ETHANOL production, large-scale farming and biotechnology are agricultural products and practices that are sometimes confusing and criticized by the non-farming community, with a common critique being that such practices may be harmful to the environment.
Reports from three studies released over the past month suggest that those criticisms might be misplaced or even completely unfounded.
Brazil-based consultancy Celeres recently released results from a pair of studies highlighting the benefits of biotechnology adoption in that country since 1996.
The first report highlights the clear economic advantages that result from farmers increasing their use of genetically enhanced seeds, showing economic benefits of more than $18 billion in recent years (Feedstuffs, Feb. 18).
A companion study examined the socio-environmental benefits of biotechnology during the same period, analyzing changes in water utilization and petroleum use, carbon gas emissions and the use of "active ingredients" such as herbicides and pesticides.
The Celeres study found that, in Brazil, biotechnology has:
* Effectively reduced water use by 27.8 billion liters, equivalent to the water needs of 634,400 people over the 16-year period;
* Reduced diesel consumption by 231.6 million liters, enough to fuel a fleet of 96,000 light vehicles from 1996 to 2012, and
* Cut carbon dioxide emissions by 614,100 tons, equal to preserving 4.5 million trees.
Additionally, the report suggests that biotechnology allowed farmers to apply 22,100 fewer tons of active ingredients during the 16-year study period than would have been necessary with conventional hybrids and varieties, likely considerably reducing the energy needed to produce the chemicals in the first place and keeping those additional ingredients and nutrients out of the soil and water systems.
Among the biggest drivers in these reductions is increased production efficiency. Brazilian farmers are producing significantly more bushels of corn, cotton and soybeans on a given acreage than they were in 1996, prior to wide-scale use of biotech seeds. By producing more on the same amount of land, the utilization of resources such as water and petroleum is spread out over many more units of production.
Another benefit of modern farming practices was revealed in a recent study by U.S. Department of Agriculture soil scientists reported in the journal BioEnergy Research.
Looking at previous life-cycle analyses of crops grown for ethanol production, the researchers examined how much soil carbon was sequestered by corn produced via no-till practices over a 10-year period and found that corn sequesters far more carbon than was previously known.
The study, conducted at the University of Nebraska's Agricultural Research & Development Center in Ithaca, Neb., found that continuous no-till production of corn sequesters carbon in the soil as deep as 59 in. Previous studies missed more than 50% of the increased soil carbon, studying soil depths of less than 11 in.
In fact, the USDA researchers found an average annual increase in soil carbon of roughly 1.2 tons of carbon per acre, paving the way for future studies and models to show more accurately the environmental benefits of corn production, as well as a more accurate life-cycle analysis of corn-based ethanol compared with petroleum.
Meanwhile, in January, researchers at the U.S. Department of Energy's Oak Ridge National Laboratory published an article in the journal Biofuels that concluded that the renewable fuel standard (RFS) is producing positive economic benefits in the U.S. by reducing crude oil prices, decreasing crude oil imports and increasing the nation's gross domestic product (GDP) while having only minimal impacts on global food markets and land use.
The study found a net GDP increase of 0.8% in 2022, equivalent to $121 billion. That effect is due largely to lower oil prices and reduced imports.
In modeling the full implementation of the RFS over the next decade, the researchers found that as biofuels increasingly replace petroleum, crude oil prices will fall.
Opponents of ethanol production often point to rising food prices and land use changes as major drawbacks of a federal renewable fuel policy. However, the DOE researchers suggested that increases in food commodity prices due to the RFS were less than 1% from 2002 to 2030.
Similarly, they projected that the RFS would actually result in slightly fewer acres used for agriculture globally, with a marginal increase in farmed land in the U.S. offset by similar decreases in other regions of the world.