rice is exported; more than 90 percent is consumed where it is grown. In the last quarter century, however, rice production has not kept pace with consumption. Since 2000, the New York Times reported recently, global rice reserves have plunged by half.
-    Some of the very nations that have rejected genetically modified crops, which are more resistant to climate change, drought and pests, are among those facing food shortages. Resistance to new technologies and processes has contributed to the problem.

“The food-versus-fuel debate is artificial,” said Greg Lynch, a lawyer with the Michael, Best & Friedrich firm who has worked on a number of biofuels projects. “Recent increases in food prices are primarily the result of increased worldwide demand for protein and increases in energy costs, not diversion of food for fuel.”

Lynch and others believe farmer-owned biofuels plants create a natural hedge against fluctuations in commodity prices, provide a fuel that is environmentally friendly compared to fossil fuels, and act as a check against dependence on foreign energy sources. They’re also quick to note that technology is improving ethanol production every day – and “next generation” biofuels produced from non-food sources will eventually come on line, as well. In time, they believe, ethanol subsidies will also disappear.

Wisconsin has the potential to produce next-generation biofuels, such as cellulosic ethanol, from sustainable forests, corn stover, switchgrass, waste from timber harvests and even pulp used for papermaking. Research at the $130-million Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center, headquartered in Madison, will help to remove the bottlenecks in the production of those advanced biofuels.

The same environmental movement that once championed biofuels as an alternative to fossil fuels has decided to make ethanol Public Enemy No. 1, despite evidence that would suggest it has been a relatively minor contributor to rising food prices. In a world that needs both food and fuel, let’s not allow either irrational exuberance or overblown fears to kill an emerging solution.

Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He is the former associate editor of the Wisconsin State Journal in Madison.