Biofuels were touted as a clean and green answer to the challenge of climate change, but now they are being blamed for soaring food prices and environmental damage, writes Harry McGee.
FOR THE FIRST six months of this year, a tsunami of discontent has rippled through the developing world. In Indonesia, government officials and police were called in to deal with emergency riots. Mobs in the Haitian capital, Port-au-Prince, rioted for three days, looting shops and attacking the presidential palace. Police were forced to use tear gas to disperse mobs in Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh.
The scenes were familiar, but for once politics had nothing to do with the trouble. The impetus behind serious rioting in almost a dozen countries was the most simple of them all: hunger.
The terrible paradox was that the crisis stemmed from a commodity that only a year ago was being hailed as the saviour for another global crisis - climate change. In 12 months, biofuels have slumped from panacea to pariah, as food prices double, pushing 100 million people worldwide below the poverty line
Robert Zoellick, president of the World Bank, adroitly described the problem: "While many are worried about filling their gas tanks, many others around the world are struggling to fill their stomach."
The cause lies in a biblical proverb retold: they sow the wind and they reap the whirlwind. More than one factor has been at play. When it comes to the blame game, the following have taken supporting roles: storms and droughts over successive years leading to poor harvests; the impact of oil prices; and the demands placed on global food supplies by the better diets of a growing middle class in China, India and Brazil.
But there has never been any doubt about the identity of the main villain of the piece - biofuels. Essentially, the case against is that crops such as corn and wheat have been diverted away from food to fuel. This has led to severe shortages, pushing basic staples such as bread beyond affordability for the poorest of the poor.
And the personification of that villain? Step forward, George W Bush. In his state of the union address in early 2006, he declared that the US was "addicted to oil", and vowed that biofuels would make up 20 per cent of America's transport fuel needs within 10 years.
"A lot of the problems we are having now can be traced back to George Bush saying that the US was addicted to oil and we need to wean ourselves off it," says Oisín Coughlan of Friends of the Earth. "His policy was 'We are not going to change our cars, our planning or our attitude. We will just change the fuel and to hell with the consequences.' "
The consequences have been hell for some people. Backed by huge subsidies and trade barriers that keep prices artificially low, a third of American corn has been diverted to produce ethanol. It saves the US a billion barrels of oil a day and has made the country the world's biggest biofuel producer (accounting for 48 per cent of total production).
US claims that biofuels have only contributed between 2 and 3 per cent to food price rises have been dismissed as risible, and not just by non-governmental organisations. Don Mitchell, a senior economist with the World Bank, estimated that biofuels accounted for almost three quarters of the 140 per cent rise in global food prices over the past six years.
Jean Ziegler, the UN's former special rapporteur on the right to food, lambasted the use of food crops to create ethanol as a "crime against humanity".
Bolivian president Evo Morales derided the developed world's obsession with biofuels.
"Cars come first, not human beings. But, for us, how important is life and how important are cars? So I say life first and cars second," said Morales.
To compound the problem, huge questions are being asked about the green and environmental credentials of biofuels. And that is a mortal blow for environmentalists who championed biofuels for years.
IT HAS BEEN found that conversion of certain grains into ethanol has led to increases in greenhouse emissions, because of the high energy input involved. And swathes of rain forest and Indonesian peatlands have been lost forever as biofuels encroach or push poor farmers onto marginal land.
The sustainability of such crops has also been questioned. "To fill a tank of an SUV with bioethanol takes as much grain as will feed a family for a year," goes a much-repeated slogan of the sceptics.
Michael O'Brien, the trade policy officer of Trócaire, says that the aid agency has come across instances in Central America where small farmers with less than a hectare of land have been bought out by large biofuel companies, the short-term gain not compensating for the long-term loss of livelihood.
"Only the sceptics at this point believe that biofuels do not have a negative impact on food prices and food supply," he says.
True, there has been an extraordinary interest in biofuels over the past few years, but the flirtation is older than the love affair with black gold. The engines and cars developed by early pioneers such as Rudolf Diesel and Henry Ford were designed to run on peanut oil and hemp. But they were quickly abandoned after the discovery of abundant fossil fuels in the US and the Middle East. There has been renewed interest every time there have been acute oil shortages - during wars (the Germans produced liquid fuel from potatoes and from coal during the second World War) and, more recently, during the Opec crisis of the 1970s.
Simply defined, biofuels are fuels derived from biological material, mainly plants. The most common is bioethanol (the petrol replacement), which is derived from sugar cane or sugar beet, or else from starch-based crops such as corn or maize. The crop is fermented to produce ethanol. Biodiesel is produced from oils or fat. In Europe, the main crop is oilseed rape. But fuel can also be produced from vegetable oils, waste oils, tallow (animal fat or suet) or from lard.
Brazil has been dubbed the Saudi Arabia of biofuels. It began developing its bioethanol industry in the 1970s and now produces a staggering 15 billion litres a year. Flexi-fuel vehicles (those that can take ethanol as well as petrol) accounted for more than 70 per cent of all vehicles sold in Brazil last year. And sugar cane (like sugar beet in Ireland) seems to be the smartest of the current generation of biofuel crops. Sugar is far cheaper, more energy-efficient and has far lower carbon emissions than petrol. In addition, the Brazilian president, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, has convincingly argued that his country's cultivation of sugar cane has not impacted on world food prices, and he has prohibited any planting along the Amazon.
In contrast, starchy crops such as corn are expensive to convert and result in only marginal reductions in CO2 emissions. They can only compete against sugar cane because of massive subsidies, trade barriers and the protectionism of the US. In Europe, the main fuel produced is biodiesel, which takes up half of EU vegetable oil crops such as oilseed rape.
It wasn't just George Bush who got into the Klondyke spirit about biofuels. The EU also embraced them enthusiastically - although security of supply has played as big a role in its thinking as environmental concerns.
It set itself ambitious biofuels targets of 5.75 per cent by 2010 and 10 per cent by 2020. In February 2007, then minister for the environment Noel Dempsey set an intermediate target for biofuels of 2.2 percent of transport fuel by the end of this year.
HOWEVER, THIS CURRENT generation of biofuels aren't exactly efficient and thrifty when it comes to land use. On a global scale, the fuel needs of the US alone would require cultivation of 75 per cent of all the available land in the world. On a more local level, the picture was not much rosier. When Dempsey published the White Paper last year, he repeated the word "challenge" several times, which is the political world for impossible.
Barry Caslin from Teagasc, who is an expert in this area, explains the "challenge" involved in reaching the 5.75 per cent target for transport fuels by 2010.
"The target is basically unachievable from indigenous resources. In terms of our land base, we have a small amount of land in tillage in Ireland, only 300,00 hectares. To achieve that biofuels target, we would have to more than double our tillage area [to 600,000 hectares] by 2010."
Even the more modest target of 2 per cent for this year would require 75,000 hectares of tillage land, with a third planted with wheat (for ethanol) and two thirds in rapeseed for biodiesel. Ireland is nowhere near that. The figures for 2007 show 0.6 per cent, which is tiny. It means that if Ireland were to pursue the 5.75 per cent target, it would have to import the vast majority of its biofuels. Under WTO rules, it is prohibited to specify the provenance of the import. Therefore, Ireland would have no choice but to run the gauntlet of importing biofuels that were driving up food prices, leading to world hunger and causing environmental harm.
Says Oisín Coughlan: "The European Parliament recommend a target of 4 per cent by 2015. It's a more realistic and appropriate target in the absence of better research on the impact of biofuels."
For Eamon Ryan, the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, following targets that lead to environmental damage, unsustainablity and world hunger seems to defeat the purpose of being a Green. He prefaces his remarks with a bit of realpolitik, saying that Ireland does need a small percentage of biofuels in the event of a serious oil crisis, to shore up strategic supplies.
"It is an industry that is going to develop one way or another because oil is now $140 a barrel," he says. Ryan insists he has been concerned about the issue for some time. "Essentially, we [in Ireland] need to develop a fuel stock that does not lead to hunger in other countries and that can be done in an environmentally sustainable way."
Earlier this month, a report drawn up by Prof Ed Gallagher for the British government recommended that the 5.75 per cent 2010 target be dropped in favour of a slower and more gradual increase in biofuels, backed up by research.
For the first time in public, Ryan all but says that this approach will now be followed in Ireland. "There is no sense in holding to that 5.75 per cent 2010 target. It's a bad policy to ramp up biofuels production to meet that target without putting sustainability criteria in place. It also makes sense to have a gradual curved path recommended by Gallagher and an interim review in 2015." He argues that the approach must be taken by the EU as a whole, saying he supports energy commissioner Andris Piebalgs in his view that producers of biofuels must show they are sustainable and must also be obliged to certify carbon reductions.
Having said all that, Ryan still believes that Ireland and Europe can almost meet its - that word again - "challenging" target of 10 per cent by 2020. But, using present technology, the land implication would be aapproximately 500,000 hectares, about 200,000 more than all the available arable land in Ireland at present.
If they are to be met, such lofty ambitions will be dependent on a number of factors, not least the development of so-called second-generation biofuels. These are crops that are grown specifically for fuel and do not compete with food crops. Unlike rape seed, which needs to be rotated for four years, these crops produce every year or bi-yearly once established. They include willow and miscanthus (elephant grass). About 2,000 hectares of both crops are already grown in Ireland under an energy crops grant scheme.
But according to Barry Caslin of Teagasc, commercial production of second-generation biofuels is still five to six years away. "Some might ask, why do we not simply wait for the second generation? But we need to get our infrastructure in place, we need to have a platform. First generation may be inefficient. But we need to get involved."
It's not just about technology, it's also a mindset. The biofuels industry in Ireland is infinitesimally small. Caslin says it will "need a big change of mindset for farmers to go into the new areas of fuel farming". Everybody agrees that biofuels have a place but are not the panacea they were once held out to be.
Ireland finds itself in a strange position on biofuels, playing catch-up, trying to jump on to a train that seems to be running out of track.
OUT OF THE FRYING PAN: THE NEXT GENERATION
On the banks of the River Barrow near New Ross, two sets of large storage tanks sit close to each other. One stores diesel for Esso. The other looks very similar but it's not the same. It stores diesel all right, but it is a very different form of diesel. For this is biodiesel made from tallow (animal fat) and waste vegetable oil, collected from fish and chip shops and restaurants all over Ireland.
It's a fascinating facility, operated by Green Biofuels Ireland, and is about to start full production. Its chief executive Nicholas Tierney and his father, Gerry, say it is the only commercial-scale biofuel plant in Ireland (though Carbery in west Cork produces the ethanol used by Maxol from whey).
The €21 million plant was manufactured by the Austrian company BDI, which has built some 30 similar plants worldwide. Nicholas describes it as an "early second-generation" refinery. Used cooking oil and animal fats (sourced from meat processors) are essentially wastes, he says, and thus are non-food crops.
The plant, at full capacity, will produce 34.5 million litres of biodiesel each year, all from waste oil and tallow sourced in Ireland. That would meet 60 per cent of the biodiesel requirements of 2 per cent in 2009 and will fuel 14,000 cars. Tierney points out that there is no waste stream, that everything is recycled and that the product meets all requirements for reduced emissions and sustainability criteria.
Other second-generation biofuels (fuel derived from non-food crops) are five to six years shy of commercial production, however. Intriguingly, there are two native crops that have huge potential as fuel crops. One is the humble pastureland grass that is pervasive in Ireland. According to Barry Caslin of Teagasc, it has massive potential as biogas produced using anaerobic digestion. Dr Jerry Murphy of UCC, who has done a lot of research in this area, estimates that biogas (biomethane) derived from 578 hectares of grass silage would provide sufficient gas to run the 89 buses belonging to Cork Bus each year.
The other big potential fuel crop is seaweed. There are three million tonnes on the coast and, says Dr Stefan Kraan of the Irish Seaweed Centre at NUI, Galway, it has huge potential as a second-generation biofuel, which can be harvested from seaweed farms measuring 10km by 10km.