These first few plants will help find ways to make ethanol from cellulose more efficiently and cheaply, allowing the industry to continue to expand and to meet the growing consumer demand for cleaner alternative fuels. In the meantime, biotech-based improvements in producing ethanol from corn can help to meet the current rapid growth in demand for biofuel. Through advances in industrial biotechnology, ethanol yields per bushel of corn have increased 20 percent since 2000, rising from 2.5 gallons per bushel to nearly 3.0 gallons per bushel today.
On a worldwide scale, a 2007 analysis by McKinsey & Co. shows that there is enough available cellulose feedstock to replace 50 percent of transportation fuels - 360 billion gallons - by the middle of this century without impacting availability of food (http://www.mckinseyquarterly.com/). Meeting just 10 percent of world transportation fuel demand would replace the annual oil production for fuel of Saudi Arabia.
Myth: Growing more crops for both food and fuel will have negative environmental impacts, including increased fertilizer, water and land use - which will come from conservation areas or from environmentally sensitive areas such as rainforests.
Mythmaker: "Three of our most fundamental needs - food, energy and a livable sustainable environment - are now in direct conflict." (David Tilman and Jason Hill, Pioneer Press, March 26, 2007)
Fact: Only 20 percent of the increase in U.S. crop productivity in the past 35 years has come from expansion of crop land. Further, biotech improvements to crop seeds have enabled farmers to adopt environmentally sensitive agricultural practices - such as no-till cultivation - that increase yields, while reducing water, fertilizer, and pesticide applications.
No-till cropping can help farmers maintain soil quality, comply with erosion guidelines, and reduce net greenhouse gas emissions, according to the report "Achieving Sustainable Production of Agricultural Biomass for Biorefinery Feedstock," published by the Biotechnology Industry Organization in November 2006 (report in PDF). The report points out, "Soil quality enhancement, runoff reduction, greenhouse gas amelioration and other environmental benefits can be achieved with careful attention to production practices."
With higher corn prices, farmers may find it profitable to adopt no-till cropping, a report from the Iowa State University CARD suggests.
Conservation tillage practices, such as no-till, reduced soil erosion by nearly 1 billion tons and saved $3.5 billion in sedimentation treatment costs in 2005, according to the Conservation Technology Information Center (http://www.conservationinformation.org/Publications/BetterSoilBetterYields.pdf). Other benefits from no-till included significant fuel savings (3.9 gallons of fuel per acre), reduced pesticide run-off (70 percent) and less water runoff (69 percent).