May 20, 2009 3:00 am

'False debate' of food versus biofuel

New technology will enable the US to increase the production of biofuels rapidly without jeopardising food output, the biotech industry said yesterday, Clive Cookson reports from Atlanta .

At the annual Biotechnology Industry Organisation's meeting in Atlanta, Georgia, companies said they were poised to commercialise "advanced biofuels" made from cellulose. This comes from non-food crops such as fast-growing grasses or from inedible parts of food crops such as stalks and husks. Today's biofuels come from edible starches and sugars, derived mainly from sugarcane and maize.

Brent Erickson, head of Bio's industrial and environmental section, said the target set by the new National Renewable Fuel Standard - to increase production of cellulosic biofuel from nothing this year to 1bn gallons in 2013 and 16bn gallons in 2022 - was achievable.

He praised US president Barack Obama's initiative to stimulate renewable fuel production, including $786m (€577m, £507m) in new federal support for bio-refineries. "The food versus fuels argument was a false debate," said Mr Erickson. "We can produce all the food we need and all the fuel we need. Advanced biofuels use up the residues of food crops, and we are also seeing dedicated biofuel crops going into land that was used for cotton."

New technology uses enzymes and micro-organisms to break down tough molecules such as cellulose in grasses and lignin in wood, producing ethanol and other liquids for use as fuels that can replace petrol (gasoline) or diesel for transport. Jack Huttner, who runs a cellulosic ethanol partnership between DuPont of the US and Danisco of Denmark, said: "From our point of view the technology is ready for commercialisation. It is no longer five years from the market."

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