Biofuel: Solution or problem?

The use of crops for biofuels and other factors have pushed up food prices across the globe as a recent report by the United Nations warned that up to 5 million people were at risk of being removed from their land to make way for crops for biofuel. UNESCO has observed that since March 2007 prices for soybeans have risen 87 percent and for wheat 130 percent at a time when global grain stores are at their lowest levels on record. It attributes the trend to increased demand in China and India as well as the alternative use of maize and soybeans for biofuels. Riots have broken out in some countries over exorbitant price rises. Ethanol makers will consume about one-quarter of the 13.1-billion-bushel US corn crop this year, according to the US Agriculture Department. In other countries, such as Greece, crops for biofuel production are proving to be an answer to the declining demand for traditional farm produce and a way to revive abandoned farmland. At a forum on liquid biofuels held in 2006 by the Institute of Energy for SE Europe (IENE), it was noted that «biofuel production in Greece would provide alternative solutions to certain regions where efforts are being made to restructure cultivation and crops.» «The production of biofuels from suitable raw materials and their use as substitutes for diesel oil or petrol in transport will result in economic and environmental benefits,» said Reveka Stefanidou of Redestos SA, part of the Eftimiadis Group. According to one source, the approximately 12 companies presently active in this field in Greece produced approximately 91 million liters of biodiesel in 2006, and 100 million liters last year. Greek plants’ total productive capacity was expected to attain 561 million liters per annum. Law 3426/05 promotes liquid biofuels as a partial substitute for conventional fuels with the obligatory blending of a small proportion of biodiesel with diesel oil. Already, diesel available at petrol stations contains 2 percent biodiesel, and is expected to reach 5.75 percent by 2010. Meanwhile, sources in the local renewable energy sector pointed out that prices for biodiesel and wheat (used to produce bioethanol) are set by the stock market, and this should be taken into consideration. Eco-benefits? In a report posted March 16, titled «How Environmentally Friendly are Biofuels?» the Greek Eco Forum ( cited a new study which looked at the full life cycle of biofuels, showing that «depending on the type and source of biofuel, the benefits and environmental impacts can vary considerably… some argue that when cultivation, including deforestation and soil acidification, is taken into account, biofuels consume more energy than they produce.» It quoted a report from the Material Science Department of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology that looked at the environmental costs and benefits of 26 biofuels from a wide variety of crops. «The damaging effects of each biofuel were calculated using two different criteria: greenhouse-gas emissions relative to gasoline, and overall environmental impact (including natural resource depletion, damage to human health and ecosystems). The authors found that most (21 of 26) biofuels reduce greenhouse emissions by 30 percent compared with fossil fuels. However, nearly half of the biofuels have greater environmental costs than petrol. The fuels that showed the greatest reductions in greenhouse gases (over 50 percent) when compared with fossil fuels were biodiesel made from waste cooking oil and methanol and methane derived from wood. These fuels, plus bioethanol made from whey, also performed very well when taking into account their full environmental impact. «The least environmentally friendly biofuels were biodiesel made from Brazilian soy, and bioethanol made from potatoes, rye and soy. These all had low reductions in greenhouse gas emissions and high negative environmental impact.»