Growing biofuels causes food shortages: myth or not?

As a science-based method, LCA is an excellent tool to bust the myths that surround sustainability. In this monthly series, we look at some common sustainability ideas to see if they are myth or true. In today’s episode we discuss the concerns about the recent rapid increase in global biomass production.

Ever since the global food crisis of 2007 and 2008, biomass grown for biofuels is seen as the bad guy. At the time, lower crop yields worldwide caused political and economic instability, as well as social unrest in both developed and developing countries. It also resulted in heated discussions about the influence of biofuels on the price of grains. So how strong is the relationship between growing biofuels and food, and does producing more of the former mean producing less of the latter? Researchers from the University of Utrecht shed new light on this topic.

Supporters of biofuels

Biofuels such as rapeseed, wood pellets and ethanol from corn have the potential to reduce greenhouse gases. Biofuels are made from plants that have stored carbon dioxide from the atmosphere throughout their lifetime. Biofuel supporters consider biofuels a form of stored solar energy.  When biofuels are burnt, carbon dioxide enters the atmosphere again. As biofuels are harvested as part of a constantly replenished crop, they form a closed carbon cycle with no net increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide levels and can be considered climate-neutral. In contrast, when non-renewable fuels are used, the atmospheric carbon dioxide levels increase.

Controversial crops

Naturally, there are also arguments against the use of biofuels. Using corn to produce ethanol means it can’t be used as food or animal feed. In addition, the production of more crops, whether for food or for biofuels, requires more land. As a consequence, forests may be sacrificed to develop new agricultural land, even though these forests are needed for carbon sequestration.

Smart agricultural practices

Supporters and opponents of biofuels are both invested in their point of view, and it is difficult to do a quantitative comparison of their arguments. However, new research from the University of Utrecht shows that growing biomass for biofuels does not have to impede the production of food. I emphasize ‘does not have to’, because lead researcher Sarah Gerssen-Gondelach says that this is only the case if certain conditions for smart agricultural practices are fulfilled. These practices help to increase yields and lower the demand for agricultural land while reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Her advice includes:

  • Smart use of fertilizers, only at times and places where it’s needed, and using fertilizer pellets that release their nutrients gradually.
  • Natural pest control, for example, cultivating crops or insects that create unfavorable circumstances for pests or using pest-resistant crops.
  • Minimum soil preparation to limit the negative effects of digging and ploughing, such as nutrient losses and reduction of organic matter in the soil.
  • In livestock farming, the use of grass with high nutritional value or additional feed, to reduce the required area of land per animal.

Growing biofuels causes food shortages: myth or not?

Status: Myth

Growing biofuels does not have to impede the production of food. To increase biofuel production while preventing food shortages and deforestation for food production, agricultural practices need to be intensified in a sustainable way. There are many areas where the yield per hectare can be enhanced, sometimes even doubled. The benefits are not only a reduction in land occupation but also a reduction in greenhouse gases per produced amount of food. Thus, with the above-listed advice from Sarah Gerssen-Gondelach, sustainable intensification of agricultural practice can have multiple benefits.

Uncover more sustainability myths

This is the tenth part of our ‘Sustainability Mythbusters’ series. See other episodes:

It’s easy to use ‘common sense’ and make assumptions in sustainability, but does that get you the results you want? If you want to learn how you can use sustainability metrics to uncover more myths for your company, contact us.

Laura Golsteijn

Senior Consultant

I am eager to increase the environmental awareness of our society, and I believe that everyone can contribute to a more sustainable world, every day. At PRé we provide companies with both the knowledge and the tools to improve their products and services. I am excited to work for an organisation that is involved in developing sustainable initiatives.

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