NOW you tell me.

I try not to venture into politics much here on since, well, this is a baking blog. And anyway the blogosphere is already stuffed to the gills with wannabe pundits masquerading as a food experts and movie reviewers. However sometimes the bigger political subjects have direct application to the world of baking, and today is one of those days.

For you see late last week the journal Science published a report on the production of biofuels, the sudden, sharp increase in which has been causing real pain for the baking industry. As if all the trans fat hysteria wasn’t enough, commercial bakeries have been slammed with big spikes in raw ingredients prices as overall demand for grain has gone up. The price of flour has increased, but much more than that the price of dairy ingredients like milk and especially butter due to the increased cost of feeding and maintaining dairy herds. Through it all we’ve been assured from on high that the pain is necessary if we are to spur the alternative fuels market that is the last great hope for reducing carbon emissions and saving the planet.

The problem from the start has been that it takes seven gallons of oil to produce eight gallons of ethanol. Add to that that a gallon of ethanol yields about 20% less energy than a gallon of gasoline, and the result is something of a head-scratcher from an efficiency standpoint. Yet these are simply the growing pains of an emerging market, we’ve been told. Efficiency will come with time, as will the promised reductions in carbon emissions.

Except that they won’t. At least not according to the Science article published late last week, which revealed a gap in the logic of biofuels that you could drive a combine through. Namely, that prior studies of biofuels have never taken into account the carbon emissions that result when forest and cropland are converted over to biofuel production, as farmers around the world have begun to do in response to escalating prices. Where do those “emissions” come from? In part from running machinery, but also from clearing the land (which in many cases means burning it) as well as from tilling. Add to that the loss of so-called “carbon sinks” (i.e. trees and plants that absorb atmospheric carbon) and the total environmental impact of biofuels — at least over the next 30 years — will be twice as high as that of fossil fuels.

Of course over time, as ethanol begins to pay back the “debt” it owes to the environment, that impact will be reduced. Yet it will take 167 years before that debt is fully repaid and we can begin to realize the environmental benefits that biofuels offer (however by then I presume we’ll all be flying to work on the solar powered jet packs that comic books promised us would be the norm by 1999). And lest you think I’m cherry-picking data, another study just out this week from the University of Minnesota and the Nature Conservatory predicts that the carbon debt from biofuel-induced deforestation in places like Malaysia and Indonesia will take 423 years to pay back, by which time I trust my descendants will be preparing to make a deal on some low-priced real estate on Pluto.

So once again it’s proven that there’s no such thing as a free lunch, even one that’s based on corn and switchgrass. The pity is that it’s a lesson that has to be learned and re-learned, especially among our legislators who have now roped us into a $36 billion ethanol buy over the next fifteen years. Obviously to grain farmers, may of whom have suffered for decades from depressed prices, it’s a godsend. However ecologically ethanol seems to be shaping up as just one more in a long line of spectacular government-sponsored fiascoes, which might have been avoided had politicians been a bit more interested in the hard data and little less so in heartland votes and biofuel band-wagoneering.

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