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filling a car's gas tank
Filling up with a mixture of gasoline and ethanolImage: AP

In the tank or on the plate?

November 21, 2011

Biofuels can help industrialized nations reduce fossil fuel dependencies and cut harmful carbon emissions. But their production means diverting valuable farmland, threatening food security in developing countries.


In the early 20th century, automobile pioneer Henry Ford knew that cars could also run on plant-based fuels. While for many years that realization hardly played a role, times have changed, and interest in biofuels has skyrocketed.

Industrialized nations have a political and an economic interest in reducing their dependency on oil imports. But for the most part, the climate crisis is what has led to a boom in the biofuel business. The EU hopes to reduce carbon emissions through the compulsory addition to fuel of up to 10 percent of ethanol. By 2020, renewable energies are to make up 10 percent of the fuel needed for road transport. Using biofuels in air transport on a large scale is also on the horizon.  

Biofuels are made from living organisms or from organic or food waste products. Ethanol that is mixed with gasoline, for instance, is made from starch-rich plants like corn, wheat or sugar beets. Biodiesel is made from oilseeds like rapeseed, oil palm or the inedible seeds of the jatropha plant.

a pile of ears of corn
Corn for animals, people - or the gas tank?Image: AP

The US and the EU grant state subsidies and tax benefits to support biofuel production - and they enforce the addition of biofuel to gasoline. Major companies have discovered lucrative new markets for agricultural products and are snapping up farmland in developing countries.

Going hungry

Agriculture experts warn the widespread cultivation of biofuels endangers food security in many developing nations. Around the world, crops are increasingly being grown to fill automobile tanks in industrialized countries. Thus, biofuels are in direct competition with food production for the poorest countries. In order to fill the tank of a mid-sized vehicle with biofuel, you need the amount of corn that would feed one person for an entire year.

Germanwatch, a Bonn-based NGO that promotes global equity, recently published a trend analysis on global food security. The study shows that since 1989, the worldwide production of staples such as wheat, corn and rice has increased more than the world's population. That means more food per person - in theory. In practice, large amounts of crops were used as animal feed and for the production of biofuels.

Statistics from the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) show that between 2000 and 2009, global production of bio-ethanol - the major ingredient in biofuel - multiplied tenfold.

Ethanol is made from sugarcane in Brazil and corn in the US. Together, the two countries produce 75 percent of the global ethanol output. Between September 2010 and August 2011, the US for the first time used more corn for ethanol production than as animal feed - about 40 percent of the entire corn harvest. Only a small percentage of the corn was used by the food industry.

Landgrab for the tank

Increasingly, companies have been buying or leasing farmland in developing countries to grow biofuel plants. It's what human rights organizations call "landgrabbing:" the original settlers' rights and needs are disregarded, they lose their land and thus the ability to feed themselves.

rice field
Image: MISEREOR/Achim Pohl

According to Oxfam, 227 million hectares of land in developing nations - an area the size of western Europe - have been sold or leased to mainly international investors since 2001. As a result, the acreage left to cultivate food crops has shrunk, while conflicts, hunger and human rights abuses are on the rise - a trend that is bound to continue. 

In Mozambique, 35 percent of the country's households suffer from chronic food insecurity. At the same time, according to an Oxfam report, less than one-tenth of the 433,000 hectares of land that were freed up for use from 2007 to 2009 were used for the production of food. 

Biofuels inflate food prices

Germanwatch blames structural shortages in global food security for the changes in the use of farmland. In its latest report, the organization identified "the politically initiated boom in biofuels in Europe and the US" as "the most important structural reason for the dramatic rise and the exceptional fluctuation of the world market prices for staple foods since 2007."

The US Department of Agriculture estimates that US ethanol production is to a large part responsible for price hikes for corn during the 2007/2008 food crisis. 

In recent months, 10 leading international organizations - including the OECD, FAO, World Bank, World Trade Organization (WTO) and experts from the Committee on World Food Security (CFS) - have called for an end to subsidies and legal quota for the blending of biofuels with gasoline and diesel.

Algae, a possible alternative biomassImage: DW

Subsidies and other incentives in support of biofuels ignore the negative consequences for food security, Germanwatch expert Klemens van de Sand says. The resulting shortage benefits speculation in futures trading at corn exchanges, which has gotten out of hand. In addition, it leads to further price hikes following weather-related crop failures.

Dubious carbon footprint

It is ironic that using biofuels doesn't help to reach climate protection aims.

When burned, biofuels emit no more than the amount of carbon dioxide the plants had originally bound. But their carbon footprint is considerable: Cultivation, harvest, processing and transport use up large amounts of energy, most of which originates from fossil sources. In addition, areas designated for the cultivation of biofuel plants are often cleared by slashing and burning, with all the ensuing negative effects on the climate and biodiversity.

In the meantime, new forms of biofuels with a supposedly improved environmental and climate footprint are being developed and tested: Energy from scraps of wood, algae or recycled vegetable oil could offer alternatives.

Cultivating biomass in order to generate energy, Germanwatch has pointed out, is also an opportunity to create a decentralized power supply that could offer extra income to local famers.

But the FAO, critical of subsidized plant cultivation for the production of biofuels, has demanded that a sustainable strategy for the development of bio-energy must take into account the complex interdependencies between bio-energy and food security in developing countries.

While industrialized nations mull over the next steps, consumers have no choice but to continue to fill their tanks at the expense of people starving elsewhere.

Author: Irene Quaile / db
Editor: Nancy Isenson

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