letter to the editor

By | February 10, 2009
I just finished reading "Re-New-able York City" in the January issue of Biodiesel Magazine and was disappointed to find the article so one-sided. It didn't give any space to the opponents of the New York City biodiesel mandate (we are advocates of an ultra-low-sulfur diesel heating oil mandate), and there was not a single mention of the negative environmental impacts of sourcing biodiesel from virgin feedstocks.

Less than 1 percent of all cropland cultivated in the U.S. is certified organic by the USDA. That means that at least 99 percent of the virgin feedstocks used to produce biodiesel is coming from conventional agro-industrial farms that are anything but environmentally friendly. This fact raises the fundamental question, "How can biodiesel be environmentally friendly when it is produced from crops that were cultivated using environmentally destructive practices?" It would be irresponsible to move forward with a biodiesel mandate in New York City before there is a certification system in place to ensure that biodiesel sourcing and production practices are environmentally friendly (clearing new land for energy crops releases up to 420 times more carbon dioxide than the fossil fuels they displace).

Biodiesel can be refined from a wide variety of vegetable oils and animal fats, but in the U.S., subsidies and tariffs make soybean oil the dominant feedstock. Soybeans may be a renewable resource, but America's industrial-scale farms devour enormous quantities of nonrenewable and irreplaceable resources. Powering the machines that plow, plant, harvest, cast fertilizers, spray pesticides and pump irrigation water is energy-intensive. The fossil fuels consumed by on-farm operations release significant quantities of greenhouse gases and toxic air emissions.

Adding to soybean agriculture's formidable fossil fuel tally, large amounts of natural gas are needed to produce the nitrogen-based fertilizers that promote their growth. These fertilizers break down in fields, releasing nitrous oxides, a global warming agent hundreds of times more potent than carbon dioxide. When these fertilizers leach from farm fields, they poison drinking water and ravage marine ecosystems. Runoff from Midwestern farm fields ends up in the Gulf of Mexico, where it contributes to a New Jersey-sized "dead zone" almost entirely absent of marine life.

A toxic rainbow of pesticides is sprayed on soybeans in an effort to combat weeds and insects. Making matters worse, 91 percent of the U.S. soybean acreage planted in 2007 was genetically engineered to tolerate herbicides, a development that has boosted glyphosate applications severalfold. Glyphosate, a powerful weed killer, is the third most common cause of pesticide illness in farm workers; exposure has been linked to rare cancers, miscarriages and premature births.
For more information on the New York City biodiesel mandate, see http://habitatmap.org/habitatmap_docs/BiodieselFactSheet.pdf.

Michael Heimbinder
Executive Director
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