Earlier this month Tufts University organized organized the ‘Climate Change and the Future of Biofuels’ at the eighth annual at Tufts Energy Conference (TEC). According to the experts, biofuels, with their supposedly lighter carbon footprint, can play an important role in mitigating climate change. In some cases, however, the more immediate concern is the human toll that is exacted when fuel displaces food in the agricultural economy.
Richard Sayre, scientific director for the Center for Advanced Biofuels Systems and the National Alliance for Advance Biofuels, made it clear he thinks plant-based fuels are undoubtedly going to play a big role in our energy future. There is already US$1 trillion in infrastructure for petroleum distribution in place in the US and with some minor tweaks, biofuels can use this same system, so it’s unlikely something like hydrogen, which would require an all-new network, will gain a foothold. Additionally, the best batteries have only 1/50 the energy density of carbon-based fuels, making it unrealistic that you’ll see commercial planes flying on battery packs charged with wind power anytime soon.
The problem with biofuels is that the first-generation production methods—namely making ethanol from corn—have a lousy energy return on investment, reaping only 1.7 units of energy for every one unit of energy used in production. Jonathan Lewis of the Clean Air Task Force says that when all is said and done, corn ethanol actually results in 28% higher carbon emissions than gasoline. Additionally, it intensifies the environmental impacts of the industrial agricultural system, such as pesticide and fertilizer run-off. Nitrous oxide from fertilizer is about 300 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, for instance.
Both Jeremy Martin of the Union of Concerned Scientists and Kristen Sundell of ActionAid International emphasized the impact of biofuels on food stocks worldwide. Currently, 33 countries have demand-side biofuels mandates, leading to a 12% annual expansion worldwide. 40% of the corn grown in the US is currently being used to make ethanol to satisfy the US Renewable Fuel Standard, which requires that all gasoline sold contain 10% ethanol, an amount that is slated to increase to 30% in the future. Since the US is the largest global exporter of corn, this affects the price of commodities the world over. It not only increases the price of corn, but also the price of other foods dependent on corn like eggs, milk and meat.
In the Global South, rising prices for staple foods have had a devastating effect on malnutrition. Moreover, fuel crops such as palm oil and sugar cane have displaced many small-scale farms, leading to further food scarcity. Land conflicts have arisen as large-scale farm push small subsistence farmers off their land to make room for more biofuel stock production. And as if that weren’t enough, last year’s drought in the American Midwest led to a further drop in supply and pushed commodity prices even higher. It’s likely we’ll see more of this as the effects of climate change continue.
Luckily, improved technology might help solve some of this problem. According to Sayre, second-generation biofuels known as ‘cellulosics’ convert agricultural waste such as stalks and leaves into fuel, so it doesn’t compete as directly with food. These fuels have a better energy return on investment as well, at about 36 to 1. But using agricultural waste can have impact on soil fertility, reducing organic matter in the soil and hastening erosion. Third-generation biofuels use algae, which has been shown to be 10 times more efficient than land based systems at converting the sun’s energy into plant mass. Of course, there are water-use considerations to be mindful of, but in general algae-based biofuels are seen as the future of the industry.
These technologies are not quite yet ready for primetime, however. To help ease the pressure on the food system in the present, the panelists recommended countries take a slower, more measured approach to ramping up biofuels production. They suggest adjusting government fuel mandates and investing in research to speed the arrival of next-generation fuels and allow producers to wean off food stocks as soon as possible. They also cited the need for strengthened land rights in developing countries to protect small-scale farmers and for appropriate protections to shield domestic producers from global price fluctuations.
For a much more in-depth analysis of the interplay of food and biofuels, check out ActionAid’s October 2012 report Fueling the Food Crisis: The Cost to Developing Countries of US Corn Ethanol Expansion