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Biofuels’ hidden costs

by Will Swanson
In the “food vs. fuel” debate, biofuels have been demonised as a driver of hunger. Closer scrutiny shows a more complicated situation, but it is clear that the potential of biofuels for mitigating climate change and bringing about development is not as great as once believed.

Opinions differ on the extent to which biofuels have caused the current spike in food prices. Estimates range from two to 65 %. However, their potential to squeeze food supplies in the long run is real. As a growing world population increasingly adopts a meat-heavy diet, arable land is becoming scarce. If energy-plant cultivation competes with conventional agriculture for land, farmers will be driven to clear more rainforests, wetlands, and other important ecosystems, with the result of yet more carbon emissions.

Such dynamics are difficult to track in today’s global market. Converting a Tanzanian farm to energy plant production may actually trigger events that lead to the destruction of rainforest in Thailand or Brazil. At a conference discussing these issues at Germany’s Protestant Academy in Loccum, many participants therefore called for the establishment of a global land management framework.

That is easier said than done. Global land-resource management would require both detailed knowledge of local potential and effective transnational governance. However, much of the data necessary for drafting coherent policy simply does not exist, according to Mirella Salvatore of the UN’s Bioenergy and Food Security (BEFS) project.

Because of climate change, experts from the German Advisory Council on Global Change (WBGU) argue that all reasonable approaches to produce biofueles should be made use of (see D+C, February, p. 74f.). One proposal is to restrict energy-crop cultivation to marginal and degraded lands, and to use tough, drought-resitant plants like jatropha or rizinus. However, there are hidden costs. As Negusu Aklilu of the Forum for Environment, an Ethiopian non-governmental organisation, points out, itinerant communities often depend on such land for their livelihoods. Biofuel cultivation could thus force them into urban slums.

Moreover, the yield even of resilient plants like jatropha or rizinus will be smaller if grown under less favourable conditions, and low yields discourage the international investors that governments of developing countries are eager to attract. All too often, smallholders’ fertile and accessible plots are dispossessed in order to grant long-term leases to foreign firms. As Hamimu Hongo of Felisa, a Tanzanian private-sector company, reports, many smallholders are driven to marginal land.

Experts in Loccum agreed that local food and energy security should be prioritised over cash crops for export. However, that does not rule out responsible investments in energy crops. In Brazil, for example, investors who prove their social responsibility are eligible for special subsidies, and government-imposed quotas make sure that a certain share of energy plants is purchased from smallholders.

Will Swanson