Center for American Progress

Hungry for Next Generation Biofuels: Sustainable Crop Diversity Combats Poverty
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Hungry for Next Generation Biofuels: Sustainable Crop Diversity Combats Poverty

Next-generation biofuels can deliver lower energy costs, more equitable earnings for farmers worldwide, and a cleaner planet. The U.S. Farm Bill misses this opportunity.

Next-generation biofuels can deliver lower energy costs, more equitable earnings for farmers worldwide, and a cleaner planet.

By all accounts, the U.S. Congress is about to enact a new, five-year Farm Bill that will perpetuate a farm subsidy system that is too costly to U.S. taxpayers, too generous to U.S. agribusinesses, and thoroughly dismissive of the consequences of this bill to poor farmers in the developing world.

If that’s not bad enough, the legislation (now before an informal conference committee trying to reconcile the versions already passed by the full House of Representatives and Senate) also threatens to take a step backwards and undo all of its forward-thinking support for the development of next-generation biofuels. This is a missed opportunity that compounds the mistaken agricultural policy priorities.

Going into the details of what the congressional conferees will debate when they sit down to finalize the legislation is almost beside the point. Any legislation that is only marginally different from the 2002 Farm Bill is worthy of a promised veto from President Bush. The real question that needs to be answered as food prices and energy prices soar worldwide is this: How can the United States help itself and the rest of the planet diversify our global sources of sustainable biofuels and foods so that farmers here and abroad enjoy less costly energy and more equitable incomes from the fruits of their labor?

The rapid rise in the production of biofuels derived from corn, sugarcane, and palm oil—the three most common sources in production today—are helping to lower the cost of oil around the world. One recent analysis estimates that in the United States, the cost of oil and gasoline is at least 15 percent less because of burgeoning biofuels production. Problem is, the serious ancillary environmental effects of producing corn, palm oil, and sugar cane are simply unsustainable if humankind is going to conserve our soil and water quality and cut greenhouse gases to tame global warming.

What’s more, the rising cost of corn in particular is having an adverse effect on the poor both here and abroad. That’s why Congress needs to overhaul the current Farm Bill and take the lead in pushing for commodity subsidy reform and the global production of sustainably produced, next generation biofuels.

As it stands, the Farm Bill makes a commendable financial and technical commitment to the next generation of cellulosic biofuels—liquid fuels sustainably produced from non-food energy crops such as switchgrass and agricultural wastes such as corn stalks and rice hulls—and away from corn-based ethanol. Importantly, the bill also provides for the use of transparent certification and labeling criteria to encourage sustainable production of biofuels, among them the conservation of land and water, and reductions in lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions, through a program that draws many lessons from the Center for American Progress’ innovative “Voluntary Renewable Biomass Certification Program.”

Nonetheless, all of this is at risk without substantial commodity subsidy reform. Heavily over-subsidizing a single crop such as corn without taking steps to reduce corn-based ethanol subsidies and market barriers distorts the global food marketplace; financing the development of other sustainably produced cellulosic and non-food sources of biofuels is essential.

This is most critical in the developing world. Across Africa, Latin America, and Asia, food insecurity and dependence on donated foodstuffs produced by subsidy-laden farms in the developed world cripples local agriculture. Similarly, the high cost of imported energy saps developing economies of the money they need to lift themselves up the economic ladder.

This immediate double whammy to poor farmers in particular and poor agricultural societies in general extends well into the future, too. Due to the over-production of greenhouse gases from carbon-based fuels and first-generation biofuels, poor economies least able to cope with the consequences of global warming will be the first to suffer the most calamitous fallout from rising oceans, declining agricultural productivity, and highly volatile weather patterns.

Instead, Congress can put the United States and the world on a far more healthy economic trajectory. The Center for American Progress boasts a number of proposals to ensure the world’s farmers, the world’s consumers and the planet itself prosper from the environmentally sustainable production of a diverse range of crops for food and biofuels. These are achievable goals. Congress should act on them today.

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