ActionAid has produced a report called “Meals Per Gallon: The impact of industrial biofuels on people and global hunger,” which says that EU companies had taken millions of acres of land out of food production in Africa, central America and Asia, to grow biofuels for transport.
They say that most industrial biofuels are made from agricultural crops grown in developing countries on land that should instead be used for food production. The charity believes that the 2008 decision by EU countries to obtain 10% of all transport fuels from biofuels by 2020 was having a disastrous effect on poorer nations.
Report author Tim Rice said: “Biofuels are driving a global human tragedy. Local food prices have already risen massively. As biofuel production gains pace, this can only accelerate.”
At www.peakfood.co.uk we are against those biofuels with a poor energy balance – where the input of fossil energy is nearly as great as the energy in the resulting biofuel. Some US ethanol from corn comes under this category. We are also against destroying rainforest to plant with oil palm. Burning that massive carbon store will never be made up by the CO2 savings made by producing palm oil.
However, it is important that we reduce our dependence on fossil fuels, especially in farming itself. We need to work on developing a sustainable farming system that collects solar energy both for food and fuel if we are to feed the growing population in a future where oil will become scarce and expensive.
We will need to produce cellulosic ethanol and biogas from plant residues. Brazil now makes millions of gallons of ethanol from sugar cane residue very efficiently.
Farmers on arable land in developing countries perhaps need help so that they can find ways to produce both food and fuel in a way that does not harm valuable soil.
But most important of all is that both the developed and developing worlds innovate to reduce consumption of all fuels thereby slowing global warming and oil and gas depletion.
There has been much heated debate about using good cropland to grow biofuel . Many people believe that this will push up the price of food while others believe that it is essential for the west to grow biofuels to make us less dependent on imported oil and also to reduce carbon dioxide emissions.
So far as reducing emissions, some biofuels are much better than others. Ethanol made from sugar cane in sunny Brazil with the waste being used as the process heat source compares very favourably with Ethanol made from Corn in Iowa where coal or gas is used for heat. When the energy used to grow and transport the crop is taken into account, the energy gain is not very high and without subsidies, this would not be economical.
However, just because some poor systems have evolved, we shouldn’t forget that plants are by far the most important collectors of solar energy and well planned and executed systems could provide plenty of food as well as lots of fuel. As the fossil energy needed to grow our food will inevitably become scarce and unreliable at some time it is crucial that such systems are developed quickly.
At the recent National Non-Food Crops Centre conference, Prof. Bruce Dale of Michigan State University pointed out that in the main we don’t grow food for humans, we grow feed for livestock, whose calorie and protein demands are, respectively, 6 and 10 times those of humans.
Advances in technology can allow that animal feed to be produced more efficiently in bio refineries making biofuel.
Studies at MSU’s Biomass Conversion Research Laboratory show that the area needed to generate large amounts of fuel from biomass-and the overall cost- can be significantly reduced by recovering protein.
There has been a food versus fuel debate going on, with green campaigners asking for a moratorium on all biofuel targets until sustainability criteria are in place.
This is understandable given that one result of the high demand for biofuels is the destruction of rain forests in order to grow Palm oil or soya for biodiesel. The release of CO2 from burning the forest added to the fuel inputs needed to grow and transport the biofuel mean that it will be many years, if ever, before there are any gains. This type of production is clearly of no benifit to the planet.
However, it would be a great shame if governments stopped encouraging all biofuel production as if it is done sensibly, biofuels have a crucial part to play in future food production. Targets and incentives are needed to speed up the developement of cellulosic ethanol which can deliver greenhouse gas reductions of 85% compared to conventional fuels.
Cellulosic ethanol can be made from straw and other crop residues as well as from woodland waste and dedicated crops such as miscanthus. This must be the way foreward, but experts warn that first generation biofuels must develop the market until these second generation fuels come along.
It ought to be possible to devise a system of auditing the energy balance of present biofuels so that only those with a positive balance can be used to meet government targets.
As usual, the media have gone from one extreme to the other with regard the biofuel debate. Not long ago, biofuels seemed to be the way to save the planet. But now, following a confusing report from the all-party Environmental Audit Committee, they are being reported as having a negative impact on greenhouse gas emissions.
The truth is that some biofuel have a good balance between the energy input needed to grow, process and transport the fuel compared with the energy contained in the fuel. Some do not.
For example, ethenol made from sugar cane in Brazil using the crop residue to provide the process heat has a good energy balance compared to ethenol from corn in the US when coal or gas is used for heat. In Europe, an oilseed rape crop has en excellent energy balance if the oil is used to produce biodiesel and the straw and seed residue is used to generate electricity or make cellolusic ethenol.
Probably the worst example of a biofuel crop having a negative impact is when rainforests are burnt to make way for oil palm plantations. Huge amounts of CO2 are emitted in burning the forest, then some more to cultivate the soil, plant, grow and harvest the crop and then ship it to Europe to help meet our renewables target.
Plainly biofuels are not all the same and the good ones have a very important part to play in the battle against climate change and energy insecurity. Peak Food believes governments should be encouraging the use of those with a good energy balance and at the same time make sure that renewable targets don’t just pull in biofuels that do more harm then good, and that energy audits are needed. Do you agree?