Recent developments in the world of biofuels

Water hyacinth mat on river Opinions on the use of crops for biofuel and bioenergy continue to be polarized – are they a ‘good thing’ or not? When are they a ‘good thing’? Who benefits?

How do you measure the impacts and their interactions at a local, national and international level on food security, land resources, water, greenhouse gas emissions, energy security, poverty, social development, sustainability…and try to remain impartial and objective?

The Bioenergy and Food Security (BEFS) Analytical Framework developed by FAO aims to address these issues by providing an analytical framework and set of tools which can be used to measure these impacts. Using a step-by-step methodology, the goal is to help policymakers make informed decisions on whether development of bioenergy is a viable option for their country and identify suitable policies that will maximize benefits and minimize risks.

Three separate reports describe the implementation of the framework in Peru, Tanzania and Thailand, with suggestions for suitable options for each country.

Another source of information is Recent developments in the world of biofuels, a critical analysis by CABI scientists of the latest research on the potential and realities of growing and processing jatropha, algae and biomass for biofuels or bioenergy – see Biofuels Information Exchange.

Land use and poverty alleviation issues in Mozambique, Tanzania, Kenya, India, China and Brazil are discussed as well as research into using problematic invasive aquatic weeds (water hyacinth – pictured above – is a favourite) for bioenergy. The pros and cons of algal biofuels, and the latest technology for concentrating biomass energy into a more energy-dense form which makes transport to a processing plant more feasible are discussed, and more…

BIE is an impartial site for exchanging information on biofuels research – the exchange on pests of jatropha has generated the longest running discussion over the last 2 years – and the site provides open access to documents on biofuels, including the peer-reviewed Land Use Change: Science and Policy Review (copublished with Hart Energy Consulting) and abstracts of the latest research on biofuels from the CAB Abstracts database.

For a comprehensive resource of published information on research into man’s impact on the environment see CABI’s Environmental Impact which has a special section on biofuels research information – abstracts, books, book chapters, reports, reviews.

Biofuels: a public health hazard?

Jatropha curcas

Jatropha curcas, image courtesy of Biofuels Information Exchange

It has come to my attention that Jatropha curcas (physic nut or purging nut) is being pushed in India as a biofuel crop (for oil) and that there is now an emerging public health problem there due to accidental poisoning of children.

An Indian member of the listserv HIFA2015 to which I belong, Pankaj Oudhia, reported increased hospitalisations of children across the nation during the Jatropha fruiting season in 2010. The seeds are tasty but it only takes 3 or 4 seeds and you end up in hospital.  Five children died. Cultivated in fields as the biofuel crop, he also reported it was deliberately planted in schools. 

Here at CABI, our scientists, projects and information specialists have much to offer on the topic of biofuels and in 2008 we launched the Biofuels Information Exchange. So I went straight there to see if they had discussed Jatropha in their Forum, which they had (see “Is jatropha really the 'miracle' biofuel crop that some profess it to be?” from Carole Ellison).

AS a biofuel crop its in its infancy and has many downsides, not least on food security & the fact that you can’t use the husks for feed.  One of the reasons it was even considered was that as a weed (originating in South America) it was thought likely to be easy & cheap to cultivate. Turns out to make it productive you do have to go heavy on the fertiliser (expensive) and it also can harbour a mosaic virus. Only in passing was it pointed out that the seeds were poisonous and then only with reference to its use for animal feed.

One of the issues raised in this HIFA2015 communication was the lack of knowledge in the local communities about the poisonous nature of the seeds, so that parents could not forewarn their children.  And obviously the authorities had no idea otherwise they’d not have planted them in schools!

Definitely a lack of communication between botanists, agriculturalists, governments and medics when it comes to people’s health.

Let’s not get complacent here in Europe. WE all need reminding which plants are poisonous or irritating in gardens and in the hedgerows. Then we should tell children not to eat or touch them. Just because a bird is eating a juicy red berry does not make it edible for humans or even your pet dog.

Knowing a traditional name helps even us….deadly nightshade is a dead give-away isn’t it?

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How Green are Biofuels?

Biofuels are often touted as a way of efficiently generating power with lower effects on the environment than existing fuel production methods. But how effective are they if you weigh everything up? A paper by Lucas Reijnders in CAB Reviews looks at life-cycle assessments of biofuels and finds that they are much less efficient than solar cells in energy conversion, and some perform worse that conventional fossil fuels in emission of chemicals contributing to acidification and eutrophication. Some even appear set to worsen climate change.

Life-cycle assessments are very complex to do, because it is hard to work out what effects to rule in or out and on what basis to make comparisons. Factors such as what the land was previously used for need to be taken into account. Thus fuel from sugarcane grown on cleared Cerrado savannah has a lower net effect on greenhouse gas emissions than conventional diesel, but if a rainforest is being cleared, the biofuel does worse than diesel. Biofuels look much better if grown on land that isn’t currently absorbing much CO2. Reijnders, from the Institute for Biodiversity and Ecosystem Dynamics at the University of Amsterdam, points out that incentives may be needed to encourage the use of abandoned soils rather than clearing rainforest, as the rainforest clearance gives producers income from the sale of timber.

The input of fuel into producing biofuel needs to be estimated. Reijnders concludes that total fossil-fuel demand is relatively high for ethanol produced from European grain or US maize, and relatively low for palm oil or ethanol from sugarcane. However, palm oil tends to do worse than fossil fuel in greenhouse gas emissions.

“The ‘seed-to-wheel’ emissions of greenhouse gases associated with current transport biofuels are often higher than the corresponding life-cycle emissions of conventional fossil fuels”, says Reijnders. “Palm oil and ethanol from maize and wheat may contribute to energy security, but are counterproductive in limiting climate change,” he writes.

‘Transport biofuels – a life-cycle assessment approach’ by Lucas Reijnders, CAB Reviews: Perspectives in Agriculture, Veterinary Science, Nutrition and Natural Resources, 2008, 3, No. 071

Is this really the future of food?

Korntempe_2
A few weeks ago we were discussing beer – or rather the lack of it expected
as a result of climate change. This week, Chalmers
University of Technology
in Sweden has unveiled a new superfood. Even less
appealing than no beer, this rather unappetising dish is the Swedish equivalent
of tempeh and was brewed up as part of a Ph.D. research project.

As the student responsible, Charlotte Eklund-Jonsson, explains, the main
objectives behind her work were to develop a whole grain product that did not
lose its available iron content. Normally with barley, you can have whole grain
or high iron availability. Fermenting it with the micro-fungus Rhizopus
oligosporus
* (something my colleagues at CABI
know a lot about), she has managed to preserve all the benefits of a high
fibre-whole grain, high folate food, while doubling the availability of the iron
it contains. Eklund Jonsson points out that while it was designed as a highly
nutritious foodstuff for vegetarians, the fact that it is produced from barley
or oats – locally produced in Sweden; might also make it an attractive choice
for consumers of the ‘green’ persuasion.

But seriously – however much responsibility we are willing to accept for
using up all the oil, do we really deserve this?

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Easier being green…

Last Saturday, I cycled to Tesco’s*. It’s around five miles away from where I
live, so wasn’t a huge effort and, to be fair, I could use the extra exercise. I
stress this because I’m about to mention the environment. Before you head off to
the ‘post comment’ box below, I must stress that my environmental credentials
aren’t great. Like many of us, I guess I do my bit, but sometimes find this
relationship a bit one sided. My meagre efforts at saving it are simply not
appreciated. It must be that unconditional love that only a parent could show a
tempestuous child. As if to prove my point, as I headed out of Tesco’s with a
re-usable bag of groceries on my back, it rained. It seems to do this most times
I ‘do my bit for the environment’ and leave the car at home.

The environment clearly doesn’t appreciate my efforts.

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