Cutting biofuels from food crops will increase food security, right?

Oct 24, 2012

The European Commission’s proposal to limit the amount of biofuels that can be sourced from food crops (mainly rapeseed, sugar beet and wheat in the case of Europe) has been welcomed by some environmental and development NGOs as beneficial to food security.

The food versus fuel debate is often expressed in evocative terms such as “using crops for fuel is taking food out of people’s mouths”.

But farming systems and agricultural markets are more complex than this simple construct.

The main biofuel in Europe is biodiesel produced from canola (oilseed rape). Canola is normally grown as a break crop between successive crops of cereals, with important functions in the farming system:

  • soil improvement, pest control and pollination (not nitrogen fixation),
  • supplementary farm income, particularly in periods when cereal production is adversely affected by wet weather, as happened in Europe this year,
  • production of approximately 1.3 kg meal (animal feed) for each kg of oil produced for biofuel.

In anticipation of potentially lower demand for oilseed farmers in Europe are already thinking about planting less canola next year. So, rather than improving food security, the effect of this measure could be:

  • reduced farm incomes, leading to lower investment in production,
  • reduced diversity of crops on cereal farms, leading to increased price volatility and greater use of agrochemicals,
  • reduced production of animal feed in Europe, leading to increased imports of animal feed from outside Europe.

The alternative non-food crops suitable for biofuel are mainly tropical perennials such as jatropha and elephant grass. These crops may still compete with food crops for land resources in developing countries but are less flexible than crops such as sugar cane and corn that can be switched between end uses according to demand (needs).

A more considered response would seek a level of biofuel production from food crops consistent with maintaining or increasing investment in Europe’s arable land area which has been declining over the past 20 years, and with providing flexibility to help the agricultural system respond to climate change.

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