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U of M speaker says global land use must be considered in biofuel debate

By Heather Thorstensen

Date Modified: 03/11/2010 9:07 AM

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ST. PAUL, Minn. -- John Sheehan of the University of Minnesota says the debate on biofuels should shift from food versus fuel to how land is used globally for biofuel production and other purposes.

"We need to not look at land use as a biofuels problem, we need to look at biofuels as (being part of) a mix of solving our land use problem," he said.

Sheehan is a biofuels coordinator at the university's Institute on the Environment. He's spent about two decades working on biofuels issues. He spoke about the topic Feb. 10 during a public lecture hosted by the university.

Land around the world is being used in unsustainable ways, he explained afterward during an Agri News interview. He'd like to see work done to help solve these issues across our borders. He's involved in the European Convention of the Global Sustainable Bioenergy Project, which is starting an international discussion on the potential for sustainable biofuels.

In America, he wants science surrounding biofuel production's carbon emissions to start with public input and end with understandable results so people can have rational conversations.

"My point is: Get focused on the land use problem...If you're going to the pose the question, as we have, how to continue unsustainable global agriculture and now layer biofuels on top, the answer is obvious, it won't work."

Shifting the biofuels debate to land use also shifts the focus to climate change because if land needs to be cleared for energy crops, it removes carbon from soil. It's not clear how much land has been cleared directly for biofuels.

"Do we really know that we need to expand total agricultural land on a global scale to meet new biofuels demand? I would say we don't know the answer. There are so many things that influence how much land we use in agriculture," he said.

When asked how commodity groups, as stakeholders to the biofuels industry, should participate in the public input process, Sheehan said they need to remember this issue isn't about commodity groups versus environmentalists.

"I think they have taken a very aggressive winners-and-losers approach to the problem, instead of taking a step back and being open-minded enough to deal with genuine questions these regulators are facing. By the way, the same is true on the other side, of the environmental community," Sheehan said.

He wants to focus on finding solutions to protect the environment, meet the needs of the growing world population and improve people's quality of life.

"A critical starting point is to make sure science didn't just get started off in a vacuum and get dumped into the public arena," he said.