With the possibility of an oil crisis on the horizon, a scramble for renewable and sustainable energy sources is underway. In recent years, plant-based fuels known as biofuels have emerged as possible replacements for the non-renewable fossil fuels used in cars and other modes transportation. Yet biofuels remain controversial, as the many impacts surrounding the industry have been the subject of recent public debate, with the possible effects of the industry on the environment and national and international economies under intense scrutiny.

As the hottest year on record to date, 2012 saw drought and abnormal weather patterns affect crop yields around the world. The U.S. Department of Agriculture released a report on Friday stating that in 2012, American farmers produced less than three-fourths of the anticipated corn yield. Roughly half of that yield, compared to the usual one-third, will be used to produce ethanol under the Renewable Fuel Standard enforced by the Environmental Protection Agency. Low corn yields push up the price of corn in the United States and around the world, also affecting the livestock industry and food security.

But biofuels are an evolving industry, and their potential to lessen dependency on fossil fuels and lower greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions is real, under the right conditions. The debate over biofuels rages on as drought, rising food prices, and environmental decline continue. The biofuel industry is not perfect, yet the question remains: is there a way to make it work effectively and sustainably?

A green alternative?

Since the advent of the car engine, visionaries have experimented with plant-based fuels. However, the discovery of fossil fuels, which provided cheap, powerful, and seemingly endless energy, quickly dissuaded corporate interest in biofuels. But as fossil fuel reserves begin to diminish and GHGemissions continue to increase, the need for a renewable, efficient source of fuel has become necessary. Today, nearly all the gasoline sold in the United States is mixed with 10 percent ethanol, and the Renewable Fuel Standard requires annual increases in the amount of ethanol sold. Corn, one of the materials used to make ethanol, is heavily relied upon for biofuels, but biofuels can also be produced from many plants, including soybeans, sorghum, and sugar cane.

“Biofuels are a renewable energy source that can be produced domestically from a wide variety of plant material and wastes,” states a report by Jason Hill, an expert on transportation biofuels. “Because plants absorb CO2 during growth and may increase stores of soil organic carbon, biofuels may reduce GHG emission relative to petroleum-derived fuels.” Because biofuels are produced from plants and crops already available, often from the waste left-over from a harvest, they have become a lucrative commodity and renewable-fuel policies have been adopted worldwide accordingly.

A recent report from the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) shows that many workers on industrial-scale plantations in Brazil, Malaysia, and Indonesia report improvements in their living conditions, increased income, and better access to food thanks to the booming biofuel industry. Clare Wenner of the Renewable Energy Association lauds Brazil’s biofuel success: “Today, 50 percent of Brazil’s transport system is running on biofuels produced from around 1 percent of its land with greenhouse gas savings of up to 90 percent.” On the basis of these supposed economic and environmental benefits, the United States continues to provide subsidies and tax credits to farmers that plant biofuel crops, despite sharp budget cuts in other sectors.

Yet this rosy picture of biofuels must be juxtaposed against a backdrop of land shortages, poor agricultural practices, loss of traditional livelihoods, and environmental degradation. The previously mentioned CIFOR report acknowledges that industrial-scale plantations provided only limited jobs, decline in traditional livelihoods due to the transition to waged labor, and land and crop loss. The Renewable Fuel Standard in the United States, which requires an annual increase in ethanol, further exacerbates corn shortages leaving livestock farmers with ever-increasing prices for feedstock which raises dairy, egg, and meat costs. It has been found that most biofuel production is currently unsustainable and environmentally damaging, in contrast to the aims of the Renewable Fuel Standard.

The biofuel industry today

Joachim von Braun, Director General of the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), offers an analysis of renewable food policy and food prices. “The rapid expansion of ethanol and biodiesel has increased dependency on natural vegetation and crops grown specifically for energy. Biofuel production has also introduced new food-security risks and new challenges for the poor, particularly when resource constraints have lead to trade-offs between food and biofuel production and rising food prices.”

The New York Times recently reported on food shortages in Guatemala caused by an overdependence on the biofuel industry and rising corn prices. Guatemala imports nearly half of its corn, making it particularly vulnerable to the United States’ renewable fuel policies. The country’s fertile land, owned by a handful of rich families, has proved ideal for fuel crops, and fields that once provided food have been replaced with sugar cane and palm plantations dedicated to biofuel production. As a result, sugar and other food prices have doubled, and there is very little available land for impoverished Guatemalans to plant food crops. Now “roughly 50 percent of the nation’s children are chronically malnourished, the fourth-highest rate in the world,” according to the Times.

Biofuels are also changing the landscape in the United States where “some 37,000 square miles of grasslands, wetlands and shrublands have been converted to row crops,” reported the Environmental Working Group (EWG). The destruction of grasslands is occurring around the world, impacting entire ecosystems along with water and soil quality. According to the World Resources Institute, grasslands hold one-third of the world’s carbon stocks, which is released into the atmosphere when the grassland is plowed, as much as 60 tons of carbon dioxide per acre. Jason Hill, quoted earlier, states that “corn ethanol is a highly inefficient and polluting fuel. It takes nearly as much energy to produce ethanol as is released when it is burned. Large amounts of natural gas…are used in its production. Corn ethanol damages air quality more than gasoline, and it most likely does not reduce greenhouse gas emissions, either.”

For all its imperfections, the biofuels industry still holds much potential. The technology behind biofuel production is still in its infancy. As Wenner states, “What is missing from the debate, is that biofuels are at an early stage in their technological learning curve. With the right framework, this technology will have moved on long before conflict need be inevitable, and agriculture will have become more sustainable and productive in the meantime.” Technological advancement may allow for biofuels to become more sustainable and efficient in the future, as evidenced by the still developing advancements taking place in the biomass industry, which generates power from plant and tree matter.

Biofuels are only a single part of the search for renewable energy. As Hill notes, “Technological and behavioral solutions include improved vehicle efficiency, public transportation, redesign of urban landscapes, and hybrid…vehicles.” Supporters of the biofuel industry and its goals believe policies need to be framed within a social, economic, and political context which takes account of the need for food security and sustainable agricultural practices, as well as in the diversification of renewable energy sources. Technological advances may help the biofuels industry, but only if the current destructive and unsustainable means of production can be curbed and modified, which will require help from governments and financial institutions. If such practices aren’t addressed and the biofuels industry continues to be solely incentive-based, a potential energy solution may become just another obstacle to be overcome by all.