Second Generation Biofuels

Global food shortages have made biofuels unpopular, but are we throwing out the biofuels out with the bathwater?

It hasn't been a great year for biofuels so far. They had been sold as the solution - or at least one significant solution - to the problem of peak oil and the need for alternative, less polluting energy sources. As oil became more expensive and harder to come by, biofuels would make up the difference, providing a greener fuel source.

But back in February the Royal Society expressed concerns about whether the biofuel mandates in the US and EU were doing much to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Other scientists researching the burgeoning industry fretted about rainforests being cut down to make room for biofuel-creating palm oil plantations and coal-fired plants used to separate ethanol from water. As Professor John Pickett from Rothamsted Research, who chaired the Royal Society's study, said: "It would be disastrous if biofuel production made further inroads into biological diversity and natural ecosystems. We must not create new environmental or social problems in our efforts to deal with climate change."

Then the biowaste really hit the fan as food prices shot up, adding more than 100 million people to the ranks of the world's hungry in the past year. In developed countries, government approval ratings have taken a whacking, as middle-class shoppers find the price of food and fuel taking an ever greater bite out of their weekly pay. In 37 poorer countries, from Indonesia to Haiti, food shortages have led to rioting and, in some cases, deaths. World leaders are meeting at a UN-sponsored summit in Rome this week trying to find a way out of this tragedy.

Commentators have been quick to point the finger at biofuels, arguing that farmers who had previously grown, say, corn for human consumption are now selling their crops at a premium, to be turned into biofuels. This has driven up the price of not only the crops used for biofuels, but other crops, such as soy, that were stepping in as replacement sources of food for humans and animals. In short, the critics say, land previously used to feed people is now being used to feed cars. Put like that, it seems a horribly inhuman choice.

But let's not throw the biofuels out with the bathwater. For a start, the beauty of getting fuel from plants is that not only do they reduce greenhouse gas emissions when used as fuel, they absorb carbon dioxide as they grow.

Even if we admit the harm done by some biofuels, it remains an open question whether overall they do more harm than good. Are there ways, perhaps, to maximise their benefits while we minimise their negatives? It was just such questions that prompted a group of concerned academics to come together in Ballagio, Italy this past March. The result was a Sustainable Biofuels Consensus that lays out a new way forward for the biofuel industry and the governments who have worked so hard to build it.

In defence of biofuels, the Consensus points out that the rising price of food can be blamed on a multitude of causes, most of them "unrelated to biofuel production". Demand for food, especially meat and dairy, has leapt up in Asia, as the rapidly growing middle classes in China and India seek to eat more and better. On the supply side, "incidental poor harvests due to extreme weather events", such as the long-running drought in Australia, have had a significant impact. Perhaps the biggest contributor has been the price of petrol, which has an influence at every stage of the food supply chain. Record prices per barrel means it costs farmers more to fertilise their crops, fill the tanks of their harvesting machines and truck the goods to market. And let's not forget that fuel prices at the pump would be even higher if these cheaper biofuels weren't being added to the petrol mix in most developed nations.

What the Consensus concluded was that the problem is not with biofuels per se, but with which biofuels are used and the policies and regulations that govern the industry. For a start, the experts at Belagio made a crucial distinction between good and bad biofuels.

Sure, ethanol fermented from food corn can be criticised as "bad biofuel", as can any biofuel that pushes farmers to switch land use from food to fuel production, that requires a lot of fossil fuels to manufacture or uses up scarce foodstuffs or precious rainforest. But not all biofuels are created equal.

As one of the signatories to the Consensus, Professor Peter Read of Massey University in New Zealand, explains: "We found that the mandated proportions of biofuel in Europe and elsewhere can quite easily be supplied by expanded production of (very sustainable) sugar cane ethanol in tropical countries, currently frustrated by tariff barriers imposed by just those rich countries that impose the mandates. And no rainforest is involved - sugar cane won't ripen in Amazonia."

And sugar cane is just one option. There's also jatropha, a bushy plant that will flourish on marginal, dry land, doesn't need irrigation and is poisonous to stock, thus reducing the need for fencing and other expensive animal control measures. Other experts point to sweet sorghum, a cane-like plant that today is often used as a sweetener or as stockfeed, as another, greener source of ethanol. It too handles drier conditions where other plants struggle.

Two key recommendations by the Consensus stood out. First, it urged an orderly and coordinated removable of subsidies, tariffs and import quotas from the industry "in parallel with the gradual implementation of sustainable biofuels mandates". In other words, government should stop subsidising bad biofuels such as corn and instead provide farmers worldwide with a free and fair market for the best, greenest biofuels science can provide.

Second, it encouraged "a comprehensive international land use improvement agreement". The criticism that land is being used to grow fuel rather than food assumes a finite amount of arable land. In fact, of the world's 13.2 billion hectares of total land area, just 1.5 billion are used to produce arable crops and 3.5 billion are in pasture for meat, wool and milk production. There is plenty of undeveloped arable land that could be used to increase the supply of both food and fuel, not to mention the often dry, marginal land that is currently a curse for poorer nations, but which could become home to fields of jatropha or similar biofuel-producing crops.

The hope is that the governmental leaders meeting in Rome this week realise it doesn't have to be biofuel or food, and indeed, in the face of climate change, the only rational response is to find more sustainable ways to grow more of both.

This post originally appeared in the Guardian's Comment is Free section on June 4, 2008.