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Converting Food Crops Into Fuel 'Crime Against Humanity'

Oregon’s drive toward biodiesel and ethanol has become more controversial in recent days.

The United Nations’ leading food advocate suggested that converting crops like wheat and corn into fuel was a “crime against humanity,” because of its potential impact on food supplies. And as Rob Manning reports, a leading environmental organization is urging biofuel producers Monday to approach powering cars with vegetable oil with  caution.

U.N. Special Rapporteur, Jean Ziegler, says that if western countries, like the United States, grow and import crops for fuel, instead of food, it could drive up food prices, and lead to starvation in poor countries. But a report released  by the Oregon Environmental Council suggests that Oregon can convert to biofuels without creating such social and environmental problems.

Oregon lawmakers over the summer approved biodiesel and ethanol requirements—and made them contingent on regional production, rather than imports.

Chris Hagerbaumer with the Oregon Environmental Council recommends resisting the temptation to use cheap imports like South American palm oil. She says it doesn’t make environmental or economic sense.

Chris Hagerbaumer: “Biodiesel produced with palm oil can’t trigger the renewable fuel standard, but that doesn’t mean that a company couldn’t still use it. It just seems to go totally against this idea of reducing our dependence on imported (laughs) fuels. So, to get the best economic advantage, we should be depending on local feed stocks.”

The Oregon Environmental Council report argues that the benefits, and problems, with biofuels should be measured on a life cycle basis. That way, it argues, impacts on everything from groundwater to wildlife to food supplies can be judged fairly.

However, Hagerbaumer says current estimates anticipate that biofuels may lead to only modest reductions in fossil fuel consumption.

Chris Hagerbaumer: “In the near-term, with what are called ‘first generation’ biofuels, that are mainly produced out of food crops, but also out of waste grease, I don’t think you’re going to get more than five to ten percent of your fuel mix. So what people are looking at is, over the long run, if you can start using cellulosic biomass, then the potential is much greater.”

“Cellulosic biomass” refers to weeds and the parts of crops and trees that don’t get harvested into food or timber. Converting biomass has its own transportation and technological challenges. Hagerbaumer says in the best circumstances, it could increase the “bio” share of fuel consumption to one-third of the total.

The excitement and controversy around biofuels, though, tend  to overlook more mundane advice from the renewable energy experts: That the best way to reduce fossil fuel consumption is through conservation, and improving the efficiency of the vehicles and machines powered by it.

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