Biofuels study upsets farmers

Results showed that some biofuels added to global warming, and did not benefit the environment.

Kelly Gulbrandson

Two soybean-focused groups suspended $1.5 million in grant money for professors researching biofuels earlier this week as an angry reaction to a University study.

After the study, published by University professors David Tilman, Stephen Polasky and Peter Hawthorne, was released in the Feb. 7 edition of the journal Science, local farmers and other agencies voiced their opinions about claims that stated using biofuels, such as soybeans, contributes to global warming.

Jim Palmer, director of both the Minnesota Soybean Growers Association and the Minnesota Soybean Research and Promotion Council, said the decision came after hearing from local farmers about the study.

“I would say the farmers were surprised by the study,” he said. “I don’t think they found our decision to be too drastic.”

The study addressed “carbon debt” – the amount of carbon released in the process of converting natural resources into cropland.

Robert Moffitt, spokesman for the American Lung Association of the Upper Midwest, which is involved in biofuels research in the state, said the association was surprised by the study’s results.

“We were suspicious of the study from the start,” he said.

The American Lung Association initially wasn’t going to get involved with the criticism of the study, Moffitt said, but found out there was a “firestorm” of controversy with others in the science industry raising points about the study.

He said the organization got involved in biofuel research 10 years ago through the Clean Cities energy program, sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy. The pilot program’s goal is to see if drivers would be interested in using E85 fuel as an alternative to gasoline.

Moffitt said the results showing the effects of carbon levels in Tilman’s study were dramatically different than the results of the American Lung Association study.

Tilman, who is currently on sabbatical from the University, said he feels the study is misunderstood by others in the industry.

“The goal of our paper was to point out if we do certain things, that those things would give us fuels that didn’t have very much environmental benefit,” he said.

Tilman said the paper didn’t say the problems were happening now, but instead that they could happen in the future

Bev Durgan, director of the Minnesota Agricultural Experiment Station at the University, said whenever a researcher publishes a study, there are going to be people who disagree with it.

She said research will continue at the University and that this decision won’t have an effect on that.

“Sometimes conversation is needed about research,” Durgan said, “However, faculty has the right to research and publish research, and I firmly believe in that right.”

Gordy Thomas, a farmer from Rockford, Minn., said he found the biofuel study to be “troubling.”

All the available land to be plowed for soybeans and renewable sources is already being used, he said, so there are no continuing problems with further research contributing to global warming.

Palmer said he and his organization are planning on meeting with University officials, including Allen Levine, dean of the College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences, to restore the funding.

Palmer said he hopes people don’t read too much into this, because farmers just want to talk with University officials and give them the opportunity to talk with farmers about the issue.

“The University hasn’t done anything irreparable to us and we haven’t done anything irreparable to them,” Palmer said.