Biofuels: the challenges posed - Veterinary Practice
Your browser is out-of-date!

Update your browser to view this website correctly. Update my browser now



Biofuels: the challenges posed

Lord Soulsby provides an update from his parliamentary perspective.

Not too long ago, biofuels were considered to be the answer to many of the global issues of energy supply. Things change quickly and increasing concern is now being expressed on the relation between biofuels, land use and food supply.

In a brief debate in the House of Lords, Lord Lawson of Blaby raised the contribution of biofuel production to food shortages and the high price of food – issues being felt particularly in the developing world.

Lord Lawson mentioned that the United Nations food rapporteur had called for an immediate five-year moratorium on the production of all biofuels. Replying to the question, Lord Bassain of Brighton said the UK Government in adopting a cautious approach has asked the Renewable Fuels Agency (RFA) to conduct a review of biofuels in relation to food supplies.

The RFA, set up in April last year, will oblige fossil fuel suppliers to ensure that by 2010 biofuels account for 5% by volume of the fuel supplied on UK forecourts. The purpose is to reduce the UK’s contribution to climate change and its reliance on fossil fuels.

Various grades

To recall: biofuels are fossil fuel substitutes that can be made from a range of agricultural crops including oil seeds (rape), wheat and sugar. There are various grades of biofuels: first-generation biodiesel led to a reduction in particulate matter and carbon monoxide; second generation biodiesel is a different product from first generation biodiesel and is chemically similar to high-quality conventional diesel but with very low sulphur and particulates; and bioethanol – first and second generation.

When bioethanol is used in low proportions (10%) in petrol, the main changes are seen in the vehicle’s exhaust emissions – no significant change in emissions of NOx (nitrogen oxides: local air pollutants) and most VOCs (volatile organic compounds), a large increase in emissions of acetaldehyde, a VOC ozone precursor.

A higher proportion of bioethanol in petrol leads to a substantial increase in ozone formation from acetaldehyde. The European Commission is proposing to revise the bioethanol limit in petrol to 10%.

While biofuels have been portrayed as the new silver bullet for problems to diversify energy supply, the consequences of this are increasingly evident in the provision of food. A recent conference on climate change in Brazil organised by GLOBE identified some of the problems associated with food supply and the development of biofuels.

Increasing demand

Some 100 legislators from around the world attended, including President Lula from Brazil. The conference identified an increasing demand for food, both in terms of quantity and quality. In some developing countries consumption has changed from one meal to three meals per day and in others the quality is changing from grain (e.g. rice) to meats such as chicken and pork.

An overview of the global food crisis and biofuels – a Latin American perspective – was given last June by Pamela Cox, vice-president of the World Bank for Latin America and the Caribbean, on behalf of the House of Commons International Development Select Committee.

She concluded that the production of corn and maize-based biofuels had significantly affected food prices and should be reassessed. The prices for crops used in biofuels had increased, with grains up 144% and oilseeds up to 157%; 75% of increased corn production worldwide was devoted to ethanol production in the USA.

The amount of seed in the major grain producing countries such as Canada, the European Union and Russia that could have expanded wheat production by 5 million hectares has gone for rapeseed and sunflowers for biofuels. It is estimated that ethanol production will contribute 30% of the US corn crop by 2010. There is need to boost production of sugar cane biofuels, as is the case in Brazil with the production of more efficient and environmental biofuel and a production that does not compete with food production.

New balance needed

Pamela Cox concluded with the statement: “We need to find a new balance which promotes the most efficient biofuels and stops putting food into cars while too many around the world go hungry today. The next 30 years’ food supply will need to double to meet the emerging demand from emerging economies and population growth.”

There is little doubt that biofuels are here to stay and a sharp rise in production is projected under current policies. Thus, ethanol production in billions of gallons is projected, by the World Bank, to increase in the USA from 5.8 in 2006 to 16.8 in 2015, and in Brazil from 4.5 to 8,756, and for biodiesel in the EU from 1,548 billion in 2006 to 2,286 in 2015 and in the USA from 268 billion in 2006 to 1,109 billion in 2015.

Alain Lipietz, a French MEP in the Greens/EFA Group, posed the question, “How can we dedicate land to biofuel production when 28,000 people are dying from hunger each day?”

According to the latest UN FAO information, 37 countries are currently facing a serious food crisis. For two years there has been an increase in food prices, firstly due to climate change, e.g. drought, and secondly to the conversion to meat in the diet of the new middle classes in emerging countries, and thirdly to the development of agrofuels.

In the world, 1.4 billion hectares are cultivated; 4% of this land is already dedicated to modern agrofuels. The conflict between crops for food and those for biofuels is likely to grow in the coming decades.

Increasingly it is asked: will biofuels live up to the promise of reducing greenhouse gas emissions from transport and improve the security of energy supply by mobilising internal biomass resources. In the longer term the advanced biofuels (second generation biodiesel) may well take a leading role. The challenge of biofuel development is clearly global, with extensions not only with respect to food production but those that affect the environment both locally and in areas such as rain forests, in Brazil for example.

In Europe there is a target of achieving 20% renewables by 2020, but there is increasing doubt whether this is achievable or even desirable.

Ex-NFU president Sir Ben Gill has estimated that to supply 5.75% of UK road fuel would require around 1.45 million hectares of arable land, about 23% of the total. Producing 18% of the requirement would require all arable land, an impractical situation.

Where the remaining 82% would come from is unclear and the 18% requirement is for road use only; the needs of aviation, shipping and trains are not addressed.

EU can take the lead

Writing in Research Review, Jacqueline McGlade, executive director of the European Environment Agency, stated, “Europe should seek to generate as much bioenergy as possible domestically whilst sustaining a balance between food, fuel and fibre production and without compromising ecosystem services. Let’s move on from agrofuels and be hard-headed about advanced biofuels. In this way the EU can take the lead in building a truly sustainable bioenergy sector in Europe and worldwide.

“However, there are some hard-headed facts about all of this – the first is that the ‘business as usual’ situation cannot continue, and second, bold action is required.

“The present Cinderellas of energy provision or conservation require much more attention. For example, solar panels produce more energy per unit than biofuel crops, and wind, wave and tidal installations have low land use requirements. Investment in the latter will be costly but essential.”

Wind, wave and tidal developments will be addressed in the next article.

Have you heard about our
IVP Membership?

A wide range of veterinary CPD and resources by leading veterinary professionals.

Stress-free CPD tracking and certification, you’ll wonder how you coped without it.

Discover more