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Do we really want to swap energy dependency for food dependency?
Millions of hectares of land are being taken out of food production due to the growing demand for biofuels. It is incomprehensible that internationally, subsidies worth US $11-12 billion in 2006 were used to divert 100 million tonnes of cereals from human consumption mostly to satisfy a thirst for fuel for vehicles. Forcing the market to cater for the biofuel industry is affecting the global food crisis.
In the last 2 years, biofuel production worldwide has soared. EU targets require 10% of all fuel sold to be derived from plants within 12 years. 3% of agricultural land in Europe has now been converted from growing food to growing fuel, exacerbating the food shortage crisis. In Indonesia, vast tracts of rain forest are being destroyed to make way for lucrative palm oil crops to supply the West with biofuels. Friends of the Earth report that this trend not only causes large scale environmental damage, but leads to abuse of the rights of local communities and indigenous people.
The same situation is occurring in the US, where one third of the total maize harvest last year, supercharged by huge tax subsidies, was turned into bioethanol to fuel cars. This has created a huge demand to fill the gap for feed maize from Brazil and again has lead to the destruction of rainforest and the abuse of indigenous people. It is worth remembering that the amount of maize used to fill the tank of an average-sized US family saloon with bioethanol, would feed a single human being for an entire year.
The current production of biofuels is not sustainable. But the real hope lies not in conventional food crops, but so-called second-generation biofuels, which can be cultivated with little water and few fertilisers on marginal land that will not compete with food crops. Researchers are looking at crops like Jatropha, already undergoing field trials in India, as holding hope for a future free from the stark choice between food and fuel.
Sweden provides one of the best examples of good practice in Europe. In Sweden there is a tax on landfill waste. A large portion of the waste that is not recovered thus goes to incineration and becomes energy. The well developed district heating systems in Sweden makes this possible. There are also well established systems in place for collecting household food waste. The waste is used for biogas and vehicle fuel for the local bus network and municipal vehicles. Biogas gives low emissions and low noise. The government has invested support in biogas facilities and has also introduced tax exemptions for alternative fuels. Since 1970, the use of oil has been cut in half. Sweden has a focus on using less energy rather than looking for alternative solutions to fossil fuels. Most of the bio energy comes from residue from the forest industry and as it is a waste product, is entirely sustainable.
More research is required into biofuels made from materials that have no impact on the availability and affordability of food crops, such as agricultural and industrial by-products as well as algae and wood. Much hope also rests on cellulosic ethanol, produced from grasses such as switchgrass that can be grown on land deemed unfit for food crops. Biotechnology has a major role to play in providing us with more sustainable biofuels.