While discussing biofuels with a colleague the other week, I wondered whether there was any demand for organically grown biofuels, as people interested in protecting the environment are likely to be interested both in biofuels and in organic agriculture. Not long afterwards I came across a record in CAB Abstracts for an article1 on the life cycle assessment of energy crops, which discussed the environmental impact of different ways of growing fuel crops. It concluded that organic farming was preferred to ‘integrated’ production for maize and soyabeans, that it had both advantages and disadvantages for cereals and oilseed rape, that extensive grassland was the lowest-impact source of biogas and (together with sugarbeet) bioethanol, and that there was no preferable crop for biodiesel.
I searched CAB Abstracts for records about organic farming and a variety of biofuels terms, but found surprisingly few; the majority of those that I did find were about organic farms wanting to make their own fuel, rather than about demand or supply in the wider market, although they were concentrated in recent years. It seems from this that organically grown biofuels are not yet a significant subject of study, although one might expect that the hint of an emerging trend would be continued in future years.
According to the CABI book Organic farming: an international history, the main reason for consumers to buy organic food has always been health, which obviously doesn’t apply to fuel, but other concerns include not only taste and animal welfare, but also the environment. There is now some awareness of organic cotton, due to the large amounts of pesticides used in growing conventional cotton (the section of CAB Abstracts from 1998 to the present contains a few dozen records on the subject, and there was an article about it in New Scientist as far back as 1994), so there are people who are interested in the organic growing of some non-food crops.
As for whether people ought to demand organically grown biofuels on environmental grounds, this appears to be similar to the question asked about food; the article mentioned above sheds some light on this. Recent publicity about the adverse environmental effects of fuel crops has included the issue of nitrogen from fertilizer, some of which is converted to nitrous oxide and escapes into the atmosphere where it is a powerful greenhouse gas and can cancel out the CO2 savings that result from replacing fossil fuels2, but this will apply to organic fertilizers too. There are conflicting claims over whether organic farming is best for the climate (e.g. by sequestering carbon in the soil) or whether conventional farming is best (e.g. by using herbicides to make ploughing unnecessary), and I’m not qualified to pronounce on this. Land clearance for biofuels is also an important issue3, and this could be made worse if organic farming resulted in lower yields and so needed more land.
Finally, it seems possible that genetic modification may play a role in biofuel production. The last 6 months’ worth of records in CAB Abstracts include several about the genetic modification of biofuel crops, and a few about the modification of the microorganisms used to process them. This might increase yields and help to reduce the nitrogen problem mentioned above4, but would not fall within the usual definition of organic agriculture. Might there be a case to be made that the most environmentally friendly crops could be both genetically modified and organic?
1: Kägi, T., Knuchel, R. F., Nemecek, T., Gaillard, G.: Ökobilanz von Energiepflanzen [Life cycle assessment of energy crops]. Agrarforschung (2007) 14 (10) pp. 460-465.
2: Pearce, F. and Aldhous, P.: Is the biofuel dream over? New Scientist (2007) 2634, pp. 6-7.
3: Fargione, J., Hill, J., Tilman, D., Polasky, S., Hawthorne, P.: Land Clearing and the Biofuel Carbon Debt. Science (2008) vol. 319 no. 5867, pp. 1235-1238. DOI: 10.1126/science.1152747
4: Aldhous, P.: Could new GM crops please the greens? New Scientist (2008) 2637, pp. 28-31