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Do Biofuels Always Bring Rainforest Destruction?

March 14, 2008
The debate over “carbon debt” created by changes in land use has recently expanded to include the issue of competition between food and fuel and its effect on developing countries.

David Tilman of the University of Minnesota, one of the lead authors of the "Land Clearing and the Biofuel Carbon Debt" article in Science, recently held an interview with Newsweek magazine in which he says,
In order to grow biofuels, farmers have gone to fertile land near them, rain forest or grassland, and they have started to grow biofuels.

"If you use farmland in North America to grow biofuels, [you’re forcing a farmer somewhere else to clear-cut forest to grow food crops]. You’ve effectively cut down a rain forest.

"We looked at all of the current biofuels that are being made around the world and asked if they were causing native ecosystems to be turned into land that would be used to grow the crop. Essentially, all of them are doing that."

Tilman's arguments tie together the issues of greenhouse gas emissions and food production. The argument is that developing countries must expand food production in order to replace imports that have become increasingly expensive due to biofuel policies in the United States. and other organizations have made the connection explicit in a new campaign titled
The web site states, “Increased demand for biofuels is driving up food prices and accelerating climate change, as rainforests are destroyed to grow fuel. But with strong global sustainability standards, we can ensure that biofuels help, rather than hurt.”
An advocacy letter drafted by to members of the G8 says, “Some biofuels are good, others are a disaster--and our policies must tell the difference between the two.”
The argument that U.S. biofuel production competes with food production is a myth that BIO and many other groups have tried for some time to dispel.
Rising worldwide agricultural prices certainly do encourage farmers to increase production, as pointed out by the UN-Energy report “Sustainable Bioenergy : A Framework for Decision Makers”.
As Tilman readily admits, “It’s not ethical to try to deny people in developing countries the right to clear their land to grow food and feed themselves.”
And biotechnology is already helping farmers around the globe sustainably expand the food supply through increased yields rather than expanded land use. According to the annual report of the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications, more than 12 million farmers around the world have chosen biotech crops because of the significant socioeconomic, environmental, and agricultural benefits they provide. From 2006 to 2007, global use of biotech crops increased nearly 12 percent, with global biotech crop acreage reaching a historic 282 million acres in 23 countries.
The National Corn Growers Association also poses an interesting thought, “Detractors argue that grain markets should adhere to a hierarchical approach that emphasizes grain’s utility as food and feed. But what about the fundamental societal needs of energy, security and mobility?”
NCGA data show that increased demand for corn is being met with increased supply here in the United States, helping to level out grain prices.