Once touted as one of the world's alternatives to fossil fuels,
biofuels have come under attack for diverting agricultural land from
food production. Critics argue that biofuels are not sustainable and that they have inflated global food prices. Supporters
say biofuels are the only sustainable energy alternative and that they
are being unfairly blamed for the world food crisis.
Biofuels like ethanol and biodiesel are distilled from corn, soybeans, sugar cane and various oilseed crops. The United States uses one-third of its corn crops to produce ethanol. According to the Department of Agriculture, three percent of the gasoline used in the U.S. comes from ethanol. And
the U.S. Congress has mandated a 57-billion liter increase in ethanol
production by 2015 to reduce the nation's dependence on foreign
Brazil is the world's leading exporter of ethanol made from sugar
cane. Europe produces most of the world's biodiesel and
has mandated a ten percent increase in biofuel production by 2020 to
help lower atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases.
and the United States spend billions of dollars every year to subsidize
biofuel production. But that kind of support should be
discontinued, says Katarina Wahlberg of the Global Policy Forum, a New
York-based group that monitors U.N.-policy making.
Wahlberg: "Biofuel production is probably the major cause of the food crisis right now. By
converting food into fuel, you compete with land, with water, with all
sorts of resources and put pressure on the food stocks and prices. But also, it is not environmentally sustainable at all. Research done years ago didn't imagine this scale of biofuel production. And
now that it is clear that it's competing with land and food resources,
it's not sustainable at all.”
The Bush administration maintains that
corn-based biofuel production accounts for only three percent of the
increase in global food prices. Some analysts agree, suggesting that
biofuels are being unjustly blamed for the world's soaring food prices
because the current, first-generation of biofuels are made from food
crops and yield modest energy returns.
Chemical engineer George Huber of
the University of Massachusetts at Amherst says it is important to
distinguish between various types of biofuels.
Huber: "The real challenge is first-generation biofuels. You are taking agricultural products [like corn] and you are using those directly [to produce biofuels]. With second-generation biofuels, what's called the cellulosic biofuels, you are using non-edible biomass. You are using agricultural waste or energy crops, which don't compete directly with foods. Corn ethanol, biodeisel -- you could make the argument that maybe you could remove those subsidies.
the subsidies will be necessary to make biofuels economically
competitive, particularly the subsidies on cellulosic biofuels."
observers argue that rising food prices are forcing policy-makers,
particularly in Europe, to reconsider biofuel subsidy programs. Those
that are impractical or inefficient should be reviewed, says Trade and
Agriculture Deputy Director Ken Ash of the Paris-based Organization for
Economic Cooperation and Development, or OECD.
kinds of policies to achieve relatively modest energy security
benefits, relatively modest environmental benefits at relatively high
cost, do warrant a further look, in particular, policies in OECD
countries. And I think the International Energy Agency said
that the maximum one might expect to realize over the medium-term would
be about four percent of total transport demand coming from
At the same time, Ash says the potential of second-generation
biofuels made from waste materials should be explored as part of a full
range of energy alternatives.
George Huber of the University of
Massachusetts at Amherst says cellulosic biomass is abundant and cheap,
and must be explored if biofuels are to have a major impact in meeting
world energy needs.
Huber: "Cellulosic biomass is the woods, the
grasses, the trees and the agricultural residues. Cellulosic biofuel
can significantly improve some of these third world economies where
there's lots of biomass. It's very cheap and the people can actually start producing their own fuel and selling their own fuel on the open market. Biomass
grows faster in the regions that are closest to the equator. And so
what we need to do is figure out how we can sustainably harvest it and
convert it to a fuel."
But critics worry that biofuels could accelerate the destruction of natural resources. Katarina Wahlberg of the Global Policy Forum says biofuel technology needs further development.
"Either the research and the development of these biofuels have not
come far enough to produce efficient biofuels, or it is still something
that will compete for land and compete for water resources. Even the Brazilian biofuel is not sustainable. There have been cases of companies slashing rain forests in Brazil to make land for producing biofuels. Some biofuels are worse than others and some can capture more energy than others. Even so, they are not sustainable. So
I think there's been definitely too much optimism around
Paulo Sotero, Director of the Brazil Institute at the Woodrow
Wilson International Center for Scholars disagrees with this assessment.
"It is incorrect to make any connections between the production of
sugar cane for ethanol use in Brazil and rainforest destruction. And Brazil has replaced half of its needs for fossil fuels for vehicles using a little bit over one percent of its arable land. So in Brazil, the debate about fuel versus food is non-existent. Brazil
developed its biofuel industry while becoming one of the most
productive and one of the largest producers and exporters of food on
Many experts say the biofuel controversy is likely to
continue until the next generation of biofuels is ready for commercial
production within three-to-four years.