The case for turning crops into fuel.

Science, technology, and life.
July 7 2007 7:32 AM

Food Fight

The case for turning crops into fuel.

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If you want to help poor people, biofuel beats the heck out of oil. In a biofuel economy, the chief asset is open land. Who has open land? Poor countries. Latin America has sugar cane. Africa and Asia have cassava. Switchgrass, which grows in dry regions, will level the playing field further. Bush says switchgrass will empower the Western United States. That's nice, but the real story is that it'll empower the Southern Hemisphere.

What makes Castro and other radicals so conservative about biofuel? The same thing that troubles Bush about human embryo research: the industrialization of biology. For the right, the chief concern is humanity. For the left, it's nature. That's why Castro worries that genetic crop modifications by ethanol conglomerates will unleash "transgenetic contamination" and put "food production at risk."


True, biotechnology can go wrong. But it can also go wonderfully right. Scientists are learning to split corn so it can make ethanol and still feed animals. We're studying the use of microbes to extract fuel from straw and wood waste. We're trying to grow biofuel in algae. We're even learning to make fuel from animal fat and excrement.

Yes, ethanol subsidies are a scam. Yes, we should drop our trade barriers and let Brazilian sugar cane wipe out American corn. Yes, we need solar power, conservation, and efficiency. But don't give up on biofuel. It just needs time to grow.

A version of this article also appears in the Outlook section of the Sunday Washington Post.