Once touted as one of the world's alternatives to fossil fuels, biofuels have come under attack for diverting agricultural land from food production. Critics argue that biofuels are not sustainable and that they have inflated global food prices. Supporters say biofuels are the only sustainable energy alternative and that they are being unfairly blamed for the world food crisis.
Biofuels like ethanol and biodiesel are distilled from corn, soybeans, sugar cane and various oilseed crops. The United States uses one-third of its corn crops to produce ethanol. According to the Department of Agriculture, three percent of the gasoline used in the U.S. comes from ethanol. And the U.S. Congress has mandated a 57-billion liter increase in ethanol production by 2015 to reduce the nation's dependence on foreign oil.
Brazil is the world's leading exporter of ethanol made from sugar cane. Europe produces most of the world's biodiesel and has mandated a ten percent increase in biofuel production by 2020 to help lower atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases.
Both Europe and the United States spend billions of dollars every year to subsidize biofuel production. But that kind of support should be discontinued, says Katarina Wahlberg of the Global Policy Forum, a New York-based group that monitors U.N.-policy making. "Biofuel production is probably the major cause of the food crisis right now. By converting food into fuel, you compete with land, with water, with all sorts of resources and put pressure on the food stocks and prices. But also, it is not environmentally sustainable at all," says Wahlberg. "Research done years ago didn't imagine this scale of biofuel production. And now that it is clear that it's competing with land and food resources, it's not sustainable at all. It's not green. Biofuel is not the answer."
The Bush administration maintains that corn-based biofuel production accounts for only three percent of the increase in global food prices. Some analysts agree, suggesting that biofuels are being unjustly blamed for the world's soaring food prices because the current, first-generation of biofuels are made from food crops and yield modest energy returns.
Chemical engineer George Huber of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst says it is important to distinguish between various types of biofuels. "The real challenge is first-generation biofuels. You are taking agricultural products [like corn] and you are using those directly [to produce biofuels]. With second-generation biofuels, what's called the cellulosic biofuels, you are using non-edible biomass. You are using agricultural waste or energy crops, which don't compete directly with foods," says Huber. "Corn ethanol, biodiesel -- you could make the argument that maybe you could remove those subsidies. But the subsidies will be necessary to make biofuels economically competitive, particularly the subsidies on cellulosic biofuels."
Some observers argue that rising food prices are forcing policy-makers, particularly in Europe, to reconsider biofuel subsidy programs. Those that are impractical or inefficient should be reviewed, says Trade and Agriculture Deputy Director Ken Ash of the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, or OECD. "Those kinds of policies to achieve relatively modest energy security benefits, relatively modest environmental benefits at relatively high cost, do warrant a further look, in particular, policies in OECD countries," says Ash. "And I think the International Energy Agency said that the maximum one might expect to realize over the medium-term would be about four percent of total transport demand coming from biofuels."
At the same time, Ash says, the potential of second-generation biofuels made from waste materials should be explored as part of a full range of energy alternatives.
George Huber of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst says cellulosic biomass is abundant and cheap, and must be explored if biofuels are to have a major impact in meeting world energy needs. "Cellulosic biomass is the woods, the grasses, the trees and the agricultural residues. Cellulosic biofuel can significantly improve some of these third world economies where there's lots of biomass. It's very cheap and the people can actually start producing their own fuel and selling their own fuel on the open market. Biomass grows faster in the regions that are closest to the equator," says Huber. "And so what we need to do is figure out how we can sustainably harvest it and convert it to a fuel."
But critics worry that biofuels could accelerate the destruction of natural resources. Katarina Wahlberg of the Global Policy Forum says biofuel technology needs further development. "Either the research and the development of these biofuels have not come far enough to produce efficient biofuels, or it is still something that will compete for land and compete for water resources. Even the Brazilian biofuel is not sustainable. There have been cases of companies slashing rain forests in Brazil to make land for producing biofuels. Some biofuels are worse than others and some can capture more energy than others. Even so, they are not sustainable," says Wahlberg. "So I think there's been definitely too much optimism around biofuels."
Paulo Sotero, Director of the Brazil Institute at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, disagrees with this assessment. "It is incorrect to make any connections between the production of sugar cane for ethanol use in Brazil and rainforest destruction. And Brazil has replaced half of its needs for fossil fuels for vehicles using a little bit over one percent of its arable land. So in Brazil, the debate about fuel versus food is non-existent," says Sotero. "Brazil developed its biofuel industry while becoming one of the most productive and one of the largest producers and exporters of food on this planet."
Many experts say the biofuel controversy is likely to continue until the next generation of biofuels is ready for commercial production within three-to-four years.
This story was first broadcast on the English news program, VOA News Now. For other Focus reports click here.