Sweet Sorghum and the Biofuel Controversy
Producing fuel from food crops is highly controversial. For every acre of land growing corn for biofuel, that's one less acre of land growing food for people. There's also the impact of growing the crop itself. Farming can be extremely water-intensive, which is a big deal when so many areas are struggling with drought. You also have to consider the impact that crop production has on the soil.
The most well-known issue with biofuels is probably the food versus fuel problem. You might remember the "Tortilla Protest" in Mexico City back in 2007. When the price of corn exploded, quadrupling the cost of corn tortillas, a dietary staple in Mexico, many blamed biofuel production [source: Kennedy]. Just as with corn, growing sweet sorghum to produce fuel means that much less land to produce food, but thanks to a new hybrid sorghum plant, sweet sorghum could provide the best of both worlds.
Researchers have developed a hybrid variety of sweet sorghum that produces an edible grain [source: New Agriculturalist]. People can eat the grain and juice the stalks to create biofuel. Conventional sweet sorghum doesn't do double duty like this, but this new hybrid could be the solution. Right now, the byproducts of biofuel production from sweet sorghum can be added to animal feed, which means less waste and growing less corn and grain to feed animals [source: Chambers].
Sweet sorghum is also much more water-efficient than most biofuel crops. Producing ethanol from sweet sorghum uses about two thirds the amount of water of corn and one seventh the water of sugar cane. That's a big deal in drought-stricken areas both here in the U.S. and overseas. India has been a major producer of ethanol from sweet sorghum, for example, and a company in the Philippines started producing large amounts of sorghum ethanol in May of 2012 [source: Gomez].
Like any other crop, sweet sorghum has some drawbacks. There's the problem of mono-cropping: planting the same crop in the same fields year after year. This isn't good for soil health, and it's as much a problem with mass-producing sweet sorghum as it is with corn [source: Remvos]. The solution to this problem is rotating the crops, giving the land a "break" every two years and planting something complementary like alfalfa to help improve the soil.