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Biofuels: Food vs Fuel Comment & Opinion Features New 

Biofuel Production as a Way of Maintaining our Cornucopia

The use of biofuels is rapidly expanding given the belief that it 
is more socially and environmentally acceptable than its alternatives.
But, is held belief entirely true? 
Theresé Engwall, CCLiP student 2016, investigates.
Biofuels: Food vs Fuel

The importance of being climate smart has been a central part in the climate  discourse within welfare states.  More fuel-effective engines, smaller cars, and more environmentally friendly fuels such as ethanol and biofuel have been developed, permitting us to keep on driving our cars, business as usual, with a cleaner conscience.  All areas of transport are being seen to pursue the biofuel trend, for example the aviation industry has recently started showing an interest, with the International Air Transport Association (IATA) setting targets for effective usage of fuel and reduction in emissions, with biofuel playing a significant role in their solutions.

But are biofuels really that environmentally friendly? What about the human resources and impact behind the production?

In 2009, the BBC launched an article regarding minority groups in Colombia that were pushed off their land by the Colombian military, claiming they needed the land in order to fight guerrilla troops. It turned out, however, that the government had taken the land instead to use it as plantations for biofuel crops. Biofuel that was later exported to richer countries, who’s demand for fast and ‘environmentally’ friendly transportation was high, and demand that is exponentially growing until present day.

A number of large western companies have settled down in sub-Saharan Africa, where they are buying farmers’ lands in order to cultivate biofuel plantations. Several of the companies placed there claim to have both sustainable and ethical policies for their projects, this however is not an entirely truthful claim. In 2011, 50 companies were running 100 biofuel projects in more than 20 African countries. That same year, Crest Global Green Energy had the largest recorded landholding of 900 000 HA in Mali, Guinea and Senegal. They claimed to be sustainable using something called “inter-crop”, meaning they plant as much food as biofuel on the land. Some of the investors provide local farmers with seedlings to grow Jatropha (an inedible crop with oil rich seeds that can be processed into biofuel), and are given the choice to sell the seeds back to the investors – as a way of helping small plantations to join the market.

However, growing inedible crops on your land might seem counterproductive if the aim is to feed your family. Further, even though “several of the companies claim to have both sustainable and ethical policies for their projects” most of them don’t; the policies these companies have in place, for example the afore-mentioned seed-to-local-farmers programmes – used to increase market-access for poorer members of the community – have questionable ethical and sustainable implications. The lucrative price of the biofuel plant means that many choose to plant this inedible crop, as opposed to food: who will feed their families, and how?


Growing any crop in large dimensions, edible or not, requires lots of water, pesticides and fertilizers, and many scientists think that bioenergy production is an ineffective use of land, as the demand of land for food production will increase as the population keeps on growing.

This in turn, can be linked to higher food prices and rising hunger. Biofuels are used as a way of decreasing carbon emissions from vehicles, but scientists say that production of biofuels could in fact increase the emissions, both because of transport but also because of deforestation. In 2011, The Institute of European Environmental Policy said that

Carbon released from deforestation linked to biofuels could exceed carbon savings by 35% that year, and predictably rise to 60% in 2018

2018 is also the year that the federal aviation administration in the US are hoping for a 5% usage of bio-jet fuel in airplanes. Meanwhile, the effects of climate change can be seen all over the world in rising temperatures and ground water loss. Over 60 million people suffer food shortages in the wake of the severe drought that prevails in Eastern and Southern Africa. Food prices are rising, and the acute malnutrition in Zimbabwe is now the highest in 15 years. So here we are, forcing people (with or without payment) off their land, cutting down forests and sending off biofuel to the global north, while several of the African countries are dependent on oil imported from the North.

The biofuels are used in cars and airplanes, which the landowners that made the production possible from the beginning, may never have the money to be part of this ‘green-clean-tech’ movement. Still, knowing all of this, the thought of us in the global north to drive and fly less, doesn’t seem to occur to us. I wonder why that is? What if we would just turn the tables and leave the biofuel at the production site? In doing so, the carbon footprint would probably diminish by reduced transportation and lessen deforestation. This could also leave more – already cleared land – available for food production, as there would be less competition with biofuel crops. According to a report from the World Wildlife Foundation (WWF), this development could in fact improve the balance of trade for countries in the global south, which could change the conditions when it comes to their economic development, as they would no longer be dependent of oil imports from the North.

Oh yes, that’s right: We are dependent on their natural resources and that the zero-sum game is up and running, allowing us to keep our abundance. Money wins again.

A question to really ask ourselves is:

Will we ever leave the colonialist thoughts and stop taking advantage of people and nature in less fortunate parts of the world?… I wonder…

By Theresé Engwall, Uppsala,

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