Biofuels 2.0

A new generation of biofuels is poised to come into the market. Grown on unused, ‘marginal’ land they won’t compete for our food crops. But just where exactly is all this marginal land, and whose backyard might it be? Helena Paul reports
Marginal lands support a multitude of livelihoods but also have a critical ecological role

Recent months have seen intense debate over agrofuels – biofuels made from crops. At first they were described as a panacea, a means of addressing climate change and regenerating agriculture and rural regions in Europe and around the world, particularly in Africa. The drive to exploit the global south for production of fuels from food crops such as corn and soya was presented as a development opportunity. However, many questions have since arisen about their true value for reducing greenhouse gas emissions and their impact on food production and prices. The indirect impacts of agrofuel production, such as land-use change, water depletion, waste, the displacement of people, other crops and animals and the human and environmental costs entailed, have become major concerns.

In response, policy-makers have been offered ‘second generation’ agrofuels. These, we are told, will not affect food production because they will use non-food crops. Technologies will convert the whole plant or tree to fuel, not just the fruit or seed...(see box). At least that is the vision. However, large plantations will still be required to provide the raw materials and thus, although agrofuels might not compete for food crops, they will certainly compete for land and water. Moreover the technologies may not be commercially viable for 10-20 years.

All this has caused confusion among political decision-makers. The European Union, having decided early in 2007 on a 10 per cent target for agrofuel use by 2020, has been strongly urged to reconsider, by a wide range of organisations and scientists profoundly concerned about the impacts. But the EU has resisted doing so to date. In February 2008, in response to the growing outcry about food prices and the indirect impacts of agrofuels, especially changes in land use, the UK government invited its newly established Renewable Fuels Agency (RFA) to undertake a review of such impacts. However, it continued with its plans to introduce mandatory blending of two and a half per cent of ‘renewable’ fuels in petrol in April 2008, rising to five per cent by 2010.

In July 2008, the RFA published the Gallagher Review into the indirect effects of biofuel production. The review acknowledges the multiple problems of agrofuel production. But while expressing caution about the 10 per cent agrofuel target, it claims that focusing on ‘marginal and idle lands’ and developing next generation agrofuels may be a solution. Such a claim involves two major assumptions: first, that second generation agrofuels will actually work, and secondly that there is enough ‘marginal’ land in the world to meet these ambitious targets without negative impacts. Unfortunately, neither of these pair of assumptions manages to stand up to scrutiny.

For a start, where is this marginal land that is now presented to us as a solution to current agrofuel problems and the need to expand agricultural production in general? How is it defined? This is a key question, because, as well as marginal, it is variously described as degraded, under-used, abandoned, sleeping, wasteland. These pejorative terms are being widely used to suggest that millions of hectares would benefit from being converted to agrofuel plantations. For example, the Brazilian government asserts that sugar cane in Brazil is mainly planted on ‘degraded’ land, of which it claims there are millions of hectares.

There is a resounding response to such assertions in Mausam, a new Indian magazine on climate change on The Corner House website, which says: ‘Rural and forest communities [...] say that there is no such thing as wastelands. Most of these lands are grazing lands, common pastures, degraded forests and also lands of small and marginal communities. They not only support a multitude of livelihoods but also have a critical ecological role. This is where the government and corporations are pushing for their fuels, displacing thousands of peoples [...]

‘Pastures and grazing lands In India are often de facto village commons and CPRs (common property resources), many of which form part of the larger forest landscapes and contribute to the forest communities’ economy and livelihoods.’ (see: According to Mausam there are millions of hectares of such land in India, vital to local people.

Marginal lands support a multitude of livelihoods but also have a critical ecological role

A woman’s place

As soon as one looks at marginal land in this way, it becomes clear that the pattern is repeated worldwide: untitled, common land exists in Africa, South America and across Asia. People may farm a plot individually, but also depend upon the shared resources of the commons. Indeed such land was a vital resource in the UK until the great waves of enclosure that reached a climax in the 19th Century dispossessed and uprooted ordinary people, concentrating land in the hands of a few, driving the majority into cities.

Genuinely marginal land, land that is not vital to local communities, does not exist in the amounts assumed. There are therefore highly damaging assumptions being made, about the true extent of marginal lands available.

Jonathan Davies, global co-ordinator of the World Initiative for Sustainable Pastoralism, Nairobi, Kenya, says: ‘In Africa, most of the lands in question are actively managed by pastoralists, hunter-gatherers and sometimes dryland farmers […] There may be wastelands lying around to be put under the plough, but I doubt that they are very extensive.’ In many parts of the world, women still have no property or inheritance rights. So-called marginal land may be the only land they can access. Widows, for instance, are sometimes given degraded land on which to grow food.

For them, it can make the difference between life and death in hard years because they know how to produce and gather food from it. Thus, according to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation 2008 report, Gender and Equity Issues in Liquid Biofuels Production – Minimising the Risks to Maximise the Opportunities: ‘The conversion of these lands to plantations for agrofuels production might therefore cause the partial or total displacement of women’s agricultural activities towards increasingly marginal lands,’ which would apply even greater pressure on women and land alike. Female labour on plantations is often exploitative and insecure while men usually benefit the most from cash crops for export.

Label of convenience

Another group regularly marginalised in discussions about development are cattle herders and pastoralists, especially in Africa. They travel across wide areas following the seasonal rains and fresh grass with their animals. External observers often assume that their lives would be improved if they were settled in one place and provided with the means to grow crops. However, the pastoralist way of life, evolved over many generations, often embodies vital knowledge about how to sustain these fragile resources.

At the 11th session (2005) of the working group on Minorities from the Higher Commission On Human Rights, an Ethiopian representative said: ‘The pastoral groups of the region traditionally depend on the common property resources consisting of pasture, water and mineral licks. Each has management rules that regulate access and responsibilities. Customarily, land is the collective property of the pastoralists and managed according to specific rules.’ Pastoralist communities in particular use highly effective systems of traditional ecological governance to manage their environments, but these are rarely acknowledged in modern development thinking.

Such collective management of land is often invisible to outsiders – whether government or private capital. The convenient concept of terra nullius – empty land – continues to thrive. The briefing: Agrofuels and the Myth of the Marginal Lands, published in September 2008 by the Gaia Foundation and others, reports: ‘Icin, an indigenous Dayak from West Kalimantan, Indonesia points at a map of the proposed [agrofuel] plantations, on supposedly unproductive “sleeping” land. “Actually there should be seven villages marked in this area. But they are not mentioned. Does this mean, for the outside world, we do not exist any more?”’

Where convenient, the presence of people may be recognised by agrofuel proponents. Smallholder farmers are often cited as the likely beneficiaries of agrofuel developments, especially oil palm and jatropha, because these require labour, but according to Olivier De Schutter, United Nations Special Rapporteur on the right to food, in his report to the UN General Assembly: ‘there is a real risk that exportled agricultural development will further marginalise the position of smallholders, worsening their food insecurity instead of improving it.’

Thus land that might appear ‘marginal’ to one person can be a vital resource to another. It may seem idle, degraded or underused, yet can provide vital food, fuel, medicine and building materials to local communities. It may be collective or common land used by such communities for generations, without the security of formal title to it.

Yet, as De Schutter notes: ‘No governmental delegation present at the High-Level Conference on World Food Security [held in June 2008 as the food crisis increased] mentioned agrarian reform or the need to protect the security of land tenure.’ Land reform is constantly sidelined by governments, but becomes ever more urgent in the context of agrofuels. This is because, while there is a natural limit to the demand for food crops, demand for agrofuel crops is potentially inexhaustible, because of the energy dependence of industrialised countries and the fact that fossil fuel is far more energy-dense than biomass. Even if agrofuel growers benefit. ‘Food security might suffer, for instance as a result of the increased price of land or a diminished availability of food.

De Schutter warns against trying to shape development through export crops, yet this is exactly how the agrofuel agenda is promoted in many regions.

People and their land

The interaction between people and marginal land may be subtle and complex. Dr Melaku Worede, a renowned Ethiopian geneticist, one of the founders of Seeds of Survival and a specialist in uncultivated biodiversity, says that marginal land with poor soils can be home to a highly biodiverse population of plants and animals in dynamic interaction. In parts of Ethiopia, these lands are not actively managed, and small farmers frequently leave areas undisturbed alongside the fields they cultivate. Although little studied, such marginal areas may prove to be important reserves. Because plants on marginal land must continuously adapt to harsh, often rapidly changing conditions, such land could be a vital source of genetic diversity for resistance to stresses such as drought, disease and pests in the future, especially as climate change threatens the viability even of locally adapted crops.

It is deeply ironic that climate change, already a serious threat to biodiversity and food production, may be accelerated by the conversion of marginal land to crops for biofuels – ostensibly to tackle climate change. Yet, while there is some discussion about how changes in land use increase global greenhouse gas emissions, for example when forests are cleared for crop production, we hear less about localised climate change caused by land-use change. Projections indicate that changing from grazing to crop production in East Africa would make some areas wetter and others drier, with more extreme floods and droughts and greater temperature differentials. The website of the International Livestock Research Institute reports that a joint African/US initiative, the Climate Land Interaction Project: ‘provides evidence of the complex connection between regional changes in climate and changes in land cover and land use. New study results are warning that the conversion of huge areas of pasturelands to croplands in east Africa will be a major contributor to global warming in the region.’ And this for the continent already projected to suffer some of the worst impacts of global climate change.

Yet the pressure for a ‘green revolution’ for Africa and the perception that it is the ‘new agricultural frontier’ could lead to the rapid and violent conversion of pasture and other ‘marginal’ lands to crops. It also provides a good pretext for land-grabbing, as prices are set to rise. The market is certainly taking an interest. Mark Twain once quipped: ‘Buy Land: they’re not making it any more’. Recognising that agriculture may be entering a period of scarcity and hence high prices, and also fleeing the property downturn, speculators and corporations have moved into land and crop commodities. Indeed speculation and hoarding were at least partly to blame for high food prices in recent months. Hedge funds and corporations have also recognised the opportunity for profits. Emergent Asset Management, based in the UK, recently launched its African Agricultural Land Fund, inviting investors to participate in ‘the growing Sub-Saharan agricultural sector’. In its 2007 report, Agrofuels in Africa: the impacts on land, food and forests, the African Biodiversity Network found that cases of ‘land grabbing’ had accelerated with the new influx of agrofuel developments.

Marginal land in the US and the EU

Even the US and the EU are not immune to the ‘marginal land’ issue. In some cases, land set-aside in the EU and conservation reserve land in the US may be ‘marginal’ because it is dry, has poor soils or steep gradients – yet may have a vital function within the ecosystem. For example, the US Conservation Reserve Program has been extremely successful in protecting biodiversity and water, reducing soil erosion and providing natural flood control. According to US government figures, it prevents 408 million tonnes of soil erosion and sequesters nearly 21 million tonnes of carbon a year. Yet across the US and EU, millions of hectares of previously set-aside land (approximately 10 per cent of the cropland in each region) are now being planted, following pressure from the agroenergy lobby and high commodity prices, which agrofuels have helped to push up.

To focus on ‘marginal’ land for agrofuels is extremely risky. Such land can be a vital resource for local people, who are often its most effective managers, yet they may be invisible to corporations and policy-makers, conveniently so for corporate agendas. Marginal land often plays a key role in protecting biodiversity, water and soil. That there are interactions between land-use change and climate change is clear but the dynamics are little understood. One thing is certain: they go far beyond the facile and deceptive emission counting beloved of bureaucrats and carbon traders. We already face an unpredictable future with increased extremes of temperature, rainfall, winds, droughts and violent weather events. Biodiverse ecosystems have a critical role to play in stabilising climate. And as far as plant genetic resources are concerned (a dry term for something our lives depend on!), so-called marginal land could be crucial. It must not be recklessly drenched in fertilisers and chemicals and planted with crops for unproven fuels in an attempt to avoid genuine adaptation to the end of the fossil
fuel age and energy dense consumption patterns. If we do not act responsibly, we could further marginalise our survival. This is no idle threat.

Helena Paul is an author and ecological campaigner who has specialised in indigenous people’s land rights, biodiversity and corporate responsibility

Old dog; new tricks

First generation agrofuels were made just from the fruit, seed or sap of the plant. Second generation agrofuels are derived from whole plants or trees, including material often classified as waste such as bark, stalks and stubble. The processes for creating fuels from algae, sewage or slurry are not included here (though see Ecologist April 2008 for more). See  the ‘What about chip fat?’ box , for more on deriving fuels from waste oils.

There are two different methods of producing second generation agrofuels: biochemical (including ligno-cellulosic and biobutanol) and thermal (including biomass gasification).

Biochemical methods deconstruct vital constituents of plant cells, cellulose and lignin, using heat, pressure, acid or a combination of all three. Cellulose is broken down into fermentable sugars by enzymes and then fermented into fuel by micro-organisms. Lignin can be used directly as fuel or as a potential source of chemicals currently derived from oil. However, there are many ‘biological barriers’ to be overcome before these processes are viable.

Thermal methods involve controlled combustion (pyrolysis) to break biomass into bio-oil, bio-char and synthesis gas. Bio-char is currently touted as a ‘soil improver’ for longterm carbon storage, but this is not wholly proven. Bio-oil and syngas
can be used for heat and power or as pre-cursors to transport fuel. Additionally, bio-oil can be used as shipping fuel. A process known as the Fischer-Tropsch catalytic chemical process may be used to convert syngas into transport fuel.

Micro-organisms are being collected, studied and genetically engineered with the aim of reducing energy inputs and
streamlining the process of converting biomass into agrofuel. GM research also aims to make plants grow faster, reduce their amount of lignin, or alter their metabolism to increase yield.

Some advocates envision ‘biorefineries’ producing all current petroleum products from biomass. But even they admit that it will be some several years (if ever) before second generation agrofuels achieve positive energy balance and commercial viability. Moreover, there are serious risks including GM contamination, global land-use conflicts, biodiversity loss and accelerated climate change.

Jatropha: myth or reality?

The oilseed bush Jatropha curcas is often cited as an ideal fuel crop that can be grown on marginal land with poor soils and little water in developing countries.

It is claimed that vast amounts of such land are available, thereby avoiding competition with food production on good, well-watered land. Jatropha plantations already exist in Africa, Asia and South America.

However, there is no previous experience of growing jatropha on a large scale and little is known about it, except that, although it may survive drought and poor soil, it is unlikely to produce a worthwhile crop under such conditions.

Jatropha growing requires labour and thousands are being promised jobs and income, but there is no guarantee that it will be viable.

At an expert meeting in Brussels in 2007, the Dutch research institute Plant Research International found that ‘any claims of low nutrient requirements, low water use, low labour inputs, the non-existence of competition with food production, and tolerance to pests and diseases are definitely not true in combination with high oil yield production.’

Fuels from Agriculture in Commercial Technology (FACT), an expert group based in the Netherlands, warned in a position
paper (2007) against large-scale plantations of Jatropha for at least four or five years, until sufficient experimental data is available: ‘At this stage, it is important to distinguish between “reality”, “promises” and “dangerous extrapolations”,’ it said.

FACT’s research suggests that optimal oil production from jatropha requires significant annual rainfall of up to 1000-1500 mm/hectare, considerably larger amounts than generally fall on what is usually considered ‘marginal land.’

Evidence suggests that many agrofuel investors know this already, and are therefore choosing to develop their jatropha plantations on well-watered, fertile lands, and not on ‘marginal’ lands.

What about chip fat?

So, is there such a thing as a sustainable biofuel? In a word, yes, but probably not in the kind of quantities of which governments and industry dream.

The greenest way to produce biofuel is to make it from waste products destined either for incineration or landfill.

The best known process is to refine it from waste cooking oil. In 2003, the UK produced some 100,000 tonnes of waste vegetable oil, which could yield roughly 110 million litres of biodiesel. That may sound like a lot, but bear in mind that in 2007, the UK burnt its way through more than 26 billion litres of road diesel fuel alone. In other words, the proportion of mineral diesel that could be replaced by waste chip oil is roughly 0.4 per cent of our current demand.

Environment Agency estimates suggest that there is perhaps another 100,000 tonnes of waste oil available which is currently simply being dumped or flushed down drains and Thames Water believes that 100 tonnes of fats, grease and oils enter the capitals sewers every day. If this proved true for the rest of the UK, then there might be an extra 200,000 tonnes of potential biodiesel to be had. Some are already trying – in Brazil, state-owned oil company Petrobras is developing a technique to skim the fat off ponds of sewage and convert it to biodiesel. But even if the Thames Water estimate proved correct, the UK would struggle to supply 1.5 per cent of its current diesel demand from waste fats.

What about other forms of waste? There are plenty of old car tyres – some 18.4 million of them after some are used in engineering or surfacing projects – that end up in landfill each year but which could be turned into diesel using a technique known as pyrolysis. But, according to work by the University of Strathclyde, even converting all the available tyres to fuel would only produce 0.09 per cent of the country’s diesel requirement. One established technology that could give us sustainable automotive fuel is anaerobic digestion, where organic wastes such as manures and food waste are heated in the absence of air to produce carbon dioxide and methane. This ‘biogas’ can then be used to power cars, buses or trains. Sweden already runs nearly 800 biogas buses, as well as a specially modified train and some private vehicles.

In the UK, we throw away 6.7 million tones of food waste every year, according to the Government’s ‘Love Food, Hate Waste’ campaign. So how much of this could be used to fuel our cars?

Let’s assume that we managed to collect half of that waste from people’s homes. Putting that into biogas digesters, taking some energy out to run the process, clean the gas and compress it for vehicle use would give us about 209 million cubic metres of fuel. In 2007, we drew just shy of 24 billion litres of petrol from the pumps. One cubic metre of biogas displaces about 1.1 litres of petrol, which means that even this large quantity of gas would only fulfil just under one per cent of current demand, or perhaps up to two per cent if we managed to collect every last scrap of food waste.

Do these depressing percentages mean that we should give up on truly sustainable biofuels? Only if we remain wedded to the notion of private car ownership, powered by hydrocarbon fuels. In 2006, the UK’s bus fleet burned through 1.8 billion litres of diesel. Add together the fuel we could produce from waste cooking oil, waste tyres and biogas (roughly 337 million litres), and we could run one fifth of our bus services on carbon-neutral, sustainable biofuel – that’s a target that is really worth aiming for.

Mark Anslow is the Ecologist's News Editor

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