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Biofuel a threat to food security

November 28, 2011

“Use of large-scale mono cropping could lead to significant biodiversity loss, soil erosion and nutrient leaching,” stated the The Institute of European Environmental Policy. - File photo


In the course of growing concerns about unstable oil supplies and the impact of fossil fuels on global warming, biofuels are receiving increased attention. Putting ethanol instead of gasoline in your tank saves oil.

Biofuels, which are made from corn, palm oil, sugarcane and other agricultural products, are seen by many as a cleaner and cheaper way to meet the world’s soaring energy needs than with greenhouse-gas emitting fossil fuels.

Ethanol, a major biofuel, is an alcohol-based fuel made by fermenting and distilling crops that have been broken down into simple sugars. Ethanol is even used as a fuel for non-diesel engines (spark ignition) or as an additive to gasoline engines In the US, ethanol is mostly manufactured from starchy crops like corn.

There are two types of ethanol fuel that are commonly referred to e85 and e10. E85 is a blend of 85 per cent ethanol and 15 per cent gasoline that’s used in flex-fuel vehicles. E10 is a gasoline blend that contains up to 10 per cent ethanol.

Brazil, which produces large amounts of ethanol, uses sugarcane to manufacture it and is the largest producer and consumer of ethanol in the world. It has a goal of having all of its vehicles capable of running on ethanol or gasoline, in the next few years. Countries like Brazil have made ethanol a viable alternative energy fuel because they have devoted time to research and also due to government funding.

European leaders have decided that at least 10 per cent of fuels will come from biofuels, like ethanol, by 2020, and the US Congress is working on a proposal that would increase production of biofuels by seven times by 2022. With oil prices at record highs, biofuels have become an attractive alternative energy source for poor countries, some of which spend six times more in importing oil than on healthcare.

But environmentalists have warned that the biofuel craze can do as much or more damage to environment as dirty fossil fuels, a concern reflected in the report released on Tuesday in New York by the UN-Energy, a consortium of 20 UN agencies and programmes.

The Amazon rainforest is being destroyed every year to produce biofuel crops. So now we see the consequences in Africa. With a world population expected to reach nine billion by 2025, this could lead to starvation and social conflicts. Biofuels are not a green solution. We cannot pretend to save the planet by condemning billions to death by starvation.

European Union countries must drop their biofuels targets or else risk plunging more Africans into hunger and raising carbon emissions, according to Friends of the Earth (FoE).

Natural disasters including floods in Pakistan and a heat wave in Russia have wiped out crops in recent weeks and intensified fears of widespread food shortages.

Half of the 3.2m hectares (ha) of biofuel land identified – in countries from Mozambique to Senegal – is linked to 11 British companies, more than any other country.

Another risk is that biofuel use could increase carbon emissions by increasing destruction of forests when displaced local farmer’s clear land. The Institute of European Environmental Policy recently said carbon released from deforestation linked to biofuels could exceed carbon savings by 35 per cent in 2011 rising to 60 per cent in 2018. Currently, this indirect impact is not considered in European sustainability guidelines.

“Use of large-scale mono cropping could lead to significant biodiversity loss, soil erosion and nutrient leaching,” it said, adding that investments in bio energy must be managed carefully, at national, regional and local levels to avoid new environmental and social problems “some of which could have irreversible consequences.”