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Food Versus Fuel - The Debate Continues

Food Versus Fuel - The Debate Continues

30 March 2012

ANALYSIS - Food versus fuel is the alliterative catchphrase we're hearing more often, and as the global population increases, the need for more sustainable sources of fuel rises, writes Gemma Hyland, TheCropSite editor.

Delegates came together at World Biofuels Markets in Rotterdam earlier this month, to discuss the future of biofuels and their feedstocks.

"From where I sit, the biofuels industry does have an image problem, which needs to be addressed," said Dr Carrington, Head of Environment for The Guardian.

The Renewable Energy Directive (RED) states that biofuels should account for 10 per cent of land transport fuel by 2020. However, the more the industry tries to reach their ambitious targets, the more hurdles they come up against.

Initially in 2006, high oil prices and surplus feedstocks garnered support from governments to increase research and development for biofuel production.

Fast-forward six years and a slumping economy, expired tax credits, soaring feedstock costs and a rising population has given way to a new argument on whether biofuel production is still a sustainable option.

Yes it is, say some, but at what cost?

In November 2011, the global population reached 7 billion and is expected to hit more than 9 billion by 2050.

"Food is an issue in the growing world," said Dr Carrington. "Environment groups should be the biggest supporters of biofuels. Fossil fuels are driving climate change, which is a problem for everybody. Yet I hear from environmental groups every day, and they are still not the greatest supporters of biofuels at the moment and that is mainly down to the link between biofuels and food prices."

Political Support

"The biofuels industry needs political support. I have spoken to quite a lot of MEP's over the last few years who are pretty confused at the moment. They say five years ago biofuels were the answer to everything, yet now they are the villain."

According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), biofuel production dropped for the first time in 2011.

"That is not the sign of an industry heading towards 25 per cent of global energy. Ironically, I think the cause of that drop was to do with the rising cost of food prices - the feedstock became more expensive," concluded Dr Carrington.

In contrast, earlier this month it was reported that ethanol refiners are consuming more of the US corn crop than livestock producers for the first time in US history, and this trend is set to continue until 2014 as government mandates and exports boost fuel demand.

However, respondents to the World Biofuel Markets annual survey declared feedstocks are shifting to non-food and waste.

When asked which next generation feedstocks they thought would be the most promising in 2012, the responses were fairly evenly split among municipal solid waste at 26 per cent, non-food energy crops, such as camelina and jatropha at 24 per cent and algae at 20 per cent. Cellulosic trailed slightly at around 17 per cent.

"To me, even the title of the debate is sometimes misleading," said Raffaello Garofalo, Secretary General of the European Biodiesel Board. "Instead of talking 'food versus fuel' we should talk food and fuel. Are we convinced that we cannot make it so that the land can sustainably produce both food and fuel? It is a matter of how we can do it efficiently."

Suzanne Hunt, Senior Advisor of the Carbon War Room said she agrees bioenergy has an important role to play, but there are issues to overcome first.

The one factor mentioned during the debate, which gets increasingly overlooked, is that there can be no clear winner or loser in this ongoing battle. We need both food and fuel to survive, and better practise and understanding of how to provide both sustainably.

Surprisingly, there was no mention of food waste during the keynote session. In the UK alone, 7.2 million tonnes of food is thrown away each year. Even more shockingly, the UN Food Agency reports that 1.3 billion tonnes of food was wasted last year.

"When we talk about making bioenergy sustainable, the thing we should be debating is not whether it can be done 'right', we all agree that, that's possible, the issue is how to improve it," concluded Ms Hunt.

Gemma Hyland, Editor

Gemma Hyland, Editor

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