Policies in favour of biofuels — made from maize, sugar cane or other plant matter — need to take into account their full environmental impact, writes Jeffrey McNeely in this article.
He calls for better science and a bigger role for genetic modification of plants to make biofuel production more efficient and environmentally sound.
The European Union recently called for biofuels to meet 5.75 per cent of transportation needs by 2010. McNeely calls this a "classic good news – bad news story".
He points out that using ethanol in place of oil reduces total carbon dioxide emissions by only 13 per cent. In addition, he says, the grain needed to fill the tank of a large 4-wheel drive vehicle with ethanol fuel could feed one person for a year.
Much of Europe's demand for biofuel will come from Brazil and South-East Asia, where sugarcane, soybean and oil palm plantations are replacing rainforests.
More research is needed to understand how nature produces energy, says McNeely, and the public should be open to the advantages that biotechnology could bring.
A Swiss company, for example, is working on a genetically engineered maize that can help convert itself into ethanol.
In addition, fuel-efficiency standards should be raised as an immediate step towards reducing dependency on oil.