Florida has become the latest state to plant so-called "energy crops" for biofuels.
Destiny, a proposed community that intends to become an eco city, this week announced its plans to grow crops such as sweet sorghum, jatropha and algae to produce biofuels from nonfood materials and showcase sustainable farming practices.
So far, the Destiny Sustainable Energy Farm said it has planted 20 acres of sorghum, a grass that requires less water than corn, the most common crop used to make ethanol in the United States, and that can grow in less-fertile soil. The farm expects to harvest its first plants later this year.
The farm also plans to experiment with different varieties of sweet sorghum, test the growth in different soil conditions and try different treatments to increase crop yield, according to Destiny.
The University of Florida will measure the yield and estimate the potential ethanol production of the plants to determine the cost of producing fuel from these energy crops. The plan is for the university to assess which variety will produce the most fuel with the least impact to the environment, said Randy Johnson, chief operating officer of the Destiny project.
The Destiny farm joins several other examples of efforts to grow nonfood crops specifically for biofuels.
In August, Ceres told Greentech Media it had begun harvesting switchgrass and sorghum seeds for biofuels (see Ceres Reaps First Switchgrass, Sorghum Harvests). And in April, the state of Oklahoma said it would plant more than 1,100 acres of switchgrass for ethanol (see Oklahoma Switches to Switchgrass).
But while the idea of growing nonfood fuel crops could be catching on, it's controversial. Critics are concerned that growing energy crops could use up land that could otherwise be used to grow food.
After all, competition with food is one of the major issues that moving to nonfood crops is intended to solve. Concerns that biofuels could be harming the environment or leading to higher food prices have been a bane to the industry's reputation, and higher prices for current starchy materials, such as corn and soybeans, that are used to make the fuels have cut into biofuel companies' profits.
Advocates of cellulosic ethanol have said the fuel could use waste materials that aren't used for food today, expanding the amount of ethanol that could be made without competing with food. They also claim that cellulosic ethanol can theoretically be made more cheaply than ethanol from starches like corn, but so far, cellulosic ethanol - only produced in demonstration volumes – has remained more expensive.
For one thing, harvesting and gathering far-flung material such as switchgrass has proven difficult and more costly than some companies had expected.
The idea of farming the nonfood materials is alluring because it would make it easier to grow and collect mass quantities of the stuff, meaning it would be cheaper to make into fuel.
Destiny is a proposed city in central Florida that plans to operate with minimal impact on the environment and to attract businesses focused on developing clean technologies.
Fred DeLuca, a co-founder of Subway Restaurants, and Anthony V. Pugliese III, a South Florida land developer, have bought 41,300 acres of land on which to build the green community, which is still in the planning stages. A portion of the purchased land is being used for the farm.
Johnson said the farm wouldn't displace food crops. Instead, the project hopes to evaluate whether it would be more lucrative for farmers that currently grow less eco-friendly products, such as sod, to grow nonfood energy crops instead. Sod requires more water than sorghum, Johnson said.
The farm currently uses a solar irrigation system and no fertilizers, which could end up polluting soil and water, to grow its sorghum, he said.
Still, the farm's efforts might not be enough to ward off criticism of the idea of growing crops specifically for fuel.
In January, Lester Brown, president of the Earth Policy Institute, said that using farmland for fuel crops will jeopardize the food supply (see Lester Brown Talks Smack About Ethanol). He has argued that if the price for nonfood crops grow enough to make it worthwhile, farmers will want to switch - and will want to use the best land to maximize profits.
A number of groups have questioned the impact of biofuels from crops like corn, sugarcane and soy.
Oxfam International, a global nonprofit focused on reducing poverty, blames biofuels for contributing up to a 30 percent increase in global food prices.
Studies published in the journal Science earlier this year concluded that biofuels may cause more greenhouse-gas emissions than traditional fuels and a Time magazine article in March reported that farmers had cleared trees in the Amazon rain forest to plant biofuel crops.
On the flip side, other researchers have found that biofuels aren't at fault for driving food costs up or wreaking havoc on the environment.
In April, researchers at Texas A&M University published a study concluding that growing corn prices have little to do with biofuels.
And in June, the Carnegie Institution for Science chimed in with another study that estimated that up to 1.8 million square miles of abandoned farmland is potentially available for growing energy crops globally.