Biofuels: Don’t forget the ecologists

The worldwide rush to develop capacity for producing biofuels has proceeded with little foresight. Facilities are being developed without a guaranteed supply of feedstocks ( Orangutans may be threatened by oil palm plantations ( ). Biofuels may contribute to the eutrophication of the Chesapeake Bay ( ). Biofuels are contributing to an increase in food prices worldwide ( ) with political consequences (,1,7281073.story?ctrack=1&cset=true ). The list goes on.

Unfortunately, funding for scientific research is not immune to this lack of foresight. The sustainable production of biofuels is primarily an ecological issue. But research funds are being directed elsewhere. For example, as Kinitsch (2007; Science 315:786-786.) writes, “one thing is clear: Plant scientists are being lavished with newfound attention and cash.” He is not including plant ecologists here. In his editorial, Kennedy (2007; Science 316:515) stressed that the solution to biofuels woes lie in plant physiology and biochemistry, and pushed for funding these fields at levels of the same magnitude as medicine. In 2006, the Department of Energy “announced a new approach that hews closely to the NRC panel’s recommendations. It plans to create two centers, both focused on biofuels. The centers, each funded at $25 million a year for 5 years, would use leased space, begin work quickly, and marshal multidisciplinary teams of proteomics experts, biochemists, and engineers in a friendly competition to expand knowledge of existing and emerging biofuels. Their scope would range from basic studies of microbes that digest cellulose to the development of transgenic plants that would be easier to break down and the design of new fermentation processes.“ (Kintisch 2006; Science 313:746) The Department of Energy is now investing $200 million to research biorefineries (

All of this research is needed. But where is the balance? It is the ecologists who know about primary productivity, about the effects of harvests on biodiversity, and about designing sustainable systems. We know about fluxes of greenhouse gasses. We study the effects of biomass removal on biodiversity. In summary, it is the ecologists who should be the leaders in this debate. The Ecological Society of America and other representatives of the community of ecologists should demand that our science receive proportional attention. Otherwise, we will merely end up studying the ecological effects of yet another uncontrolled industry.

Contributed by Mike Palmer, Oklahoma State University

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