As more and more corn grain is diverted to make ethanol, some groups have become concerned about food shortages. Dr. Bruce Dale, Michigan Agricultural Experiment Station (MAES) chemical engineering and materials science researcher, has used life cycle analysis tools, which include agricultural data and computer modeling, to study the sustainability of producing biofuels – fuels such as ethanol and biodiesel that are made from renewable resources.
“We grow animal feed, not human food in the United States,” Dale said. “We could feed the country’s population with 25 million acres of cropland, and we currently have 500 million acres. Most of our agricultural land is being used to grow animal feed. It’s a lot simpler to integrate animal feed production into cellulosic ethanol production than it is to integrate human food production. With cellulosic ethanol, the ‘food vs. fuel’ debate goes away.”
Dale, who also serves as associate director of the MSU Office of Biobased Technologies, presented his findings on March 27, 2007, at the American Chemical Society annual meeting in Chicago
Cellulosic ethanol is made from the stems, leaves, stalks, and trunks of plants, none of which is used for human food production. Dale, who has studied ethanol for more than 30 years, said that as the country moves toward large-scale cellulosic ethanol production, the yield of so-called energy crops – grasses and woody materials grown for their energy content – also will dramatically increase.
“This will reduce pressure on our land resources,” Dale said. “We’ll be able to get more raw material out of one acre of land.”
Dale also pointed out that many of these energy crops will be grown on land that isn’t prime agricultural acreage, but rather on marginal land that isn’t growing a commercial crop right now.
“The evidence indicates that large-scale biofuel production will increase, not decrease, world food supplies by making animal feed production much more efficient,” Dale said.