Ethanol industry criticizes WRI bioenergy paper

By Erin Voegele | February 02, 2015

Representatives of the ethanol industry have spoken out to criticize a World Resources Institute paper written by Tim Searchinger and Ralph Heimlich that rehashes previously debunked theories related to food versus fuel and indirect land use change (ILUC).

The report claims that any dedicated use of land for growing bioenergy feedstocks comes at the cost of not using that land to grow food or animal feed, or for storing carbon. Within the report, the authors recommend policies changes that would essentially support the phase out bioenergy production.

A statement issued by the Renewable Fuels Association notes that in addition to rehashing their disproven theories of food versus fuel and ILUC, Searchinger and Heimlich also repeat the years-old claim that bioenergy benefits from a carbon accounting error. The RFA also stresses that the authors’ original papers, which were published in 2008 and 2009, have been rejected and criticized by the scientific community and disproven by empirical data.

“Providing a cursory update of a failed theory is not science and does nothing to enlighten the debate about biofuels,” said Bob Dinneen, president and CEO of the RFA. “For the better part of a decade, lawyer-activist Tim Searchinger has been promoting the flawed notion that increased biofuel use places unnecessary constraints on finite agricultural land resources. But, the ‘land use change’ and ‘food vs. fuel’ arguments are as wrong today as they were seven years ago when Searchinger first gained notoriety with his doomsday predictions. As passionate as he is in promoting his agenda, the truth cannot escape the fact that real-world data conclusively show reduced deforestation, reduced global hunger, and deceleration of cropland expansion during the biofuels era. In fact, Iowa State University’s Center for Agricultural and Rural Development put this issue to bed last November, finding that ‘…the primary land use change response of the world’s farmers in the last 10 years has been to use available land resources more efficiently rather than to expand the amount of land brought into production.’”

Growth Energy has also spoken out to criticize the report. “The World Resources Institute’s latest report repackages old, previously debunked food and fuel, as well as indirect land use change (ILUC) myths in attempts to discredit an American success story, one that is producing both food and fuel, while also improving our environment. Slapping a new title on this previously discredited research won’t change the facts—the American farmer is more than capable of producing an abundant amount of food, feed and fuel, and the air we breathe and our environment, as a whole, is better off for it,” said Tom Buis, CEO of Growth Energy.

“WRI’s criticism of biofuels is based on the limited assumption that the U.S. and the rest of the world must choose between a cleaner, healthier environment resulting from renewable transportation fuels and an adequate, affordable food supply,” Buis continued. “They ignore the fact that we are not only capable of providing both, but must do so if we hope to address hunger and the need for economic growth throughout the world, as both goals are reliant on increased agricultural and energy production that are sensitive to global environmental needs and priorities.

Buis also indicated Argonne National Laboratory has consistently determined that corn ethanol reduces greenhouse gas emissions by an average of 34 percent when compared to gasoline.  “WRI is relying on the same analyses and falsehoods utilized by Big Oil and their allies that have already been proven to be incorrect. Instead of promoting a farm economy that produces both food and fuel, it is unfortunate that they have fallen victim to the rhetoric of industries that are only interested in market control and their own profitability, even if it means causing consumer price increases, environmental degradation and adverse health outcomes that impact the poorest among us,” he continued.

“Reliance on fossil fuels and the limited energy production from solar and wind energy will not meet our world’s growing demand for energy. Diversity in energy resources and a dramatic reduction in fossil fuel use is the best way to ensure we have the necessary energy resources while reducing the use of carbon intensive fuels that are a finite resource and are a leading cause of climate change. That is why we must embrace an ‘all of the above’ energy strategy and biofuels play a critical role in ensuring such a strategy succeeds,” Buis said.

The National Corn Growers Association said the study is just more of the same, tired arguments Big Oil has been using for years. “The fact is, ethanol is a very efficient energy source,” said Keith Alverson, a South Dakota corn grower and member of the Corn Board. “When calculating the amount of energy used to produce ethanol, from farm to pump, ethanol represents a 40 percent net energy gain. No other energy source comes close. Ethanol is also better for the environment: reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 110 million metric tons, the equivalent of taking 20 million vehicles off the road.”

 “There is more than enough corn to meet all demands: food, fuel, feed, and fiber,” Alverson continued. “Our farmers have grown the largest 11 corn crops in history over the last 11 years – and we’re doing so more efficiently than ever. Since 1980, corn yields have increased by a remarkable 88 percent. According to the Field to Market Keystone Alliance for Sustainable Agriculture, over the last 30 years, corn farmers have significantly reduced the environmental impact of producing corn, including 30 percent less land, 44 percent less energy and 53 percent less water. Corn used for ethanol also performs double-duty as fuel and animal feed by-product – so we can operate even more efficiently. It’s time to finally put these arguments to rest, and instead focus on continuing to grow American energy independence and invest in this clean, renewable fuel source.”

The Global Renewable Fuels Alliance said the study makes several hypothetical predictions about biofuels but fails to substantiate its claim that bioenergy is competing for food crops and land. Despite referring to data from the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations in the report, the GRFA stressed the authors ignored recent comments from FOA Director General Jose Graziano da Silva that praised biofuels for its social, agricultural and environmental benefits.

“It is well understood that biofuels production drives much needed investment in agriculture and that biofuels are a key part of the food security, agriculture and rural development solution,” said Bliss Baker, spokesperson for the Global Renewable Fuels Alliance.