Does biofuels exercise unsustainable pressure on the cost of agricultural raw materials?
Of the world cereal production estimated in 2007 at a little more than 2 billion tons, the proportion intended for biofuels represented some 70 million tons, or about 3,5%.
In Europe, where the pressure on cereal prices is the strongest, the bio-ethanol sector uses less than 2% of this cereal production.
The current imbalance caused essentially by a fall in world cereal stocks, due to an increase in demand, and to repeated droughts, which have had a serious impact on some major producing countries in the last two years. Furthermore, the European Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) has been targeting at a reduction in production and at large European stocks for the past ten years, with (too much) success.
This has led to a significant under-exploitation of European agricultural production capacity in recent years. Its growth potential is thus enormous. Additionally, large surface areas remain unused in the new Member States.
Should Europe create its own biofuel industry? Is it in the process of erecting a fortress around this industry?
The European approach is a dual one.
The countries, which currently produce biofuels at the best price, will not be sufficient to meet the future world demand. New producers will be needed. Furthermore, Brazil, for example, has shown that it could not guarantee a weak supply. Europe cannot depend on imports alone. Next to this, it possesses one of the largest agricultural areas in the world.
Because the demand is currently still limited (although Europe wants to encourage its own production to meet future demand), it is maintaining significant import duties on ethanol from agricultural giants such as Brazil, Pakistan and South Africa. While its market is, open without limits or import duties to the developing countries of Africa, the Caribbean and the Pacific (ACP), Central America and some countries in South America.
The European bio-diesel market is also open without limits or duties to imports from all countries covered by European standards.
Europe is thus the continent, which is most open to biofuel imports from developing countries. The European Commission hope to achieve a balance between a major European biofuel sector guaranteeing the harmonious development of European agriculture, and free access for biofuels from developing countries to encourage agriculture and the economy in these countries.
A total abolition of import duties would benefit some agricultural giants to the detriment of European and ACP agriculture and industry.
Does the current development of biofuels damage the environment, in particular by entailing deforestation and a negative CO2 balance?
The primary aim of the use of biofuels is to reduce global emissions of CO2. Production and transport must therefore happen such that the global CO2 balance is positive. Each producer must therefore take into account the criteria of sustainable development: no deforestation, sustainable energy consumption, socially responsible production (no child labor or modern forms of slavery). Today, some producers respect these criteria perfectly, others probably less.
It is a matter of urgency to establish a certification system as the European Commission hopes, to guarantee respect of these criteria.
Producing major volumes of biofuel without deforestation and with a positive CO2 balance is entirely possible.
It should be noted that the Belgian government has already selected producers for the national market based on these criteria.
Only second-generation biofuels (those produced based on non-food raw materials) have a future. All our efforts should therefore be focused on this area.
Biofuels produced from non-food raw materials have a promising future ahead of them, in particular as a result of the abundance of unused biomass throughout the world.
Research is developing in this direction, but for now these second generation biofuels still cost almost twice as much as traditional biofuels.
The most interesting aspect of the research is based on a technological development, which is primarily enzymatic and agricultural. The further development of agricultural systems designed purely for the production of energy, with the best return per hectare, using less water, fertilizers and pesticides stand for a promising outlook.
All these developments are based on the existing first generation industry. This is a strong argument in favor of developing a major European biofuel industry, which must start with traditional agriculture and evolve towards the use of non-food biomass.
The existing production chain is far from optimal. The raw material consists of agricultural products hitherto cultivated for food. These are then processed in the production plants using a technology originally designed for other applications. Finally, the biofuel obtained is used in cars whose engines are primarily designed to use other fuels.
Research into raw materials, production processes and the motor industry is only beginning.
Given the resources applied, and the progress achieved over the short-term, it will probably soon be possible to produce biofuels on a large scale, at a cost, which is competitive by comparison with oil products and without creating any shortage of foodstuffs.
In the meantime, the billions invested in Europe, the US, South America and the developing countries are a factor in job creation and rural development and enable us to reduce the financial transfers towards the oil-producing countries.
Alco is member of ePure, the European renewable ethanol association.
You will find any informations about bioethanol on www.epure.org