Biofuel production from food crops has been a subject of heated discussions over the past week at the European Parliament. The previously agreed target of 10% of biofuel to be used in transportation by 2020 is now likely to drop down to 6%, as members of the parliament and environmental groups argue that biofuel production results in increased carbon emissions and competes with agriculture.
When they first came into the picture, biofuels were sold as the clean alternative to fossils. But by being given various subsidies and incentives, farmers are now clearing land or using agricultural fields in order to facilitate the harvesting of crops for biofuels, such as corn and rapeseed.
Although the negotiations are still in motion, the industry has established practices that will not be so easily given up, and it is very likely that the MPs cut down the previously agreed targets. The main argument being that biofuels put a huge pressure on food production, and are often a main cause for increased deforestation. But the parliament will face quite a challenge, especially in the face of The European Renewable Ethanol Association (ePURE), who completely refuse to accept that food production is at risk, and claims that all numbers in regards to food prices are exaggerated.
But let’s look at what scientists think about this whole thing. An article published in The Guardian by John Abraham yesterday provides quite an extensive discussion on the figures. The study that he conducted looked at variables that can indicate whether production of corn-ethanol takes up more energy than it saves. He gathered data on energy yield, cropland requirements, water use, impact on food prices and pollution.
The team reached to a number of interesting conclusions, some of which support the European MP’s arguments, but others really do go against them. Indeed, producing fuel from corn increases food prices, which affects the international market as a whole, and not only the crop producing countries. Abraham and his team also established that production of corn ethanol does have a negative impact on carbon emissions.
But the scientists are convinced that these conclusions are only based on current harvesting practices, and only looking at corn as a source of ethanol. There are many means to limit the competition with food crops, including the use of switchgrass, poplars or similar perennial crops that are also a source of cellulosic ethanol, but require much less water, fertilizer and energy, and produce much less greenhouse gas emissions.
Harvesting alternative plants would be much more challenging, however considering recent technological advances, this should not present a big problem. Current estimates indicate that with perennial-crop ethanol we can produce 5.5 units of energy out of a process for which we invest one unit of energy, while cutting down carbon emissions six times compared to corn.
The scientists suggest that corn ethanol is used as a testing ground for finding alternative sources for producing of cellulosic ethanol, and it should not be completely rejected.
In any case, it is not yet certain which way the discussions within the EU parliament will go. It is clear that all petroleum used in transportation can never be replaced completely with alternative fuels, but this does not mean that none of it should be. The debates at the parliament continue, and they should definitely be followed.