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Brazil on the Benefits of Biofuels

As food prices continue to rise, various theories have emerged as to the underlying forces driving prices higher. BBC News reported today on the growing debate about the role biofuels might play, and highlighted a vigorous rebuttal from the President of Brazil. Brazil, in particular finds itself defending the biofuels industry at a conference of the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) in Brasilia. Both Brazil and the U.S. are heavily invested in the production of corn and sugar-cane-based fuels, with Brazil being the world's largest exporter. BBC News reported Brazil's President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva's comments:
"Biofuels aren't the villain that threatens food security," said President Lula. "On the contrary... they can pull countries out of energy dependency without affecting foods."
He said that rises in food prices came because people in developing countries like China, India and Brazil itself are eating higher up the food chain--shifting from grain to meat--as economic conditions in those countries improved. An interesting argument. Could there be a connection between rising obesity levels and rising food prices? It's something to think about, and it's another reason to follow through with that diet you've been thinking of doing. We already know that our food consumption habits affect far more than our dating prospects. So Brazil says it's simply a supply and demand situation, others note that agriculture is highly dependent on petroleum and that skyrocketing oil prices are a primary cause of food price increase. And as I continue to read these kinds of stories, as well as OECD reports that weigh the pros and cons of biofuels, it is apparent that there is no single cause or villain, and that we haven't seen the last of the debate.
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Taking the Long View on Renewables

Today the New York Times, and quite a few other papers, picked up on reports published yesterday in Science that suggest "almost all biofuels used today cause more greenhouse gas emissions than conventional fuels." The Times did sneak "today" into that first sentence, but, all in all, the coverage took an incredibly short view on renewable fuels. Judging renewable fuels on a snapshot of what they're capable of now is like judging aviation based on the Wright brothers' flyer. Within 65 years, we'd broken the sound barrier and landed on the moon. In the last five years alone, we've been able to increase switchgrass yields by 50 percent. Everyday, less and less land can be used for more and more fuel, promising to reduce the carbon footprint dramatically. In less than a decade, it is highly likely that converting that grass to fuel will become economically viable and therefore widespread. Similar technology could be used to produce fuel from waste like yard clippings, brush, animal fats, scrap paper, algae, and sawdust -- all of which requires no additional land use. And that's only the tip of the iceberg. Up to this point minimal resources have been devoted to research. Unfortunately, narrowly crafted coverage of scientific articles threatens to keep it that way by not giving the public the complete story on renewable fuels, which endangers the political consensus necessary to maintain and increase funding to innovative technologies. In addition, the future promises the ability to better use abandoned agricultural land to grow fuel crops, which a second study published in Science yesterday (and not covered in the Times) has said would offer "immediate and sustained [greenhouse gas] advantages." The simple matter is that second generation renewable fuels, along with increased efficiency, better urban planning and increased mass transit, hold tremendous promise for sating the world's ballooning demand for fuel, for which there appears to be no other viable solution. And, clearly you can't have a second generation without the first.