In the face of global warming which is now acknowledged by almost all to be at least partly man-made, and of high oil prices and worries about dependence on imports from politically unstable regions, the idea of renewable energy from plants seems a very attractive one. Biofuels aren’t at risk from political upheaval or terrorism, they won’t run out as the crops can be planted again every year, and they’re even carbon neutral, as although burning them releases carbon into the atmosphere, they have already absorbed that carbon as plants. Surely this is a new, ‘green’ industry without a downside?
Except it’s not quite as simple as that.
Concern has already been expressed about the potential contribution of biofuels to deforestation. One of the crops which can be used to produce biodiesel is oil palm, long a bugbear of conservationists. Palm oil, already in a huge number of the products we buy every day from the supermarket, is grown on vast monoculture plantations which in many cases have first been cleared from tropical rainforests. With biodiesel yet another use for this multifunctional crop, more forests may be under threat. China has agreed to invest in a $5.5 billion biofuels project on the islands of New Guinea and Borneo, and according to The Wall Street Journal, one million hectares (2.5 million acres) have been reserved for the eight-year plan, which would convert tropical forest for oil palm, sugar, and cassava plantations. If virgin forest is cleared for fuel crop production, then the resulting fuel will not be quite as carbon neutral as its proponents claim.
But deforestation may not be the only unplanned consequence of the rush to biofuels. Now news comes from Mexico of soaring tortilla prices, which are said to have tripled or quadrupled in some parts of the country since last summer. As a result, poorer Mexicans may be being priced out of their staple diet, and driven to eating cheaper – but much less nutritious – instant noodles instead.
Many Mexicans put the rising price of their staple food down to one main factor – fuel ethanol, which is driving dramatic increases in the the price of corn. Ethanol, which has become more popular as an alternative fuel in the United States and elsewhere because of high oil prices, is generally made with yellow corn. But the price of white corn, which is used to make tortillas, is indexed in Mexico to the international price of yellow corn. As demand rises from the burgeoning fuel ethanol industry, poor Mexicans count the cost.
For the industry view on the benefits of biofuels, see the Renewable Fuels Association or America’s National Biodiesel Board. For an alternative view on oil palm, see the Indonesian pressure group Sawit Watch (‘Oil palm watch’). Or for a resource which gives access to all the scientific research on biofuels, visit the CABI website and subscribe to the database subset ‘Biofuels Abstracts’.