When national leaders from the Americas join political, corporate and civil society representatives at the three-day World Agricultural Forum in St. Louis starting Sunday, much of the focus will be on the increase in poverty in rural areas of the world, an outgrowth of globalization and large-scale food production.
But another topic on the agenda offers more hope and the promise of increased farm income in this country and abroad, not through the production of food but of energy: biofuels.
If developed nations, particularly the United States, finally act on their need to end dependence on oil imported mostly from the volatile Middle East, farmers in this country and elsewhere in the Americas could be big winners. Creating steady demand for and widespread availability of crop-based fuels ought to be the basis for a new and more harmonious set of global trade talks.
The detailed steps to rethink these connections are contained in a recent report of the Energy Future Coalition. The coalition, to which we belong, is a broad-based, nonpartisan initiative to identify politically acceptable steps to address the global problems of energy security, climate change and access to energy by the world’s poor.
For several decades, the United States has promoted the development of ethanol because it offers multiple national benefits: It would aid farmers, our environment and the nation’s energy security. But we have only scratched the surface of bioenergy’s promise.
Most ethanol is produced from corn, using only the starch in the kernels. But new biotech advances could lead to the cost-effective use of a wide variety of materials, including corn stalks and wheat straw, to produce ethanol and other products – even chemicals and plastics – now derived from fossil fuels. These technologies will allow farmers to sell cash crops like corn and wheat and also convert the leftover chaff and hulls to fuel for the transportation sector.
Bioenergy’s potential is huge, both economically and environmentally. Currently, ethanol accounts for only about 2 percent of U.S. gasoline consumption. The new bioenergy technologies could boost that figure by 10 to 30 times in the United States alone. Bioenergy also can help prevent further global warming because the carbon dioxide that it gives off is absorbed again by the plants as they grow.
Moreover, bioenergy has vast potential to spur economic development around the world. With the right technology and training, developing countries will be able to grow their own fuels for transportation needs, allowing them to redirect scarce financial resources from imported oil to more productive national investments in health, education and welfare.
The West is unlikely to abandon agricultural subsidies, but it can direct them in a much more productive and less destructive manner. By developing bioenergy production and lifting regulatory barriers that inhibit innovation, the United States and others can increase crop prices and farm income, reduce oil dependence and make environmental progress at home and abroad.
With gas prices reaching all-time highs in many parts of the country, climate change threatening the stability of the world’s ecosystem and the dangers of persistent global poverty increasingly clear, the United States and its trading partners should lead the world toward the rapid development of clean, abundant biofuels.
Timothy E. Wirth is president of the United Nations Foundation and a former Democratic U.S. senator from Colorado. C. Boyden Gray is a partner at the Washington law firm Wilmer, Cutler & Pickering and served as White House Counsel to former President George H. W. Bush. John D. Podesta is president of the Center for American Progress and served as chief of staff to former President Bill Clinton.
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