Biofuels linked to rising food prices

Biofuels linked to rising food prices

New figures from the International Energy Agency (IEA) show that British companies have bought up more African land for biofuel production than any other country.

The IEA also highlights that, while some biofuels can be considered sustainable (such as those made from food waste), there is growing evidence that particular fuel crops are linked to rising food prices. This effect is being increasingly observed as developed countries exploit cheap land to cultivate fuel crops.

There is also growing evidence that, in some cases, biofuels lead to an increase in greenhouse gas emissions – in the UK, only 31% of biofuels sold meet environmental standards created to preserve water and soil quality and carbon stocks in the source country.

Biofuel production can increase carbon emissions indirectly by forcing local farmers to deforest new land for food production – in order to compensate for the agricultural land lost to fuel crops. According to the Institute of European Environmental Policy, carbon emissions from biofuel related deforestation could exceed carbon savings by 35% in 2011, rising to 60% in 2018.

Projects are amounting at a rapid pace on the east and west coasts of Africa, amassing to millions of hectares. James Smith, professor of African Development Studies at Edinburgh University commented, "Private investment is running far ahead of our knowledge of the impacts of biofuels, such as land dispossession. This action is eroding the UK's position of enlightenment on development issues."

While some projects in developing countries do create local benefits through investment, employment and use of local produce, many do not. Biofuels produced under different situations can however have very little or no negative impact to communities or the environment.

Norman Baker, transport minister said, "I consider the sustainability of biofuels to be paramount. No biofuel will count towards our targets unless it meets certain sustainability requirements. But we are pushing [Europe] to go further, to reduce the risk of knock-on effects, including deforestation in new areas."

However, not all biofuels have potentially negative social and environmental impacts. Using waste vegetable oils (WVOs) to produce biodiesel, for example, means that an otherwise wasted product is reused as a fuel feedstock – resulting in particularly positive impacts to the environment without any negative knock-on effects. Production of biogas through the anaerobic digestion of biomass is also considered a highly sustainable method of fuel production.

New biofuel technologies are also being developed, which may remove potentially negative impacts. For example, algae can be fermented to produce fuel without addition of carbon into the atmosphere. Significantly, algae farming does not conflict with food production as only water and sunlight are required, meaning that the fuel production can take place on land unsuitable for other uses, such as desert or offshore locations.

Coincidentally, a new report from Oxfam has recently forecasted that the prices of staple foods will more than double over the next 20 years – the report identified biofuels as a significant factor. The report highlighted that western nations should end policy that diverts food in order to avoid a crisis.

International Energy Agency, The Guardian

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Date Updated:1st Jun 2011

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