Unless farmers the world over adopt more intensive growing techniques, we may soon run short of both food and energy, according to University of Nebraska agronomy professor Kenneth Cassman.
The boom in corn-based ethanol production has worsened the situation, says Cassman, the director of Nebraska Center for Energy Sciences, who spoke last week at Brown University.
With 139 US plants making ethanol, and 61 more under construction, Cassman states, the US will produce 15 billion gallons of the alternative fuel by 2012, consuming 42 percent of its corn supply. In what he calls “an historic change that no one predicted,” the price of corn is now determined by its value for fuel, not food.
Ethanol’s positive environmental benefits, notably a claimed reduction in global warming emissions, have increasingly been challenged for not taking into account fertilizer, trucking, and other related emissions.
Cassman is part of a team developing a standard system to measure the global warming impacts of different energy sources, and he criticizes other models for not measuring the projected carbon dioxide emissions of extracting oil from shale or drilling in deep ocean water. Cassman says his current research is funded by the US departments of Energy and Agriculture, but previous work has been funded by commercial agriculture.
The rapid growth of ethanol production has positive impacts, Cassman stresses, including fewer oil imports and invigorated rural economies. But meeting the food needs of a growing world population, while using American corn, Brazilian sugar cane, and Canadian canola oil for fuel, will be difficult.
Rising Third World incomes cause higher energy use and meat consumption, Cassman explains, creating more demand for the corn, wheat, and rice that provide 60 percent of the world’s calories. Mean¬while, two-acre house lots consume valuable farm land. The US alone has lost two million acres of farm land a year since 1950, he says.
Without changes in agriculture, Cassman argues, farmers will clear rain forests and cultivate other wild lands to meet the world’s increasing demand for food and energy. But even with new land, crop yields must increase, he says, to supply the world’s needs.
Captivating cures — such as chemical giant Monsanto’s claim that biotechnology can double corn yields in 30 years, or assertions that organic farming and the discovery of genetically superior “wild” seeds can boost harvests — Cassman asserts, are all “bad science.” The only realistic way to increase crop yields, he says, is to use intense farming techniques now associated with more lucrative vegetable crops. Drip irrigation, slow-release fertilizer, optimal spacing of plants, and other techniques can maximize harvests of grains, he insists.
“One thing that’s promising is the value of agriculture is so high,” the professor says, meaning that new farming methods can be seriously considered.
Cassman is not optimistic, however, about the prospects for ethanol production in Rhode Island. A plant to convert cellulose from wood to fuel may be possible, he says, but it would have to be a research, not a for-profit, facility because “we don’t know how to do it.”
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