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Published: 4 Feb 2010

We need food. We need fuel. The Green Crop Network is working on ways we can have both. (Hold the greenhouse gases.)

Professor Don Smith, chair of McGill’s Department of Plant Science and scientific director of the Green Crop Network, is not a man to mince words. “There is a time when we are going to have to ask ourselves, ‘Is the planet capable of supporting six billion people? That time is right now.’”

Humans are consuming food and fuel in ever-increasing quantities and, as the world turns to plant sources to find non-fossil energy sources, more and more of the elements necessary to support plant life are disappearing. “The world is running out of phosphorus at an alarming rate,” notes Smith, “and we need phosphorus to grow crops.” It’s not just phosphorus, either: water, energy and micronutrients such as copper and zinc—all are crucial to agriculture, all are increasingly scarce.

Biofuels were once thought of as a can’t-miss replacement for oil and other non-renewable energy sources. But many types of biofuels, such as those produced from palm oil in Indonesia, divert potential food materials away from the food stream. The grain required to fill a large car’s gas tank with ethanol, for example, could feed one per son for a year. In short, if a harvest is feeding engines, it’s not feeding people. How should the world’s limited growing resources be used, then? Food or fuel? Factoring in global warming—although many trees and plants “eat” carbon dioxide, the production of some biofuels can actually increase the load of greenhouse gases—only further complicates the matter.

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