Biofuels

With an ever-increasing global energy demand, biofuels present an alternative to non-renewable energy resources that is both more environmentally friendly and economically viable. The attractiveness of biofuels stems from the possibility to increase our energy security by moving away from petroleum-based fuels, and reduce rising CO2 emissions. Concerns that arise from the use of biofuels are the high transportation costs, global arable land conversion (decreasing the amount of land available for growing food), deforestation, and ultimately, the competition it sets in place with agricultural crops, water, and resources vital to maintain food security in the world. Ultimately, it could divert agricultural production away from crops for human consumption and result in global food insecurity (FAE).

Screen Shot 2015-11-22 at 6.31.19 PM(Our Energy, 2015)

Biofuels are liquid fuels produced from organic material. The most widely used biofuels are ethanol (sugarcane and corn) and biodiesel (soybean and palm oil) for transportation. First generation biofuels are derived from crops rich in sugar or starch, to include sugarcane, corn, and wheat, animal fats, and vegetable oils using conventional techniques. Second generation biofuels are derived from cellulosic plants such as agricultural waste, woody residue, and switchgrass using more advanced techniques. Third generation biofuels are derived from oils from algae.

Problems associated with biofuels in relation to food security

Using crops for biofuel production decreases the global food supply

If we were to grow food exclusively for human consumption, then it would be possible to increase the world’s food supply by as much as 70%, which could feed an additional 4 billion people. If we are to support an ever-increasing population that is expected to increase from 7.3 billion  to 9.7 billion by 2050 (United Nations, 2015), then the allocation of calories available for human consumption should not be minimized by biofuels, the meat industry, or waste. In order to distribute enough food to feed the world accordingly, we should aim to minimize the amount of food resources allocated for uses other than human consumption.

To do so, we should plan to move away from first generation biofuels and move towards increasing dependence on second and third generation biofuels (e.g. non-food feedstock, low value agricultural, industrial, and municipal wastes, and algae) that do not take away from the food supply, have characteristic high yields, and a carbon neutral potential. The use of first generation biofuels is well underway in the transportation sector in the U.S, Brazil, France, and Germany, however, second and third generation biofuel production is still majorly in the experimental stage.

Case Study: Blending Policies  Biofuel use has been expanding as a consequence of political decisions, for example in blending policies. With a current Federal Renewable Fuel Standard of about 10%  in the U.S. (i.e. the proportion of biofuels required to be blended with gasoline), nearly 40% of corn’s annual yield goes into producing enough gasoline to sustain demands. Currently, 5 billion bushels of corn from the U.S. are used for the production of 13.5 billion gallons of ethanol per year. This ultimately diminishes the potential to feed an additional 412 million people a year.

Biofuel production requires vast amounts of water resources and land area

Biofuels(Coosa River Basin Initiative, 2014)

An increased dependence on corn-based ethanol would require the redistribution of available water, resulting in a more competitive market for water resources and higher corn prices at the consumer and producer levels. Already, the availability of freshwater and the effects of irrigation and soil erosion on land productivity are limiting factors to the amount of food that can be produced worldwide. Dependence on corn for bioethanol may prove to be unsustainable as irrigation in growing corn for fuel requires 10-324 gal of water/ gal of ethanol. This ultimately increases an already high demand for freshwater resources. A more sustainable alternative would be growing the second generation biofuel, switchgrass, which requires only 1- 10 gal of water/ gal of ethanol (FAOSTAT, 2013). The one limitation keeping cellulosic ethanol from switchgrass from being produced on the large-scale is that it requires a complex refining process. Noting the worthy investment, U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) provided 50 million USD to fund the construction of 6 cellulosic biorefineries. The first of which will process wood waste from the timber industry into biofuels (Biello, 2008).

The production of biofuels has also led to massive increases in deforestation of rainforests and subsequent losses in biodiversity and increased greenhouse gas emissions as biofuel production competes with land used for agriculture. This reduces available farmland and may lead to increased climate change as we remove carbon sinks and increase CO2 emissions simultaneously. In order for using biofuels to be environmentally friendly, increasing the fuel produced per unit area of land by growing biofuel crops that are less agriculturally intensive could increase the availability of water resources and land area for the production of a wider variety of crops.

Screen Shot 2015-11-29 at 1.26.38 AMFigure 1: Deforestation in Indonesian due to palm oil production (Klum, Mattias. 2014)

Case Study: Deforestation in Indonesia   With increasing demands for palm oil into Europe, Indonesia had 18 million hectares of forests cleared; however, palm oil was planted on only 6 million hectares (FAO, 2014). Thus, the Department of Agriculture in Indonesia is making progress to identify and convert underutilized land into plantations. Governments in China and India have also taken similar approaches. Jatropha is planted majorily on wasteland in India and jatropha production is planning to be expanded to 1 million hectares of barren land in China over the next century (FAO, 2014). We may learn from Indonesia, India, and China’s actions in handling trade-offs between deterring irreversible deforestation and expanding the biofuel industry.

Government subsidies for biofuel production may lead to an increase in food prices

Screen Shot 2015-11-09 at 3.28.39 PMFigure 2: Corn Usage in the United States (U.S. Department of Agriculture, 2015)

Of all of the crops grown in the U.S, corn, soybeans, wheat, rice, and cotton receive 90%, of all of government funding for crop subsidies. Roughly 45% of the corn produced in the U.S. is put towards livestock feed and nearly 28% is put towards the production of ethanol yearly, leaving a mere 27 % put towards human consumption (Schnieder). The current allocation of governmental subsidies are more politically than economically incentivized. Although well-intentioned in an attempt to move away from fossil-fuel dependence and protect domestic energy security, the subsidies take away from the food supply. An increased production of corn, soy, and wheat for biofuels directly results in the decreased production of other foods that are less profitable without subsidies, and therefore leads to increased prices of these foods in the consumer market.

Case Study: Drought in the Midwest U.S.   Due to continued arid conditions during the summer of 2012, the U.S. corn harvest was cut by 17% and corn prices were sent to a record of 8.49 USD/bushel. As it is more profitable to produce a gallon of ethanol from the corn with government subsidies than selling edible corn for the food-industry, local farmers and ranchers pushed for a waiver from the renewable fuel standards to ensure an adequate supply of corn may go to consumers before being mixed in with gasoline. As a result, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) took action and now has the authority to minimize the demand for corn-based ethanol in the fuel industry, by removing the mandate that biofuels be mixed in with fossil fuels, if local farmers and ranchers are threatened by the competitive market raising corn prices.

Solutions to meet food and biofuel demands

The benefits of increasing biofuel dependence have the potential to outweigh negative impacts given proper management practices. This may prove to be particularly helpful in developing countries as food production would be enhanced with a greater access to energy through biofuels. With the resources of second and third generation biofuels, we may achieve a less environmentally degradating system of fuel production without threatening global food security. Another important goal is to grow biofuel crops on existing infrastructure, underutilized, or abandoned land to limit deforestation and reserve enough cultivable land to meet food demands. Mission 2019 suggests gradually phasing out government funded food-crop subsidies for biofuels, necessitating sustainable criteria in biofuel production and land management, and increasing funding for research and development of second and third generation biofuels.

Second Generation Biofuels

Using new advanced biofuels would allow us to extract fuel from sources that are not used by human or animal consumption.

Screen Shot 2015-11-27 at 1.32.10 PMFigure 3: Current and emerging biofuel pathways (Gilpin, Geoffrey. Holden, Erling. 2013)

Possible second generation biofuels that are less limited by availability of land and do not cut into the food supply include agricultural, industrial, and commercial waste or by-products. Biodiesel may be produced from the waste oil and animal fat from food-processing plants or restaurants. Using waste as fuel comes with the risk of creating a demand for waste and decreasing the incentive to reduce waste at the forefront. Therefore, waste for fuel should come only from compostables, stocks past their sell dates, or wood waste that may not be recycled. Learn more about suggestions for improving efficient use of food waste here.

Screen Shot 2015-11-29 at 1.05.00 AM(The Biologist, 2015)

Since algae yields the greatest gross energy efficiency over any other biofuel, it offers the greatest potential for a future large-scale biofuel source. Algae farming is estimated to yield roughly 10-100 times more fuel per unit area than any other crop, due to its high growth rate, and it only requires 0.4% of U.S. land to supplant all U.S. petroleum fuel demands (Hoffman, 2014). Furthermore, some species of algae are up to nearly 40% biomass, and therefore generate more oil per unit area than any other biofuel crop (Hoffman, 2014). Algae farming also offers the benefits of having a very short harvesting time-frame of 1 to 10 days, the ability to grow in sea and brackish water, wastewater, and in biodegradable materials (resources not suitable for agriculture), and the ability to sequester carbon emissions and mitigate troublesome atmospheric carbon in urban areas.

Sustainability Criteria: Energy Efficiency and Land Management

Screen Shot 2015-11-27 at 1.39.20 PMFigure 4: Biorefinery for algae in arid climate

(IAE AMF, 2011)

Based on the suggestion given by the Office of Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy, when determining whether it is profitable and efficient enough to depend on a certain crop as a biofuel resource, industries should meet sustainability standards for energy efficiency (net output- input). Crops for biofuels should be used if the required amount of energy to be collected, transported, processed, and refined, is less than the amount of energy produced in the conversion process (EEPIEG, 2012). If industries cannot meet these requirements with current technologies, then funding for research and development is more beneficial in the meantime.

To optimize the energy efficiency of crops being collected and transported, it requires looking at optimal climates and temperatures under which biofuel crops may grow. Such conditions may be found below.

Screen Shot 2015-11-27 at 1.54.57 PMFigure 5 : Characteristics of bioethanol and biodiesel feedstocks (Gao, Yan. Skutsch, Margaret. Masera, Omar. Pacheco, Pablo. 2011)

The Global Agro-ecological Assessment estimates that, worldwide, 2.5 billion hectares are suitable and 784 million hectares are moderately suitable for cultivation, and 450 million hectares are underutilized or abandoned. According to the International Energy Agency, currently about 1.5 billion hectares of this total is used for agriculture and 14 million hectares of this land is used for the production of biofuels (FAO, 2014). Depending on governmental policies, the projected growth in biofuel production could require an estimated 1.5 billion hectares worldwide by 2050. To avoid large-scale conversion of forest and agricultural land to land used for biofuel production, crops for biofuels should be grown on underutilized, marginal, or abandoned land. Regulations should be put in place to ensure that enough cultivable agricultural land be reserved to meet food demands now and in the future. To slow climate change effects and ensure the productivity of future cultivable land, these regulations should extend to protect existing forests that act as carbon sinks.

This would require oversight by governmental bodies at the regional, provincial, and national levels through land-use zoning and rights to farm standards for agricultural land. The total preserved cultivable agricultural land should be maintained at least at the current estimate of 1.5 billion hectares, and with a growing population, may need to increase up to 2.5 billion hectares (possible through land transformation and revitalization) by 2050 (FAO, 2014). Learn more about zoning to preserve land for farming here. Land should be allocated for biofuel cultivation by converting only underutilized, abandoned, or marginal land. Learn more about converting marginal land to an arable state here. Given estimates by the FAO, the total amount of land that may be sustainably allocated for biofuels is at 14 million up to a potential maximum of 450 million hectares by 2050.

To get the greatest yield out of land converted for biofuel cultivation, it requires optimizing regions where crops are best suited. Such regions (for corn) may be found below.Screen Shot 2015-11-23 at 11.05.44 PM

Figure 6: Global suitability map for corn cultivation (Gao, Yan. Skutsch, Margaret. Masera, Omar. Pacheco, Pablo. 2011)

For more information on global suitability maps for more biofuel crops, refer to “A global analysis of deforestation due to biofuel development

Reallocate government crop subsidies

To alleviate the competition of fuel with food, government subsidies should be shifted to allow second generation biofuels to scale up to the commercial industry. We propose shifting the embedded federal crop subsidies allocation to research and development of alternative biofuel crops.Screen Shot 2015-11-23 at 11.08.16 PM

Figure 7: Cost of production for first and second generation biofuels. (Carriquiry, 2011)

The costs of production above explains the limited amount of second generation biofuel production at commercial scales. For example the cost of cellulosic ethanol per unit of energy produced is shown to be somewhere between 1.1 to 2.9 times higher than the price of gasoline. However, the cost of jatropha or algae-based biodiesel is expected to be similar to the price of diesel (Carriquiry, 2011). Second and third generation biofuels are currently expensive to produce in comparison to fossil fuels. Thus, advanced biofuels will require improved processing and transportation technologies or government subsidies to be feasible. Given a change in policies and support to gain access to the global market, biofuel production may be particularly beneficial to smallhold farmers and rural communities in developing countries in creating income and employment.

In order to secure enough food to feed the planet and to protect the jobs of regional farmers, thus sustaining agricultural growth in the short and long-term, government-funded subsidies and price controls need to be prioritized. Our proposal for issuing these crop subsidies and price controls is:

  1. To increase access to food in areas of threatened food security
  2. To incentivise agricultural production to meet food demands
  3. To protect sustainable farmers’ jobs and prosperity by expanding crop reserves and emergency response subsidies
  4. To incentivise research and development for alternative fuel production

Our goal is to gradually eliminate crop subsidies in the next 10 years as the agricultural sector becomes more self-sufficient, to increase access to food through infrastructure development and price stabilization policies, to increase investment in technological advancements, such as crop insurance mechanisms, and to transfer subsidies to emergency response relief in the case of disasters.  Additionally, more developed countries should reduce protectionism policies that seek to increase domestic production, particularly for biofuels.

 

Timeline

Immediately

  • If in the case of an emergency where food security is threatened, food prices rapidly fluctuate, or a large portion of farmers are put out of business, The International Food Policy Research Institute suggests that limiting biofuel production based on corn grains and sugarcane is necessary to stabilize conditions. In this case, crop subsidies should be immediately reallocated to incentivise greater food production at a regional level through ensuring the prosperity of local farmers.
  • Research second generation biofuels that do not take away from the food supply, the best places to implement such fuel production, and alternative means of transportation and conversion technologies
  • Preserve at least the current total global cultivable land area, 1.5 billion hectares, with oversight from regional, provincial, and national bodies to set land-use and rights to farm standards (FAO, 2014)

10-20 years

  • Countries which are invested in first generation biofuel production, such as the U.S. and Brazil, should lead the implementation of government and economic policies to decentivize reliance on corn, sugarcane, and other food crops to use as fuel, rather than food. The government should pressure petroleum companies to invest in biofuel production and encourage the privatization of the biofuel industry through capital investment funding
  • Government subsidies for first generation biofuels will be phased out over a 10 year span and replaced with funding for research in second and third generation biofuels technology

50 years

  • Up to 2.5 billion hectares globally will be protected and reserved for agricultural uses and up to 450 million hectares of underutilized and abandoned land will potentially be converted for biocrop uses (FAO, 2014)
  • Instead of relying on government subsidies, our goal is to increase more long-term investment in second and third generation biofuel technologies, research, and crop insurance mechanisms for local farmers and commercial industries alike

Related Articles

Works Cited

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Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations Division. (2013) Statistics Commodity Balances – Crops Primary Equivalent http://faostat3.fao.org/browse/FB/BC/E

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