The morality of biofuels

Escalating energy costs and the growing fear of climate change have encouraged a headlong rush to renewable energy. Biofuel from biomass is emerging as a preferred source of liquid energy for transport - but the huge areas of agricultural land that are being, or will be, diverted from food production pose questions about the morality of industrial-scale biofuels development.

These industrial biofuels are mainly ethanol from starch and sugar crops and oil from oilseed crops such as canola and oil palm. In the background, cellulosic alcohol production is receiving close attention as biotechnology research attempts to develop new ways to convert complex structural carbohydrates to soluble sugars for conversion to ethanol.

Diversion of land from food to biofuels production is already driving up the price of food: Mexican maize prices have doubled in the last year forcing the government to put a ceiling on tortilla prices. Sugar prices have also doubled, while construction of distilleries in the USA and South America is only now taking off. Virtually all countries are now considering biofuels production from various crop sources. In general these will be grown on land that previously grew food or else is newly-cleared forest country. And these fuels will be produced by industrial processes that lower the net energy yield. Subsidized agribusiness has bought into biofuels with expectations of high profits.
The industrial production of biofuels threatens to create conflict over food for humans, feed for animals and feedstocks for liquid energy sources.

In 2006 about 17% of the US corn crop was converted to ethanol and supplied 2% of the nation’s auto fuel. The Earth Policy Institute predicts ethanol production will claim 50 percent (or 140 million metric tones,mmt) of US corn in 2008, with 79 new ethanol plants due to come on line in the next two years. This will double ethanol capacity at a time when world grain stocks are at their lowest level in 25 years and falling. By 2020 alcohol production could remove conservatively 400 mt of grain from world food -feed markets, either directly or by diversion of land from food crops. If maize was the sole source of the feedstock, President Bush's call for the USA to produce 35 billion gallons of renewable fuel by 2017 would require about 320 mt of maize - more than the present annual production.
The world trade in all grains is around 240 mmt of which around 80-90mmt are exported from the USA. The acquisition of grain by the ethanol industry in the USA will thus have major impact on world grain prices and availability. Present world wheat and coarse grains reserves are about 280 mt, down from 450 mt in 6 years. However world demand for grain is increasing. India in particular has emerged as a huge importer of grain this year having used up its 23mt stockpile in just 5 years to import 4 mt in 2006.  China is also a net importer. World grain consumption has exceeded production in 5 of the last 6 years. Global per capita grain availability is also declining.

Some of the grain reserves diverted to ethanol production will be offset by increased production from South America - but this is being achieved through agricultural industrialisation which is displacing small farmers and increasing poverty. Higher production in South America also often depends on clearing forest country, which adds to global warming and ‘the new’ land quickly loses its initial high fertility.

Climate also poses a major threat to world food supplies. The Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) has warned that global warming will shrink South Asia’s wheat area by half. New models of the effects of global warming predict increasing aridity in many of the food bowls and reduced water availability for irrigated agriculture. Recent studies are showing that increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere may stimulate plant growth but it also increases soil microbe activity which decreases carbon levels in soil. Higher temperatures can have adverse effects on plant growth: rice yields decline by 10% for every oC increase in night time temperature. Add the higher cost of fertilizers, which is already discouraging their use leading to lower yields and output which will shrink the yield of rice further.

The signs are clear. There is a growing scarcity of staples and high global food prices will result. The CGIAR has warned of a possible return to large-scale famines in developing countries even without the additional impost of biofuels on the world food supply. Heading off the refugee wave that could result will be an economic burden to developed countries.

It is hard to avoid concluding that the livelihood of billions of people in developing countries and the standard of living and security in developed countries will be severely affected as global food production falls and land is diverted to biofuels production.

Contrary to the “clean energy” claims of their proponents, biofuels are wreaking ecological and climatic devastation. 80% of Brazil’s greenhouse gas emissions arise from deforestation of the Amazon basin mainly to grow sugar cane for ethanol. Malaysian and Indonesian rainforests are being destroyed for oil palm plantations. As forest cover is removed carbon sinks in the biomass and the soil depreciate with time; it is almost certain this will alter rainfall patterns which could decrease at the same rate.

The effects of all this will be more pronounced in the developing countries where famine now seems inevitable, particularly when drought induced by global warming bites. The world food balance is already precarious. What will happen when the next disaster or monsoon failure occurs in a country with high population densities?

The cost to developed countries of the ensuing global destabilization will be a high price to pay for the minor benefits of producing industrial biofuels which cannot meet more then a few percent of the world’s energy needs.

First published in Australian R&D Review in April, 2007 - Linking Australian Science, Technology and Business