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Critics of Biofuel Have It Wrong

While a growing number of policy leaders support greater use of ethanol, some critics believe using agricultural feedstocks to produce biofuels creates competition "between the world's supermarkets and its service stations." Ethanol's critics argue that America cannot produce enough biofuel from agricultural commodities to break our addiction to oil without impacting the availability of food. The facts suggest we can and that we can do it in an economically and environmentally sustainable manner. With the help of biotechnology, producers can grow enough corn and other agricultural crops to both provide raw material for our biorefineries and feed our people.

The U.S. Department of Energy has set a conservative goal of replacing 60 billion gallons of petroleum-based gasoline - 30 percent of current usage - with biofuels by 2030. Further, the DOE and U.S. Department of Agriculture envision replacing petroleum with biomass feedstocks in 25 percent of chemical production by that same year. With ongoing advances in both agricultural and industrial biotechnology, the United States can exceed these goals, reducing our dependence on imported oil while still maintaining the abundant and affordable food supply that Americans rely on.

U.S. agricultural productivity has grown steadily, at an annual rate of 1.8 percent over the past 35 years, as shown by a recent USDA study. Biotech-improved varieties of corn, the study says, "have been crucial in achieving these results." This growth has brought frequent annual surpluses of corn and other agricultural commodities. The USDA study concludes that the U.S. farm sector is strong enough to produce a sufficient and affordable supply of food well into the future.

Based on a 15-year trend line (1990-2004) average corn yields are expected to reach 162 bushels per acre by 2010 and 173 bushels per acre by 2015. To illustrate the impact of incremental yield growth, an increase of just two bushels per acre from one year to the next results in an additional 150 million bushels of corn, which can be used to produce 420 million gallons of ethanol. New biotech corn hybrids will further accelerate the yield curve.

The National Corn Growers Association projects that as much as 5.95 billion bushels of U.S. grain could be available for ethanol and bioproducts by 2015, after satisfying growing food, animal feed and export demands. That amount of corn could conservatively produce 15 billion gallons of ethanol, or nearly 10 percent of our nation's expected gasoline demand. That level of ethanol production is achievable with agricultural biotechnology, which helps farmers increase corn yields, and industrial biotechnology, which makes ethanol processes more efficient.

Industrial biotech companies have completed research that reduces the cost and increases the efficiency of enzymes that convert corn and crop residues to sugars that can then be fermented into ethanol. These companies are working to further reduce costs and are researching organisms to efficiently convert sugars from cellulose into ethanol. In this way we can use the entire corn plant for ethanol and produce more gallons of ethanol per acre of farmland.

As of August 2006, the United States had 101 ethanol biorefineries in operation nationwide with an annual production capacity of 4.8 billion gallons. Another 46 plants with 2.5 billion gallons additional capacity are under development. But we need to produce much more ethanol if we are to lower fuel prices, end our addiction to oil, and enhance our energy security. If we use industrial biotechnology to convert the entire corn plant as well as other crop residues and dedicated energy crops to fuel, we could produce more than 70 billion gallons of ethanol each year.

We can continue ramping up domestic ethanol production. With a mature ethanol industry aided by industrial biotechnology, farmers can soon harvest and sell two crops from every field - a food crop and a biomass energy crop. The Natural Resources Defense Council points out that ethanol can help rural areas by creating new jobs and increasing farm income by a whopping $5 billion a year by 2025.

During this century, ethanol will help America significantly reduce its dependence on petroleum. The partnership between agriculture and biotechnology is helping to expand and improve ethanol production at every step, from increasing crop yields and enabling alternative feedstocks to discovering novel enzymes and improving fermentation technology. In fact, with ongoing advances in biotechnology, ethanol can substantially help America meet its transportation-fuel needs by mid-century while we continue to feed the world.