How Green are Green Fuels?

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Being a student of Bio Resources, most of my classes revolve around studying how biological materials can be developed as useful resources for mankind. Recently in one of my lectures, the focus was on biofuels which are very quickly gaining popularity given the rising concerns over pollution and depleting fuel reservoirs of the world. Our teacher ended the lecture by showing us a cartoon of a malnourished boy crawling after a truck ferrying food crops to the biofuel industrial plant. The image was heart breaking but at the same time, it carried a very powerful message. Are biofuels the latest threat to food security?

Every one of you may have heard of biofuels and how they are represent next generation fuels. Let me break it down for you in simple words. Biofuels are fuels produced directly or indirectly from living matter including plants and animal wastes. Advanced technology has allowed us to extract biofuels from agricultural crops like maize, sugar cane etc. More and more countries are shifting their focus to biofuels and trying to use them as replacement fuels to meet the growing energy demands of the people. United States has already cleared a portion of land previously used to grow other food crops for growing corn for biofuel production. How wonderful! We can now obtain an eco-friendly fuel while growing crops for food. But the picture is far murkier. The question, ‘How green are green fuels?’ is probably the most debated topic in this field.

For any household, especially poor ones who live hand to mouth, food accounts for the major part of their expenditure and food prices directly affect their food security. Food insecurity exists when people lack secure access to sufficient amounts of safe and nutritious food for normal growth and development. Already, the increasing staple food prices have triggered demonstrations and riots in a number of countries. FAO estimates that some 850 million people worldwide are undernourished. Given the potential scale of the biofuel market, the uncertainty relating to long-term price developments and the large number of poor households, the question of what impact expanding biofuel production will have on the food security of the poor should be the biggest concern of mankind right now.

These green fuels which were supposed to reduce emissions are increasing them instead. How? Biofuel crops increase emissions through land clearance, fertiliser use and by displacing other crops. When millions of hectares of land are switched from food to biofuel crops, food prices rise and food production is reduced, triggering a domino-like chain of events ending in the need for cropland expansion elsewhere. Thus, more and more forests are cleared, further reducing the depleting forest cover. Biofuels affect food security at both national and household levels.

National Level:

At the National level, higher commodity prices will have negative consequences for net food-importing developing countries. Especially for the low-income food-de?cit countries, higher import prices can severely strain their food import bills. Based on FAO’s latest analysis, global expenditures on imported foodstuffs in 2007 rose by about 29 percent more than the previous year records. This was because of the rising prices of cereals and vegetable oils – commodity groups that feature heavily in biofuel production. Many of the commodity groups used for biofuel production are also major feed ingredients. Thus, increasing prices of feed ingredients lead to increased prices of meat and dairy products, placing additional pressure on the ability of countries to cover their food import bills.

Household Level:

As already stated, food expenditure accounts for the major part of household income. Since in countries like India, majority of the population is already living below poverty line, increasing food prices will make it difficult for them to buy adequate amount of nutritious food. This will further increase the problem of malnourishment.

As an example, Block et al. (2004) found that when rice prices increased in Indonesia in the late 1990s, mothers in poor families responded by reducing their caloric intake in order to feed their children better, leading to an increase in maternal wasting. Furthermore, purchases of more nutritious foods were reduced in order to afford the more expensive rice. This led to a measurable decline in blood haemoglobin levels in young children (and in their mothers), increasing the probability of developmental damage.

The rising food prices will only benefit the farmers with more land and access to modern technology. This will further widen the chasm between the rich and poor and the rate of farmer suicides will only increase. Although biofuels aren’t the only reason for increasing food insecurity, it certainly is one of the biggest ones. However, the right biofuels will definitely be a boon to mankind. The need of the hour is to support the development of advanced biofuels such as those made from waste and those grown in places unsuitable for food crops and to ensure that these good fuels are not made available at the cost of our biodiversity or food security. Until then, these green fuels are just a case of an emperor’s expensive clothes which will render the world, especially the developing countries, without any clothes to wear or in this case, food to survive.

 

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