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Should We Stop the Green Oil Rush Altogether?

Last modified September 30, 2014 09:30

Guest Article #110 (IISD Reporting Service). Should We Stop the Green Oil Rush Altogether? Posted on: Wednesday, 17 September 2014, by: William Dar, Director General, International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics

Are biofuels a smart technology that can help solve the looming energy crisis or are they a threat to an already compromised global food and water security? Some thoughts on the climate change, food security and biofuels nexus. Two visions, who is right?

Biofuel is not a new idea. In 1900, Rudolf Diesel, the inventor of the diesel engine, had already demonstrated that his engine could run with peanut oil. More recently, the inflation of oil prices has made the concept of biofuels more popular than ever before. Many countries like the US, the European Union and India, set up favorable policies for biofuels, leading to a demand rush for this new renewable energy. For instance, in 2009 India set up the ambitious target of replacing 20% of petroleum fuel by bioethanol or biodiesel by 2017. World production jumped four fold from 2000 to 2008, and millions of hectares of maize, rapeseed and sugarcane are now feeding biodiesel or bioethanol plants. In the US, about 40% of maize grain is used to produce bioethanol.

Some experts praise biofuels as a renewable "drop-in" energy source that can substitute for fossil fuel without major changes in infrastructure, especially for the transportation sector, which is critical for any economy. Solar or wind power technologies have their limits and sustainability issues, and most electricity comes from either nuclear or coal. This means we just postpone the problem. Biofuels are perceived as a way to contribute to the mitigation of climate change by reducing greenhouse gas emissions of transportation.

Biofuels are also considered to contribute to agricultural and rural development, with employment opportunities in associated sectors i.e. agriculture, industry, infrastructure and research. For oil-importing countries, they are a means to reduce the oil importation bill. Biofuels are seen as important for energy security and a resource for the diversification of energy sources, as well as in certain cases promoting better access to transport fuels in remote areas.

Others accuse biofuels, especially the first generation based on food crops like maize, sugarcane or rapeseed, as not being as green as promised. The carbon footprint of biofuels in some cases may not be that positive when we analyze the total cycle from field to petrol station. This is because biofuel crops need chemical fertilizers to grow well, and energy is needed to cultivate, irrigate, and for the whole biomass supply chain up to the end user. We also need to consider the loss of land carbon stocks induced by the conversion of forests, wetlands and other carbon-rich lands in order to grow biofuel crops, as illustrated by Indonesia's swamp forests being transformed into industrial palm oil plantations. In addition biofuels have high water needs, increasing pressures on water supply and water quality problems. Sugar cane, for instance, requires 36,000m3 water per hectare.

When food prices rose in 2007-2008, sparking riots in some cities, biofuels were among the culprits as a reason for this food price inflation. There is a general consensus that the “land grabbing” by the biofuel industry did impact grain food prices.

But to what extent? A growing global population, an increasingly meat-dependent globalized diet, energy price increases and consecutive droughts in major grain producing regions also play a great role in food price volatility.

Having said that, the concerns about the true environmental and social impact of some large scale biofuel projects are legitimate and should be addressed. Food production will have to double by 2050 in developing countries and there are not many new arable lands to exploit, as we need to slow deforestation too. So using agricultural lands for non-food uses like biofuel worsens this bottleneck.

Yet, in a world where half the population among the poorest use wood and other sources of biomass for cooking and heating, how can we ensure sustainable energy for all, especially the poorest? As a researcher, I would not rule out all biofuel options.

Can we develop climate smart and more sustainable biofuels?

Sweet sorghum, a dryland cereal crop cultivated in tropical regions for thousands of years, is interesting as a biofuel crop due to the multiple food and non-food uses of this crop. From the same acre of land, farmers can get grains for human consumption, use the sugary juice from stalks to produce bioethanol, and use its micronutrient rich residues called bagasse as animal feed. Other non-food uses include cost-effective paper making from the pulp. Sweet sorghum requires less fertilizer and pesticide use, and much less water. Our research shows that you can get 18 to 36 dry tons per hectare of biomass per year on low-quality soils with minimal inputs of fertilizer and water, harvesting up to 3,500 liters of ethanol per hectare. Its higher water efficiency (8,000m3/ha compared to 12,000m3/ha for maize) and drought tolerance means it can cope with dry spells and limited rainfall when other crops like maize fail in semi-arid regions like central India, or Sahel. Australian researchers have calculated a significant carbon emission reduction for sweet sorghum based ethanol production from 8 to 40 tons of carbon dioxide per hectare depending on the process.

Research, however, has to be vigilant to carefully assess any trade-offs. For instance, farmers may otherwise use crop residues to renew soil fertility, so diversion of such crop residues may impact long term soil health. But a new sweet sorghum value chain could provide new livelihood opportunities for small and marginal farmers as they could produce food, biofuel and animal feed from the same plot of land.

Research is also investigating if small-scale biofuel production could be an interesting option for rural energy-poor communities, cultivating plants like Jatropha on degraded lands, otherwise not used by farmers. A recent paper, for instance, looks at the trade-offs for soil and water management of such biofuel crop production in Andhra Pradesh at the watershed scale. The study shows that Jatropha plantation did reduce run-off and land degradation, helping underground water recharge downstream and bringing new incomes for villagers. However, yields on degraded lands were low and scaling up may put too much pressure on water resources and impact the population downstream. As for food production, research highlights the importance of using high-yielding varieties suitable for biofuel (oil content in Jatropha could vary from 5 to 39% ), as well as good agronomic qualities (e.g. drought tolerance) to enable sustainable intensification.

The biofuel question will certainly come up in the coming months when the sustainable development goals (SDGs) will be debated. It is part of a greater picture of competing uses of land, water and other natural resources to provide food, feed, energy, space for housing, and other needs of a mushrooming global population, while limiting the impact on our warming climate. In this debate, we must consider options like sweet sorghum or small-scale production in waste lands. We need to think outside the box to draw sustainable energy and food solutions in various contexts and for all, including the 550 million smallholder farmers on this planet.

*The International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) is a member of CGIAR

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