A New Lexicon

06 Jun 2008

A new lexicon is with us. Biofuels, biomass, agrofuels, bioenergy, biodiesel, bioalcohol … suddenly policy-makers are taking decisions and imposing change with the prefix ‘bio’ in front of many words. Essentially these all are part of one very old but now politically very hot discourse: energy. From the Middle East to China to Africa to the Americas and Europe, every government is rethinking its assumption of plentiful oil. The ‘bio’ revolution is about using land to grow energy rather than extracting from deep strata under the earth’s surface in the form of coal, oil or gas.

The so-called first generation of biofuels means mainstream food crops such as maize or wheat are converted to oil-equivalents, usually to put into cars. This mode currently dominates the biofuels market, supported by European and US governments. But it has been criticised for feeding affluent (and obese) westerners’ cars rather than needy mouths, and for driving up basic food commodity prices.

World prices for rice, wheat, soya and maize have rocketed since 2005 when biofuels became internationally significant. In response, technologists propose a second generation of biofuels using waste from food crops or special crops such as miscanthus. And now there is a third generation using algae and fermentation techniques as feedstocks to ‘grow’ energy, with proponents arguing this is the most efficient and most biodegradable form.

Superficially, biofuels seem a sensible thing. The world faces an energy crisis. Non-renewable fuels – coal, oil, gas – have finite limits. The earth + sun + water + human labour + technology can grow crops. So why not grow energy? It’s simple. Energy crisis solved!

The problem is that it’s not so simple. And biofuels do not resolve the energy gap caused by declining oil reserves at a time of rising demand. From a food perspective, the nightmare about biofuels is that they exacerbate existing, let alone future, food crises. China experienced 18% food inflation in 2007 and stopped its biofuels regime, instantly fearing social unrest. But warnings about biofuels not being a policy nirvana have not stopped governments using public policy and funds to nurture the biofuels market and industries.

How has this policy mess come about? The short answer is that, despite warnings about wholesale reliance on petroleum oil as the energy driver of consumerism, western-dominated economies have driven on regardless. Cars, consumer goods, food, housing, tourism …you name any economic sector and it is oil-dependent.

An ‘advanced’ food economy, such as Europe’s, has been calculated as being 95% oil-dependent. Most of the supposed advances in intensive agriculture have relied on fossil fuels. They enabled animals to be replaced by tractors; gave fertilisers; enabled massive transportation of foods; underwrote labour-shedding throughout the food chain— not least on the land.

The realisation of the dangers of the current wholesale reliance on oils has finally dawned on policy-makers in governments and big food business, suddenly conscious of climate change and the need to think carbon and greenhouse gases. The Stern Report on Climate Change calculated that agriculture alone is responsible for 14% of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Of those emissions, fertilizers were responsible for 38%.

Livestock was the second greatest source of agriculture-related GHGs, accounting for 31%. A 2006 European Union life-cycle assessment of consumer impacts found the food and drink sector to be the most significant source of GHGs, accounting for 20-30% of the various environmental impacts of the most common forms of European consumption. The most significant sectors were meat and meat products, followed by the dairy sector.

With evidence like this, the pressure is on governments, big oil users and greenhouse gas emitters to plan their way out of the looming crisis. No wonder they have turned to biofuels with such alacrity. They seemed to offer the dream technical fix for the problem. The USA is estimated to be subsidizing its biodiesel industry by $92 billion in 2006-12. 20% of US maize crop now goes to biofuels, with estimates suggesting the figure will rise to 32% by 2016. The European Union agreed a Biofuels Directive in 2003 and in 2005 set a goal to derive 10% of transport fuel from biofuels by 2020. Throughout the world, governments have taken such action, though not all have the EU’s or USA’s deep pockets for promotion.

The problem with this sudden shift of policy is that it hasn’t and will not resolve the fundamental challenge for early-21st-century society: how to consume less, differently, more equitably and more sustainably.

Biofuels have not reduced oil prices. Oil hit $100 a barrel in 2007. The first rush to biofuels as substitute oil is now looking thin. If land goes to biofuels, that’s less land for food. The OECD calculated that the USA, Canada and European Union would need to switch between 30% and 70% of their current crop areas to provide just 10% of their transport fuel needs. Only Brazil’s use of sugarcane has decent efficiencies, and its land use is under scrutiny with regard to forests and climate change.

Any sober assessment of this issue concludes that there is no quick fix. The new policy challenge is how to address all of the new Big Eight Fundamentals: energy/oil; land use; climate change; water; labour; demographics/population; and public health (notably dietary change such as more meat and soft drinks and their consequences).

Two policy futures loom for biofuels. In the first, emphasis is on improving biofuels; hopes hang on second and third generations. Proponents argue that land use for energy can help fill the ga,. The second broad policy position suggests that the energy/biofuels crisis is further evidence that we need to design what a really sustainable food system would look like. It probably means constraint on excessive consumer choice (less for the West, more for the South). Land can be freed to feed more mouths by eating wisely, reducing waste and nurturing rather than mining soils.

One thing is clear. Biofuels are no more a solution to the energy challenge than is genetic modification the single answer to the need to increase food supply. We should be wary of anyone who promotes single solutions. A more complex, multi-factoral world is now upon us. But will policy-makers rise to the occasion? Lives and futures depend on whether they do or not.

Tim Lang is professor of Food Policy at the City University in London, he has written several books on the subject and is a consultant to the British government.

Illustration by Piero Lusso

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