Controversey over the impact of biofuel production on food isn't new; nor is the question of whether there is enough land to grow them on. Carbon emissions are also a concern because making biofuels can eat up energy, producing more emissions.
So which fuels are greener? A recently released study by Empa,
a research institute in Switzerland, attempts to quantify how green –
or not – biofuels are relative to their fossil cousins. While almost all
of them (except soy and oil palms grown in Malaysia) reduce carbon
emissions and are far better for the ozone layer, most are actually
worse than gasoline when it comes to issues of land use, human health, or
agricultural pollution. The only choice that seemed to be better than
gas overall was methane from wood chips made in Switzerland, and a close
second was methane (natural gas) from sludge (also made in
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reason for this is that simply put, waste that makes methane doesn't
require clearing a forest. It doesn't need to be transported far or
So what is the problem? The report notes that the
issues vary a lot from place to place, but much of it has to do with
changing land-use patterns, the use of fertilizer, and clearing of
virgin forest to grow crops. For example, palm oil production grew in
Malaysia to 4 million hectares (9.9 million acres) from 1.7 million
hectares (4.2 million acres). On average, 28 percent of each hectare is
taken from rainforest. In addition palm oil has replaced production of
natural rubber, coconut and cocoa.
Palm oil plantations not only
contribute as much to global warming as gasoline does; they also fare
worse because they contribute to eutrophication of waterways because of
the runoff from the farms.
Wheat from the U.S. isn't much better.
Even though it doesn't contribute to deforestation as much (forest areas
in the U.S. are actually increasing) agricultural runoff is a huge
Some fuels even make carbon emissions worse, largely
because the sinks for carbon get destroyed. Soybean production in Brazil
has increased a lot, and that means more Amazon rain forest gets cut
All of this is to say that biofuels aren't a magic bullet:
they mitigate the environmental problems of fossil fuels but often trade
one set of environmental problems for another.
the picture for biofuels isn't all bleak. It is possible to use them to
increase the carbon content of the soil. If abandoned land, for
instance, is used to cultivate the plants, then the picture looks
different. The oil palms that do damage in Malaysia are a benefit in
Colombia because in Colombia they can be planted on unused grazing land.
In East Africa, jatropha – used to make biodiesel – actually boosts the
carbon content of soils.
But the takeaway is that before
embarking on a program of growing biofuels, one needs to look at the
trade-offs – as the saying goes, there is no free lunch.
IMAGE: Workers in India load sweet sorghum into a truck for use as bio-fuel and animal feed.
(Wikimedia Commons / Steve Mann)