November 12, 2012

False Hope: the harmful promotion of agrofuels in Asia and Canada

When the price of agrofuel production finally became economically competitive with the high price of oil around 2005, a debate soon opened up about whether transport fuel produced from crops (such as palm oil, corn, sugarcane, jatropha, etc.) could actually help our planet to cope with the fuel, food, climate, and financial crises we face. While production of agrofuel shows no sign of slowing down (see OECD tables for global agrofuel production), there is an overwhelming body of evidence that agrofuels are not the solution we need.

Oil palm plantation, Malaysia

Production of agrofuels (also widely referred to by the more hopeful term ‘biofuels’) is harming communities and ecosystems around the world. Agrofuel production, particularly in industrial monoculture plantations has led to land grabbing, food insecurity, poor labour conditions, decreased biodiversity, soil erosion, deforestation, and increased carbon emissions (through production, land use change, and transport).

The Asia-Pacific Working Group, one of CCIC’s regional working groups, recently finished drafting a report on this topic: Agrofuel in Asia: Production, Impacts, International Incentives & Canada’s Role. The report analyzes current production of agrofuel across Asia, examines the impacts of this production on communities and ecosystems, looks at international demand and incentives for agrofuel, and asks what role Canada plays in promoting agrofuel. I presented this report (view presentation online) at a Canadian Asian Studies Association conference earlier this month.

Our report finds that although many countries (including Canada, but also several in Asia - Korea, Japan, Vietnam) are investing in research into agrofuel production that does not require food crops (these are the so-called second and third generation agrofuels, to be produced from grasses, fast-growing trees, agricultural residues, algae, etc.), the vast majority of current agrofuel production still comes from taking food crops produced on good agricultural land, and converting them into ethanol or agro-diesel.

This means that the global demand for transport fuel is being partially satisfied by using agricultural land (often in developing countries, for export) to grow food crops that, instead of being used to feed humans, are used for fuel. That this practice is leading to land grabbing and food insecurity should come as no surprise. As land is acquired abroad to grow agrofuel to meet domestic demand (ActionAid puts the global total at 50 million hectares of land grabs for agrofuel), poorer groups lose access to their traditional lands, which compromises livelihoods and access to food.

Canada’s strategy in regards to agrofuels is based on the ideas of sustained growth, and problem solving through technological innovation, which aligns with the vision of a “green economy” (being promoted by the UN Environment Programme among others) in which technological solutions will provide the answers, while the current production processes of producing agrofuel from crops, continue unchanged. The Canadian government is investing in agrofuel subsidies, blending mandates and research into alternative agrofuel feedstock sources (notably its NextGen Biofuels Fund and BioFuelNet Canada). Encouraging demand for agrofuels in Canada makes it likely that more agrofuels will be produced in Asia since Canada may not be able to satisfy its own needs with domestic production. By promoting the consumption of both ethanol and agrodiesel, the Canadian government is also supporting agrofuel production in Asia, which leads to the many negative consequences outlined above.

For further reading: 

Besides the research undertaken by academics and international institutions, many CSOs have done extensive work to analyze the impacts of agrofuel production and agrofuel subsidies and blending targets. 

For more details, see: Fuel for Thought: Addressing the social impacts of EU biofuel policies (ActionAid 2012); The New Biomassters (ETC Group 2010); Driving to Destruction: the impacts of Europe’s biofuel plans on carbon emissions and land (Friends of the Earth 2010); The Hunger Grains: The fight is on. Time to scrap EU biofuel mandates (Oxfam International 2012); Food for Fuel? (USC Canada 2008); and Industrial Agrofuels Fuel Hunger and Poverty (La Via Campesina 2009).

This blog was written by Jack Litster, Assistant Coordinator of the Asia-Pacific Working Group, CCIC. The views expressed are his own, and do not necessarily represent the views of CCIC or its members.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent article,
    Couldn’t agree more...biofuels are inhumane. We have to consider long term food security and these mandates supporting biofuels and promoting them as green energy which is incorrect when we consider the devastating effects they are having on people in developing countries. It should also be noted that biofuels compromise our ability to feed ourselves in the future since it competes with agricultural land and water and contributes to degrading soil through monocropping. People need to be more aware of the negative implications of this technology and urge their governments to stop subsidizing such initiatives.