AgBioResearch Scientist Discusses Food and Fuel with Renewable Fuels Commission

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H. Christopher Peterson discussed biobased fuels with the Renewable Fuels Commission. (view larger image)

The Michigan Renewable Fuels Commission (RFC) heard from an MAES expert on factors affecting the current food versus fuel debate at its May 13 meeting.

“Having both food and fuel are possible, but it hinges on the resolution of several critical issues such as continued global population growth and subsequent diet transformation, the capacity of the agribusiness sector to improve its productivity, water and land use, and carbon impact,” said H. Christopher Peterson, MAES agricultural economics scientist, who holds the Homer Nowlin Chair of Consumer-Responsive Agriculture and serves as the director of the MSU Product Center for Agriculture and Natural Resources. “The fact that Michigan has a Renewable Fuels Commission dedicated to tackling these tough issues offers tremendous opportunity.”

At its meeting, the RFC outlined issues related to the expansion of biobased fuels, including the need to evaluate Michigan’s supply and production chains to determine the long-term sustainability of biofuels.

“The production and supply inventory underscores the need to see where we’ve been and where we are in order to help pave the way for the future of biofuels in Michigan,” said Don Koivisto, Michigan Department of Agriculture director and RFC chair. “Creating a baseline will help us evaluate the long-term sustainability of present and post-corn ethanol while utilizing our vast natural resources to advance other biofuel technologies such as cellulosic ethanol, which is made from non-food feedstocks.”

At the meeting, Peterson presented information on biofuels’ impacts on food prices. Ethanol production is only one of many factors contributing to higher food prices, he pointed out. Others include skyrocketing fuel costs (which increases the cost of transporting food), increased food demand due to population and income growth, worldwide weather conditions and dwindling carryover stocks of agricultural commodities.

Two of the most important factors affecting food prices are:

  • The growing middle class in China and India. With more disposable income, this group is now able to afford to buy more protein-based foods, including meat and milk. Producing those foods is boosting demand for feed.
  • The declining value of the U.S. dollar. The fluctuations in the value of the dollar create a twofold issue: increasing worldwide demand for U.S. exports while simultaneously making food and fuel imports more expensive. The United States now spends $1.4 billion a day on imported oil.

“At MSU, our research and development emphasis is on making renewable fuels from cellulose—trees, stems and stalks that aren’t food products,” said Steve Pueppke, director of the MAES and MSU Office of Biobased Technologies and RFC member. “If the cellulose comes from crops that we’re already growing, we can increase the amount of fuel we make from crop residues without affecting food prices any further. Developing a strong cellulosic biofuel industry also would allow the state to tap forestland—land that isn’t in the food system—to make fuel.”

The Renewable Fuels Commission, appointed by Gov. Jennifer M. Granholm, is charged with promoting the use of alternative fuels and vehicles, encouraging the production and use of biodiesel and ethanol products in the state, increasing the viability of Michigan’s agribusiness industry and advancing alternative fuel research.

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