Food versus fuel — the debate hots up

Published:  08 September, 2008

Biofuel for heating would be much more effective than transport — Phil Adams.

Phil Adams explains why biofuel would be more effectively applied to heating rather than transport, as preferred by the Government, and that there is plenty of land available to meet demands for both food and fuel.

Liquid biofuel has recently been a heavily debated topic in the press. Both rising food prices and food shortages in developing countries are being blamed on an increasing demand for food crops used in biofuel production.

The recent report on biofuels by Ed Gallagher, chair of the Renewables Fuel Agency, was sensationalised in the press, and caused the Government to re-think its commitment to biofuels used for transport. However, the report summary does state there is an inconsistent and limited evidence base for the findings and that there is a future for a sustainable biofuel, but crucially that it must be managed properly so that essential food crops are not sacrificed in favour of biofuels.

There is no doubt that the demand for biofuels in heating exists. Riello has seen a marked increase in the number of requests for biofuel-compatible equipment and has responded by making all its burners able to run on biofuel. Not only are end users having to meet legislative requirements to reduce their carbon footprint, but they also responding to increased awareness of climate change.

Unfortunately, the heating sector has not been an area of priority when it comes to biofuels, with the Government focusing on road transport. Under the Renewable Transport Fuel Obligation (RTFO), 5% of all fuel sold on UK forecourts must come from a renewable source by 2010, but the Gallagher report may cause the Government to lower this target.

Despite the focus on transport, research has shown that biofuels used for heating could have a more positive effect on reducing carbon emissions. If the current RTFO obligation remains in place, it would take 1.9 million hectares of arable land to produce the necessary crops, and only result in 1 Mt reduction in carbon emissions. However, if the same amount of land was used to produce liquid biofuel for domestic heating, it would cater for all of the homes in the UK which currently use oil and would reduce carbon emissions by 7.5 MT.

Riello suggests that using biofuel for heating would be much more effective than focusing on transport. The company believes that biofuel should be given more consideration as it has a positive future in the heating industry.

The Gallagher report concludes that there is a future for a sustainable biofuels industry, but notes that a slowdown of the current demand for biofuels — largely brought about by the RTFO — would give time to put in place a framework so that food production is not sacrificed for fuel.

Biofuel has been unfairly blamed for rising food prices, but in the US, Agricultural Secretary Ed Schafer has said that biofuels were only responsible for 2 to 3% of the predicted 43% increase in food prices this year.

Vast areas of land are available throughout the world to grow biofuels.

The hefty increases in food and fuel prices are down to the rising price of crude oil. Energy and production costs are soaring as the price of crude increases, along with the price of many oil derivatives such as plastic used for packaging. Ironically, it is the high cost of oil leading to high energy prices that has caused many people to look at greener, renewable and cheaper forms of energy.

But there is also much evidence to back up the claim that there is plenty of land available to meet demands for both food and fuel. According to the Food & Agricultural Organisation of the United Nations (FAO), which leads international efforts to defeat hunger, the total landmass used for arable crops in 2006 was 14 million sq km. That’s equivalent to the size of the USA and half of Canada. A further 34 million sq km, equivalent to the rest of North America, is used for grazing. That means that in terms of area, the whole of Europe, Asia, Africa, Indonesia and a third of Australia are not used for food production in any way. Some of this land cannot be used, but the vast majority could certainly be converted to agriculture.

For example, in Russia which mostly spans the temperate belt, just 7% of land is used for arable crops, and 5% for grazing. Moreover, the quantity of agricultural land in Russia is shrinking with 23 million acres of arable land, an equivalent area to the UK, having been abandoned since the end of communism. Globally, less food is being produced on less land than in the 1990s. The reason for this is quite simply a response to overproduction.

Remember the grain mountains, butter mountains and wine lakes of the 1980s? These eventually caused a collapse in price, which meant producers contracted their operations. Now the opposite is happening — with not enough food available, and demand pushing up the price.

As the debate surrounding biofuel gathers pace, it is important to understand that biofuels do not have to be a threat to the food industry. If properly managed, they could even help to build agricultural sectors in developing countries. In reality it is the surge in oil prices that has caused food and fuel prices to rise.

Riello believes that there is certainly a long term future for biofuel as an environmentally friendly, renewable fuel, as long as production methods are responsibly managed to produce a sustainable fuel.

Phil Adams is with Riello



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