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A global map for figuring out where to grow biofuel crops

The badlands might be back in fashion with biofuels. A three-year project goes to the heart of the pressing food versus fuel debate.

Indonesia is probably the worst place in the world to grow biofuel crops, according to David Lobell, who is part of a project to determine good and bad places in the world to grow fuel crops.

"There are meters and meters of carbon in tropical peat lands," said Lobell, a senior research scholar at the Woods Institute on the Stanford University campus. Cutting down these old tropical forests for agricultural land would release a massive amount of carbon into the atmosphere. Conceivably, it could take a few hundred years of biofuel consumption to displace the carbon released in land clearance.

"Pretty much everywhere is better," he said.

The three-year project goes to the heart of the pressing food versus fuel debate. The U.S., Brazil, and some European nations are trying to encourage drivers to switch to biofuels like ethanol and biodiesel that emit fewer greenhouse gases. Those fuels right now, however, are typically made from food crops like corn, sugar, and soybeans, and converting food into gas is contributing to rising food prices. Other factors--rising food consumption in China, droughts, crop diseases--are contributing to the problem, too, but experts say biofuel production has definitely exacerbated the situation.

Food riots continue to rage in Egypt, Haiti, Cameroon, and other emerging nations. The International Monetary fund earlier this week encouraged developed nations to put together programs that could help alleviate the situation and warned that further famine and poverty could occur if nothing is accomplished.

Ideally, biofuels could be grown out of non-food crops on land that's not as suitable or productive as farmland and won't release much carbon into the atmosphere when cultivation begins.

Is anywhere good? Semi-arid areas of India could work well, Lobell said. Jatropha, an oily seed that isn't fit for human consumption, grows in those regions and can be converted into diesel.

There is also a good possibility of growing fuel crops in CRP, or Conservation Reserve Program, lands in the U.S. These are the acres that the federal government pays farmers not to cultivate. Unfortunately, the amount of CRP land is actually somewhat small from a global perspective and might have only a marginal effect on fuel supplies.

While the project will go on for three years, Lobell says some preliminary data may emerge this fall.