Like HowStuffWorks on Facebook!

How does biofuel crop diversity affect society and the environment?

        Auto | Biofuels

Not So Green Pastures
Process corn into ethanol requires a tremendous amount of fossil fuel, and releases huge amounts of greenhouse gases and pollution.
Process corn into ethanol requires a tremendous amount of fossil fuel, and releases huge amounts of greenhouse gases and pollution.
iStockphoto/Thinkstock

The siren song of domestically grown energy crops that reduce dependence on foreign oil while cleansing the environment is more than alluring. It sounds too good to be true. In some cases it is. Dig deeper and you'll find that some energy crops do more harm than good.

Consider palm oil. Biodiesel distilled from palm oil is efficient, and helps the economies of Malaysia and Indonesia. Yet, farmers burn thousands of acres of rainforest each day to make room for palm plantations. This destruction threatens countless animal and plant species and impacts Earth's weather systems. The production of palm oil produces 10 times as much greenhouse gas as oil [source: Brune].

Biocrops can impact the world's food supply, too. In 2009, 25 percent of all corn and grain crops grown in the United States went into biofuel production, not food production [source: Vidal]. Some farmers are reluctant to plant food crops because biofuel crops are more lucrative. As a result, food prices rise.

Likewise, corn ethanol may not be as environmentally sound as most people think. If refineries turned every ear of corn in the United States into ethanol, it would replace only 12 percent of gasoline [source: Brune]. Additionally, farmers use a lot of fossil fuel to grow and process corn into ethanol, which causes an increase in greenhouse gases. From farm to gas tank, corn ethanol produces only 15 percent less atmospheric greenhouse gas than the equivalent amount of gasoline [source: Tillman and Hill].

Some biocrops can also negatively impact wildlife. Scientists at the University of Wisconsin-Madison say the number of bird species in the upper Midwest could decrease between 7 and 65 percent if farmers plant corn and other annual energy crops. Scientists say many species, including birds, like living in areas with diverse plant life. Planting large-scale row crops, such as soybean and corn, would decrease bird biodiversity, they say [source: Tenenbaum].

Experts say if we choose our energy crops wisely, they have the potential to provide the world with climate-friendly energy. But the million dollar question really is which biocrops should we grow, and where should we grow them?


More to Explore