Industrial and Environmental Biotech in the Blogosphere

This week we start off with a United Nations report that urges caution on biofuels. Green Inc, a New York Times blog writes,

“The study concluded that whether a biofuel is climate-friendly or not depends largely on whether it is based on crops or production residues. Biofuels of the latter category were generally considered beneficial for the environment, and generating electricity locally from waste materials was found — in most cases — to be more energy efficient than converting biomass to liquid fuels.”

This paper was also written about in the blog, Futurism Now, the post called, Biofuels Will Increase Global Warming According to Study

They explain,

“That is because the land required to plant fast-growing poplar trees and tropical grasses would displace food crops, and so drive deforestation to create more farmland, a powerful source of carbon emissions.”

Not so fast, check out the Sustainable Production of Biofuels.

And biofuels continues to be the topic of the week. The biofuel review writes this week about a report from the Imperial College of London. The report has an upbeat tone about the future of biofuels and The biofuel review ends their post with a quote from Clare Wenner, Head of Renewable Transport at the Renewable Energy Association that says,

“Imperial College London has verified the results which show that these fuels can be produced in a sustainable way. With the right legislative framework, including the implementation of environmental rules under the Directive, it will be possible to limit indirect land use effects. Land will always be used for food and fuel, and the overall balance of these impacts could be positive as far as food is concerned. In fact, it seems likely that wheat-based biofuels production will not affect the amount of wheat exported by the EU as a whole.”

Then it’s more biofuels from Creamer Media’s Engineering News

According to Engineering News,

“Pretreatment and gasification technologies are on the verge of making second-generation biofuels a commercial reality, according to new analysis from Frost & Sullivan, entitled ‘Worldwide Market Analysis of Second Generation Biofeedstock.”

Engineering news interviewed Frost & Sullivan senior research analyst Phani Raj Kumar Chinthapalli,

“The use of second-generation biofuels is expected to reduce 
the emission of greenhouse gases (GHG), particularly carbon 
dioxide (CO2), from combustion engines by 80% to 85% in comparison with conventional fossil fuels. The lifecycle emissions for second-generation biofuels are in the negative range, which implies consumption of CO2 rather than emission.”

That’s it for this week, see you next week.

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Corn Growers Try to Understand Indirect Land Use Change

The National Corn Growers Association’s recent “Land Use: Carbon Impacts of Corn Based Ethanol 2009” conference highlighted the confusion the issue of indirect land use change has engendered for farmers. Chuck Zimmerman of AgWired summed it up in a report from the conference:

Do you understand things like indirect land use when it comes to regulations via departments like the EPA due to the RFS? Me either. And I’ve sat in on conferences and discussions and interviews on the subject for a while now. That’s because an issue like indirect land use involves predicting the future based on certain assumptions that may or may not be valid, especially if they’re based on out of date data and information.”

Conference chairman Jamey Cline, NCGA Director Biofuels and Business Development, indicated to Zimmerman

that these issues are extremely important to agribusiness and corn growers in particular because if the CARB regs hold up, by 2012 they will effectively shut off that market to ethanol. Additionally, one presenter said that due to the proposed climate change bill and RFS, approximately 27.1 million acres would be taken out of production across the Unites States. That would have a huge impact on our economy, especially in rural areas.”

Jeanne Bernick of Farm Journal also reported from the conference:

Even the leading ag economists of our day are scratching their heads on this issue (read Land Use Change Tricky to Measure). They claim it is simply impossible to verify why land use changes occur.

“‘We are trying to measure the unmeasurable,’ says Bruce Babcock, ag economist with Iowa State University’s Center for Agriculture and Rural Development (CARD). ‘We would never really be able to verify why those acres changed production plans. Annual agricultural land use is flux, and largely variable.’

“Interpretation: No one really knows what influences land use change. Farmers make planting decisions in the U.S. and around the world based on a multitude of factors (weather, markets, weed and insect pressure), not just one factor like increased biofuels production in the U.S.”

Mike Wilson of Wallace’s Farmer astutely noted several questions raised by the conference:

Why are we setting U.S. policy based on something that may or may not take place in other countries? As speaker and Texas A&M ag economist Bruce McCarl says, ‘If we want to get out of this indirect land use debate, we simply need to have Brazil institute some greenhouse gas emissions penalty for when it develops its land.’

“What role does politics play in this? Clearly politics is the 800-pound gorilla in the room. President Obama has his people in place and a mandate from voters; he wants to get something passed regardless of the flawed logic that is now floating around in EPA’s regulatory proposal.

“Is this an Obama-driven apology to the rest of the world for eight years of George Bush unilateralism?

“Is this punishment for not agreeing to the Kyoto Protocol so many years ago?”

During the August Congressional recess, Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) invited EPA officials Gina McCarthy, who is Assistant Administrator for the Office of Air and Radiation, and Margo Oge, who heads the Office of Transportation and Air Quality, to tour Iowa State University’s BioCentury Research Farm near Boone and the Renewable Energy Group’s 30-million gallon biodiesel plant at Newton.

Dan Looker, Business Editor of Agriculture.com, reported:

Dermot Hayes, an economist with ISU’s Center for Agriculture and Rural Development, shared research by a graduate student, Jerome Dumortier, that shows the effects of technology as crop prices rise due to demand for biofuels. Farmers are more likely to spend more on biotechnology that speeds up yield gains, Hayes said. If this effect is just 1% more than the trendline in yields [1.6% is used in EPA calculations] over 10 years, it brings the gain [carbon debt] from ethanol from 166 years to just over 30. If it’s just 2% higher, the gain from producing ethanol instead of using gasoline is immediate. In essence, there is no indirect land use effect.

After the recess, at a Senate Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry Committee Hearing on Sept. 3, Senators heard from Bill Couser, a fourth-generation farmer from Nevada, Iowa:

As a seed corn grower for Monsanto I have witnessed firsthand the wonderful improvements in corn and soybean genetics over the last few years. The simple fact is that yields are not only increasing, they are increasing at an increasing rate. Coupled with improved farming practices, I have no trouble believing Monsanto’s national average projection of 300 bushels per acre corn by 2030. Iowa will likely hit that mark much sooner. And we will do it with fewer inputs and less impact on soil and water than today.”

Why ILUC Theory Bears No Resemblance to Reality

Iowa State’s Bruce Babcock has written a defense of the current economic equilibrium models used by the EPA and California Air Resources Board, in light of the fact that the models’ assumptions about soybean production and acreage have turned out wrong. Babcock frames the debate over international land use change as “whether the models used by CARB and EPA are accurate enough to support regulations.” There is, however, a larger question over whether the models are the appropriate ones to use in the first place.

Economic equilibrium models by definition measure the demand for biofuel feedstocks as a shock to the worldwide agricultural system. As Babcock explains, economists estimate a baseline measure of the agricultural system “under a set of assumptions about future macroeconomic growth, growing conditions, crop yields, exchange rates, and government policies,” and then rerun their model with a higher amount of biofuel production while holding all other factors constant. The difference in model outcomes is intended to isolate the effect of biofuels on the system.

It has been noted that the outcomes are highly sensitive to the assumptions for the factors that are held constant. For instance, authors at Iowa State have explored the sensitivity of the model to the variable of crop yield. But the underlying problem with the model is that it presents the worldwide agricultural system with only one possible reaction to the “shock” of U.S. biofuels — land use change. And it does so by assuming that worldwide land use is at a point of equilibrium. “Expansion of U.S. biofuels will result in more land being devoted to crop production on an aggregate worldwide basis,” Babcock writes.

Worldwide agricultural land use is shifting and has shifted over time as other countries compete with the U.S. for agricultural markets. The USDA Economic Research Service’s “Agricultural Projections to 2018” shows that U.S. agricultural land devoted to the eight major crops has shrunk since 1980, but is expected to remain stable through the next decade due in part to biofuels. While this model and its outcomes are also based on and sensitive to assumptions, they are designed to measure the interplay of worldwide economic growth, population growth, the value of the U.S. dollar, and oil prices in addition to U.S. agricultural policies and biofuels.

Babcock notes that the variables plugged into the models being used by EPA and CARB “are ripe ground for aggrieved parties.” It should also be noted that the choice of models by EPA and CARB were also political decisions influenced by the input of environmental and other interests. The fact that these models are used by EPA and CARB only to measure the effects of biofuels, while different models are used for petroleum, is likewise a political decision. Perhaps certain parties would not be so aggrieved if the outcome of the “analyses” by EPA and CARB had not been predetermined in such a way.

Strange Bedfellows Indeed

The Environmental Working Group, Friends of the Earth, the Grocery Manufacturers Association, the National Marine Manufacturers Association, the National Petrochemical & Refiners Association, and the Natural Resources Defense Council have cosigned a series of letters to Senate leaders opposing additional study of the theory of indirect land use change. These groups would like to lock in the EPA’s current measurement of indirect land use change, which includes heavy penalties for corn- and soybean-based biofuels.

The coalition is responding to the inclusion in the American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009 of Section 551, under the Agriculture and Forestry offsets. This part of the legislation directs the National Academies of Science to review existing studies of indirect land use change and determine whether models can reliably project the greenhouse gas emissions for both biofuels and conventional petroleum fuels.

According to Nathanael Greene of the NRDC, “This coalition has come together because we want sound science rather than special interests to determine our biofuels policies.” And according to the NPRA’s Greg Scott, “Sound, verifiable science should always guide the crafting and implementation of environmental and energy policy.”

So is the EPA’s current analysis of indirect land use change sound and verifiable? I’ve noted before that the EPA’s methodology is based on an assumption that there is a cause and effect relationship between production of renewable fuels and international land use change. Yet, they have not footnoted their assertion or demonstrated this cause and effect relationship. Sorry, but that’s not science, let alone sound and verifiable science.

Section 204(a)(3) of the 2007 Energy Independence and Security Act, the law that established the current RFS, already obligates the EPA to study whether there is an international impact from biofuel production. By December 2010, the EPA will have to come up with some direct evidence of the cause and effect relationship.

Section 203 of that same law asked the National Academies to study the issue of food and biofuel. Though the NAS appears not to have done the study, the Congressional Budget Office did complete a study. While showing that biofuels had roughly half the impact of oil on food prices, the CBO’s findings failed to explain roughly two thirds of food price increases during 2007 and 2008. The 2020 Project finds an easy explanation for food price increases in the profits made by members of the Grocery Manufacturers Association.

Politics is definitely about strange bedfellows. So, which of these groups will gain what from ensuring that biofuels are penalized for international land use change?

The Case for Correct Logic

Michael Grunwald of Time Magazine recently published a new, rather self-serving article in the Washington Monthly, filled with distorted logic and mangled facts.

His portrayal of Tim Searchinger as a humble lawyer who experienced an epiphany about biofuels is disingenuous at best. While now a visiting scholar at Princeton University, Tim Searchinger was formerly a lobbyist for the Environmental Defense Action Fund and was intimately involved in lobbying key Members of Congress during the drafting of the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007. Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) today characterized the inclusion of indirect land use as “an eleventh-hour, backroom change to the energy bill.”

One of Grunwald’s more egregious claims is that biofuels have “ratcheted up deforestation rates through a chain reaction that Searchinger and I witnessed on a visit to the Amazon.” How precisely does one “witness” a claimed indirect effect, occurring on a global scale, through a visit to the Amazon? This claim is as unsupported as that made by the EPA in its Notice of Proposed Rule:

there is considerable overall certainty as to the existence of the land use changes in general, the fact that GHG emissions will result, and the cause and effect linkage of these emissions impacts to the increased use of feedstock for production of renewable fuels.”

The EPA certainly hasn’t footnoted this assertion. And the paragraph that follows it maintains that the EPA is confident of the cause and effect connection due to the modeling (See Federal Register, Vol. 74, No. 99, Tuesday, May 26, 2009, Proposed Rules, p.25024). But the causal connection is one of the assumptions of the model; it would create circular logic then to claim that the model was proof of the causal connection.

According to Grunwald, Searchinger’s previous epiphany was that “in a world with 6.7 billion mouths to feed, when you use an acre of farmland to grow fuel, somewhere an acre of something else is probably going to be converted into new farmland to grow food.” And Searchinger’s latest epiphany is that as world population increases to 9 billion, “we’re going to need the world’s farmland to produce as much sustenance as possible on as little ground as possible, so that we can leave the Amazon alone.” Therefore, he concludes, we need to consolidate agricultural production and oppose biofuels.

The problem with that logic is that the Amazon and other rainforests exist in places where population is growing fastest. If agricultural production is consolidated in the United States or in Brazil, how would those growing populations afford to buy it? This particular “epiphany” courtesy of Karl Marx has stood the test of time pretty well. I guess we can be thankful he was an economist and not a lobbyist.

Oversimplification of the relationship between biofuel production and deforestation ill-serves efforts to protect the rainforest. Grunwald’s argument that “we’re better off burning gasoline on a warming planet than using land as a substitute” would be true if and only if stopping biofuel production could directly prevent deforestation. There are too many direct causes of deforestation — including land clearing for subsistence farming to feed growing populations who have no other way of feeding themselves — standing in the way.

The Facts of Life on Waxman-Markey

You take the good, you take the bad, you take them both and there you have … the Peterson amendment to the Waxman-Markey bill, formally known as H.R. 2454, the American Clean Energy and Security Act (ACES). According to Grist contributor Meredith Niles, there are a number of positive inclusions in the amendment that were advocated by environmental groups.

The good aspects, according to Niles, are those that will encourage improved agricultural practices. The bad part of the amendment is that the USDA – the agency whose mission is to promote both domestic agriculture (to keep it from moving overseas) and food safety – will oversee the implementation of these positive aspects.

Niles laments that “industrial agriculture interests are overtaking environmental interests in a bill that, again, is fundamentally meant to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.” No doubt, the agricultural interests have a similar lament about implementation of the Renewable Fuel Standard, which was intended to reduce reliance on oil. There is an interesting comment to Niles’ article by ecoplasm, who says, “Selecting ‘scientific’ analytical tools to meet some influence group’s desired result was a hallmark of the past administration’s EPA, hopefully not this one’s.”

A Scientific American assessment of the Waxman-Markey (Peterson) bill shows how much the “science” of indirect land use change has been affected by the rhetoric from environmental NGOs. The article asks, “Should Domestic Ethanol Producers Pay for Deforestation Abroad?,” and states plainly, “the question is not whether there are indirect impacts but rather how big they are.” The reality is that this assumption about indirect land use change – that it will inevitably occur – is built into the model EPA uses to measure it. It’s a perfect example of selecting a ‘scientific’ analytical tool to achieve an influence group’s desired result.

The Peterson amendment proposes a study by the National Academies on indirect land use change. No doubt, another example of carefully selecting an analytical tool. The 2007 EISA bill also contains a provision for the National Academies to study the issue, though funding for the study has never been authorized.

The science on indirect land use change will continue to develop (is currently continuing to develop). The real issues will be whether there are any positive moves toward reducing greenhouse gas emissions once all the politics are done.

Indirect Land Use Paradigm Change

A recent analysis by Iowa State University Biofuels Economist Robert Wisner argues that requirements for biofuel production are on a collision course with greenhouse gas reduction goals. He notes that the Energy Independence and Security Act’s requirement for gradual increases in production of biofuels “was designed to provide time for technology development and industry growth.” However, he says, California’s and the EPA’s requirement for immediate reductions in greenhouse gas emissions may block the industry’s growth.

Wisner notes some of the large uncertainties in producing accurate, science-based measurements of indirect land use change emissions:

Longer-term technological changes that bring increased crop yields per acre, changes in livestock and poultry feed conversion efficiency that reduce feed needs per animal, the amount of crop residue left on soils, and other factors will affect indirect land use emissions.

When the EISA was first debated and passed, the prevailing theory was that an annual increase in corn production would be sufficient to meet the new demand created by the annual increase in biofuel production. See for instance, U.S. Corn Growers: Producing Food and Fuel from the National Corn Growers Association.

The new models being employed by California and the EPA, however, take as an assumption that the increase in biofuel demand represents a shock to the system that happens all at once. See, for instance, The Land Use Effects of Corn-Based Ethanol, by Thomas Darlington. The models change a key assumption about the effects of the Renewable Fuel Standard, coloring the conclusion drawn. Both assumptions should be open for testing as hypotheses.