State of the Planet

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Biofuels, food security, deforestation, and loss of biodiversity

Biofuel use is one of the strategies to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions that has already been incorporated into policy and regulatory frameworks. However, it has become increasingly evident that biofuel production has unintended consequences that extend beyond national boundaries and beyond the energy sector.

Chief among these are concerns for food security. The food crisis of 2008 has many causes (e.g. see this review from the Washington Post), but the shift from food production to growing feedstock for biofuels has been recognized as a contributing factor. A World Bank brief noted the rise in the price of feedstock due to biofuel production, citing the example of corn, “whose price rose by over 60 percent from 2005 to 2007, largely because of the U.S. ethanol program combined with reduced stocks in major exporting countries.”

Ethanol plant in West Burlington, Iowa (Big River Resources, LLC). Photo by Steven Vaughn, USDA Image Number D802-2.
Ethanol plant in West Burlington, Iowa (Big River Resources, LLC). Photo by Steven Vaughn, USDA Image Number D802-2.

The FAO’s annual report on The State of Food and Agriculture on “BIOFUELS: prospects, risks and opportunities” (Executive summary; to download full report) addresses the impact of biofuels on food security. This superb report is very clear and well written. There is an overview of biofuels and agriculture, including an explanation of the biofuel life cycle, a discussion of the policy drivers- including sections on the policy frameworks of Brazil, the US, and the EU, as well as an evaluation of the impacts of biofuels on the environment, market and policy considerations, and the consequences for poverty and food security. At the end of each chapter, the main conclusions are clearly listed. Furthermore, Chapter 1 provides the key conclusions from the report and Chapter 7 presents the policy challenges for biofuel use. There is a wealth of data and figures on the environmental impacts of different biofuels, the costs of biofuels, the role of subsidies on the cost parity of biofuels and fossil fuels, existing policy tools, and the potential for second-generation (cellulosic) biofuels.

Biofuels have been pursued aggressively because it is thought that they

  • increase energy security
  • decrease GHG emissions and mitigate climate change
  • support the agricultural sector

Each of these assertions is addressed by the report, as summarized below.

Biofuels increase energy security

  • First generation biofuels cannot contribute substantially to the energy needs of most countries because of the extensive requirement for land. In the US, current production supports 0.9% of the fuel needs using almost 2% of arable land. However, even small contributions to the energy needs have disproportionately large consequences for agricultural production because of competition for land and water.
  • Second-generation cellulosic biofuels are potentially different, but will not be viable for some time.
  • Brazil may prove an exception, given its unique combination of many sugar mills, efficient energy conversion, a fleet of flex fuel vehicles, and a distribution network for ethanol
  • Countries for which imports of oil are very costly with good domestic conditions for biofuels could also be an exception.

Biofuels decrease GHG emissions and mitigate climate change

  • Estimates of GHG emissions for biofuels need to consider all aspects of the “lifecycle”, including fertilizer, conversion and transport, as well as by-products.
  • GHG emissions vary widely for country, feedstock, and biofuel, with emission reductions relative to fossil fuel ranging from ~15% (corn ethanol in the US) to almost 90% (sugar cane in Brazil).
  • There is the additional component of land use change. In the case of palm oil, a biofuel with very low emissions, tropical rainforests are often cleared to plant the oil palms (see below).

Biofuels support the agricultural sector

  • In the long run the higher prices of agricultural commodities can represent an opportunity for developing nations. In the short run, high prices jeopardize food security.
  • Many existing policy interventions, such as subsidies and mandated blending of biofuels into fossil fuels, promote the use of biofuels, but at high cost to the economy, society and the environment.
  • Current biofuel policies must be reviewed to protect the poor and food insecure and to ensure environmental sustainability.

A recent study in Conservation Biology, discussed in the Wall Street Journal’s Market Watch, quantified the GHG emissions and biodiversity loss associated with the conversion from tropical rainforest to plantations of oil palm (Elaeis guineensis). Given the GHG emissions associated with land use change, avoided deforestation is a better strategy to reduce GHG emissions and has the added benefit of conserving biodiversity.

Oil palm plantation. Source: Marco Schmidt.
Oil palm plantation. Source: Marco Schmidt.

They found:

  • The conversion of land into plantations of palm oil releases carbon to the atmosphere, such that years of biofuel use are needed to compensate: 75 to 93 years for natural forest, over 600 years for peatland, and 10 years for degraded grassland.
  • Conversion leads to significant impoverishment of both animals and plants, as plantations have a reduced number of generalist species.
  • Policies regarding biofuel use must consider environmental and socioeconomic impacts.

Clearly, decisions must be made individually for each biofuel, feedstock, and country while taking into account local and global impacts on the environment and on food security. While avoided deforestation was discussed at Poznan, the complexity of the issue and the diversity of perspectives will require further deliberations.

Mary-Elena Carr

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barry hayes
barry hayes
14 years ago

I’m CEO of Geomite Pty Ltd, Australia, a company incorporated to develop the practice of biomineral agriculture I developed as an organic alternative to the stranglehold of chemical industry on agriculture. Although we have demonstrated the superior results obtained with the system, and have clinched them with official analytical results from the University of Adelaide which prove a protein increase in wheat from 14 to 16% without any chemical input and notably, control of rhizoctonia without chemicals, we are quite unable to get funding in this country. The reasons are several: Australian innovators are alive and well, but funding for commercial development is poor owing to the simple fact that our industry is largely derivative – excellent at producing proven innovation from overseas but lacking the incentive to risk investment in Australian ideas. The second reason is the insidious control exerted by chemical industry on our agricultural sector, beginning with funding of our educational institutions from secondary upwards and including post graduate support. This has been recently exposed by the treatment afforded a senior CSIRO scientist who commenced researching biological farming systems, and was advised to desist or face ‘sideways promotion.’ This man had the guts to speak to our media, where it was revealed that most funding for his division came from a large multinational fertilizer concern.

Let me illustrate a second example: production of biochar from cane bagasse is currently entrancing the Australian Government as an alternative fertilizer development. That’s fine because biochar is an excellent product; what is not revealed however is the embarassing fact that the cane from which the char is produced is grown entirely with chemical fertilization.

Where do we at Geomite stand, in the face of this nonsense? Certainly not alone. We have a farming community crying out for change, but in the face of our country’s policy of non-investment in Australian innovation, we have to ask here – where does the support for new enterprise come from?

14 years ago

[…] now) how can we possibly feed 9 billion?  How can we ensure food is accessible for people as we increase our reliance on biofuels? How can we avoid the worldwide unrest that occured in 2008?  How can we ensure food security, and […]

14 years ago

[…] The United Nations releases a report cautioning the international community to further examine biofuels before large-scale production and deployment. The report, published by the UN Environment Programme, warns that life-cycle assessments are inconclusive and notes the considerable potential for environmental degradation associated with biofuels, such as clear-cutting rainforests for palm plantations in Indonesia. For more on how biofuels have unintended consequences for environmental degradation and food security see this earlier Climate Center blog post. […]

13 years ago

[…] growing concern over the ethics and efficiency of first generation biofuels (see here), interest has increased in third generation, or algal, biofuels. Some, however, question the […]