Biofuels: the Sums Don't Add up

(ARCHIVE NEWS - MAY 2007. Please note links may not be working)

Biofuels are shaping up to become a 'GM success story' of the sustainable, economical, clean, safe, environmentally friendly, solution to our energy problems and global warming (see BIOFUELS: A SUSTAINABLE SHAM)

But, what does the bottom line actually look like?

A study by the University of Minnesota published in 2006 concluded that bioethanol from maize offered a modest net energy gain of 25% over oil, suggesting a release of 12% less greenhouse gases, while biodiesel from soya offered a more promising 93% net energy gain with 41% reduction in greenhouse gases. The study took into account the direct agricultural, processing and transport expenses and useful by-products, but not environmental damage nor increased demand on land and water. Therefore, when viewing the bigger picture, it concluded that, if America's entire maize and entire soya crops were used to make biofuel, they would contribute less than 3% of current gasoline and diesel usage. This would put a serious strain on food supplies and prices.

A second study by Cornell University published in 2005 came to very uncomfortable conclusions.

Regarding bioethanol from the various sources:
  • maize requires an input of 29% more fossil-fuel energy than the net energy it can produce
  • switchgrass fermentation requires an input of 45% more fossil-fuel energy than the net energy it can produce
  • wood fermentation requires 57% more fossil fuel energy than the net energy it can produce.

Regarding biodiesel from various sources: 
  • soya requires 27% more fossil fuel energy than the net energy it can produce
  • sunflower requires 118% more fossil fuel energy than the net energy it can produce.
Again, all direct costs were factored in, but environmental damage was not.

The global reality of biofuel arithmetic was spelled out by the National Farmers Union of Canada at the beginning of the year:
  • if the world's entire supply of oilseeds were turned to biodiesel production, it would provide one sixth of the diesel fuel we currently consume
  • if the world's entire supply of corn and wheat were turned to bioethanol production it would supply less than one third of our gasoline needs
  • if a more realistic 10% of land was turned to fuel production, it would yield, at best, 2-3% of our liquid fuel needs
  • in our current situation where in six of the last seven years we have consumed more grains and oil seeds than we produced and during the last decade the world's crop land area has been static or declining while our population grows, using land and water to feed cars will starve people.
The World Wildlife Fund has pointed out a fundamental flaw in the use of biofuels to tackle global warming: land use. Brazil is the world's model for successful conversion to bioethanol. Using sugarcane, it is possible to produce eight times as much fuel energy as it costs to grow and process. However, the major source (80%) of greenhouse gases comes not from petrol but from the carbon released by deforestation. Destroying a hectare of forest which can absorb 20 tons of CO2 and replanting it will sugar-cane to save 13 tons of CO2 does not add up helpfully.

Ecologist reporter, Mark Anslow, has pointed out the many flaws in industry's optimistic calculations of biofuel energy advantages. For example:
  • because oil is a super-concentrated form of energy, adding ethanol dilutes it. This means a larger volume of fuel is needed for the same energy output
  • hot weather will reduce bioethanol efficiency because the fuel will evaporate; cold weather will reduce biodiesel efficiency because it will have to be pre-heated before use
  • bioethanol and biodiesel are solvents and will result in faster wear and tear of equipment
  • useful by-products like glycerin which is used by the cosmetic industry and CO2 which is used by the soft drinks industry will easily saturate the market and become an expensive waste problem
  • the animal feed generated as a by-product is not good quality
  • it will take 14 years (the life-expectancy of a car) for our present petrol-fueled cars to be replaced by ethanol-fueled models; this is far too long
  • there are multiple sources of pollution inherent in biofuel production: pesticides and fertilisers from intensive crop monoculture; the refinement of ethanol produces nitrous oxides (a greenhouse gas three hundred time more potent than CO2 ), carbon monoxide and volatile organic compounds (VOCs, these are ozone precursors and damage human health) and methane.

Friends of the Earth point out the danger that marginal land, which is susceptible to erosion, will be put back into intensive crop production, and washed away. It also has concerns over the increased cultivation of maize which uses more fertiliser than soya, and over the increasing use of pesticides necessary after continuous maize crop cultivation. An endless succession of GM crop varieties containing increasingly stacked genes for toxins, and genetic pollution of our food is inevitable.

The only winners in the biofuel game were described by the author of the Cornell University study:
“The (US) government spends more than $3 billion a year to subsidize ethanol production ... the vast majority of the subsidies do not go to farmers but to large ethanol-producing corporations”.
The goal of biofuel production seems to be to allow Americans to continue to live their petrol-dependent lifestyle and to drive their SUVs, but since the amount of grain required to fill a 25-gallon SUV gas tank with ethanol could feed one person for a year, this is clearly unnecessary, wasteful and unethical.

As Friends of the Earth said “what is being lost amid the ethanol hype is a real debate about how to use energy more efficiently.”


Biofuel extracted from native perennial plants could be an efficient source, but the technology is still in its infancy. Many other sources of renewable energy, such as photovoltaic cells, wind-power, wave-power, or hydrogen conversion, remain to be explored thoroughly, and if sunlight, wind, water or hydrogen were patentable, this would probably have been done by now (see BIOFUELS: A SUSTAINABLE SHAM – News, May 2007). The development of a hopelessly inefficient system of energy production based on GM crops is a distraction from tackling the real issue and will lead us down a road to global starvation. 

For further reading, and action, the Soil Association has two excellent booklets:
'One Planet Agriculture: The case for action' which can be downloaded from: www.soilassociation/oneplanetaction

and, coming soon 'One Planet Agriculture: Handbook for practical action'  Don't wait, and don't biofuels distract you from the real sustainable food and energy issues.

  • Cornell University News Service 5.07.05
  • Guardian 27.01.07 and 5.04.07
  • The Ecologist 19.02.07
  • Union Farmer Monthly4 January 2007

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