"Do Biofuel Policies Seek to Cut Emissions by Cutting Food?"  This is the title of a new paper in the journal Science released March 26, 2015.  My co-authors are Robert Edwards, Declan Mulligan, Ralph Heimlich and Richard Plevin.  

For many years, governments and researchers have debated whether corn and wheat ethanol reduce greenhouse gas emissions when counting the emissions from land use change needed to replace the food, and the debates have relied on different global agriculture and land use models. Ultimately, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and the California Air Resources Board found that these ethanols did generate modestly fewer emissions than gasoline, relying on different models.  The European Commission also commissioned a model that found lower emissions.  Meanwhile, many supporters of biofuels argue that because all these models differ in their results, impacts on both greenhouse gases and food are too uncertain to reflect in policies.  

In this paper, we analyzed the model results carefully and found that they estimate lower emissions for ethanol because they estimate that from 20-50% of the calories in food are not replaced.  Physically, the emissions result from reduced respiration of carbon dioxide (and wastes) by people and livestock.  The models attribute these "savings" to the biofuels.  And if these estimates were wrong, the models would estimate higher greenhouse gas emissions.  The paper therefore highlights that much of the debate between models is which adverse effects predominate not whether these ethanols generate adverse effects.

Those without subscriptions to the journal can gain free access to the paper through these links.



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Bio:  Tim Searchinger is a Research Scholar at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He is also Senior Fellow at the World Resources Institute.  

Although trained as a lawyer, Searchinger's work today combines ecology and economics to analyze the challenge of how to feed a growing world population while reducing land use change and greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture.  Searchinger was the lead author of two papers in Science in 2008 and 2009 offering the first calculations of the greenhouse gas emissions associated with land use change due to biofuels and describing a broader error in the greenhouse gas accounting of bioenergy in the Kyoto Protocol and many national laws.  Searchinger is now also serving as a Senior Fellow and Technical Director of the next World Resources Report for WRI, the World Bank and various UN agencies entitled Creating a Sustainable Food Future.  (Copies of several reports for the project, including book-length interim findings, can be found at  He is also the director of the Agricultural Synergies Project, a collaborative, international project to develop guidance for developing countries on strategies that boost agriculture production while reducing emissions. This project has collaborators in Colombia, Brazil, Rwanda, Zambia, Kenya, Vietnam, Indonesia, France and Australia.

For most of his career,Searchinger worked as an attorney at the conservation group, the Environmental Defense Fund, where he directed its work on agricultural policy and wetlands, and efforts to preserve and restore the Everglades and the Mississippi River.  He conceived of the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program, which has restored hundreds of thousands of acres of riparian area and wetlands.  He received a National Wetlands Protection Award from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for a book regarding the importance of seasonal wetlands.  Searchinger has also been a fellow of the Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment at Oxford University, Senior Fellow of the Law and Environmental Policy Institute at Georgetown University Law Center, a special adviser to the Maryland government on the Chesapeake Bay, a Deputy General Counsel to Governor Robert P. Casey of Pennsylvania and a law clerk to Judge Edward Becker of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit.  He is a graduate, summa cum laude, of Amherst College and holds a J.D. from Yale Law School where he was Senior Editor of the Yale Law Journal.