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United States Department of Agriculture

Agricultural Research Service

Research Project: IMPROVING SOIL AND NUTRIENT MANAGEMENT SYSTEMS FOR SUSTAINED PRODUCTIVITY AND ENVIRONMENTAL QUALITY

Location: Soil Plant Nutrient Research (SPNR)

Title: Sustainable Biofuels Redux

Authors
item Robertson, G - MI ST U, HICKORY CORNERS,
item Dale, Virginia - OAK RIDGE NAT'L LAB
item Doering, Otto - PURDUE UNIV., IN
item Hamburg, Steven - BROWN UNIV., RHODE ISLAND
item Melillo, Jerry - MRINE BIO LAB,WOODS HOLE
item Wander, Michele - U OF IL, URBANA, IL
item Parton, William - CO ST UNIV. FTCOLLINS, CO
item Pouyat, Richard - USDA-FS, BALTIMORE, MD
item Adler, Paul
item Barney, Jacob - UC, DAVIS, CA
item Cruse, Richard - IA ST U, AMES, IA
item Duke, Clifford - ECO SOC AM, WASH, DC
item Fearnside, Philip - INPA, MANAUS, BRAZIL
item Follett, Ronald
item Gibbs, Holly - U OF WI - MADISON, WI
item Goldemberg, Jose - U OF SAO PAULO, BRAZIL
item Mladenoff, David - U OF WI - MADISON, WI
item Ojima, Dennis - H JOHN HEINZ CTR, WASH, D
item Palmer, Michael - OK ST U, STILLWATER, OK
item Sharpley, Andrew - U OF AR, FAYETTEVILLE, AR
item Wallace, Linda - U OF OK, NORMAN, OK
item Weathers, Kathleen - CARY INST. OF ECO STUDIES
item Wiens, John - PRBO CONS. SCI, PETALUMA,
item Wilhelm, Wallace

Submitted to: Science Magazine
Publication Type: Peer Reviewed Journal
Publication Acceptance Date: July 1, 2008
Publication Date: October 1, 2008
Citation: Robertson, G.P., Dale, V., Doering, O., Hamburg, S., Melillo, J.M., Wander, M., Parton, W., Pouyat, R., Adler, P.R., Barney, J., Cruse, R., Duke, C., Fearnside, P., Follett, R.F., Gibbs, H., Goldemberg, J., Mladenoff, D., Ojima, D., Palmer, M., Sharpley, A., Wallace, L., Weathers, K., Wiens, J.A., Wilhelm, W.W. 2008. Sustainable Biofuels Redux. Science Magazine. Vol. 322:49-50.

Interpretive Summary: Biofuel sustainability has environmental, economic, and social facets that all interconnect. Tradeoffs among them vary widely by types of fuels and where they are grown, and thus need to be explicitly considered using a framework that allows the outcomes of alternative systems to be consistently evaluated and compared. A cellulosic biofuels industry could have many positive social and environmental attributes, but it could also suffer from many of the sustainability issues that hobble grain-based biofuels if not done right. While many questions about biofuel sustainability remain unanswered – indeed, some remain unasked – what we now know with reasonable certainty can be readily summarized. First, we know that grain-based biofuel systems are environmentally challenged. In addition to questions of carbon debt created by land cleared elsewhere to replace displaced food production (1, 2), farming our existing landscapes more intensively, with even greater quantities of biomass extracted, can easily exacerbate existing environmental harm. Effects of intense agriculture are well-documented: increased soil erosion, greater nitrate and phosphorus loss, and a decline in biodiversity, with concomitant impacts on ground and surface water quality, air quality, and biodiversity-based services such as pest suppression and wildlife amenities. Business as usual writ larger is not an environmentally welcome solution.

Technical Abstract: Biofuel sustainability has environmental, economic, and social facets that all interconnect. Tradeoffs among them vary widely by types of fuels and where they are grown, and thus need to be explicitly considered using a framework that allows the outcomes of alternative systems to be consistently evaluated and compared. A cellulosic biofuels industry could have many positive social and environmental attributes, but it could also suffer from many of the sustainability issues that hobble grain-based biofuels if not done right. While many questions about biofuel sustainability remain unanswered – indeed, some remain unasked – what we now know with reasonable certainty can be readily summarized. First, we know that grain-based biofuel systems are environmentally challenged. In addition to questions of carbon debt created by land cleared elsewhere to replace displaced food production (1, 2), farming our existing landscapes more intensively, with even greater quantities of biomass extracted, can easily exacerbate existing environmental harm. Effects of intense agriculture are well-documented: increased soil erosion, greater nitrate and phosphorus loss, and a decline in biodiversity, with concomitant impacts on ground and surface water quality, air quality, and biodiversity-based services such as pest suppression and wildlife amenities. Business as usual writ larger is not an environmentally welcome solution.

Last Modified: 9/23/2014
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