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Don't Rush to Judgment

October 23, 2008
In 1953 Linus Pauling and Robert Corey published their structure of DNA, 3 strands twisted around each other. Shortly after that James Watson and Francis Crick published the correct structure of DNA, the one on which the biotechnology industry is built.That is the way science goes. Scientists make discoveries, publish their work, and others come along to either support or dispute those discoveries. Imagine if we had just rushed to judgment back then and gone no further? The technology that we appreciate today in science and medicine would have never been.

But it is a rush to judgment that we are in grave danger of exposing ourselves to. And, our nation's very energy security hangs in the balance.

The issue at hand?  The spells it out,

"Rules expected out of the Bush administration soon could shape the growth of the biofuels industry for years to come.

Under the 2007 energy bill, new ethanol projects will have to meet standards for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, or else the fuel the plants produce won't qualify for meeting the nation's annual biofuels targets.

It was left up to the Environmental Protection Agency to decide how the emissions of projects would be measured, and the agency is close to issuing its proposed rules.

Industry officials say the rules could chill investment in new projects because the agency's formula will consider the impact new biofuel production will have on global land use. That's based on the theory that when crops are used for fuel production rather than food, then land somewhere else in the world must be cleared and broken for production of food crops. Converting forests to cropland releases heat-trapping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, and those emissions would be attributed to the biofuels project.

Even projects that would make fuel from nonfood crops such as switchgrass could be affected by the EPA rules, if the land that the grass will be grown on is now planted to corn, wheat or other food crops."

Many involved in this policy argument are relying on the study by Searchinger et al. (Science, 319, 1238-40, 2008). Although this is an important study, we must be careful not to rush to judgment. We need more research. Those thoughts are echoed in a policy forum in the October 3 issue of Science,

"Sustainable biofuel production systems could play a highly positive role in mitigating climate change, enhancing environmental quality, and strengthening the global economy, but it will take sound, science-based policy and additional research effort to make this so."

The Searchinger study neglects some key issues as we pointed out in a previous fact sheet. The simple fact is, we need more research. We cannot stop here. If we do, we run the risk of going with the wrong scientific answer -- that's just bad science. And bad science does not make good policy. We have to do what Watson and Crick did; we have to examine the existing research, take the next scientific steps, and decide where to go from there. After all, that's what got us this far.