GMOs, biofuels and the Third World (8/11/2005)

Biofuels and the current energy crises are an area increasingly being exploited by the GM lobby.

1.GMOs, Biofuels & the Third World
2.Biofuels as a large-scale, centralised technology has potentially damaging implications for landscape and communities.

1.An excerpt from Resistance Bulletin 56 - September 2005



Given that the countries which have ratified the Kyoto Protocol have to fulfill certain obligations in relation to CO2 emissions, and that in other international forums they having committed to replace 20% of gasoline and diesel with other sustainable sources by the year 2020 (this is the case of countries members of the European Union), a series of industries have appeared, consultants and specialized firms working to convert these obligations into business.

What is foreseen for the future is that even though fossil fuels will slowly be replaced by other forms of energy the oil industry will continue to play a central role in its substitution, and the use of the infrastructure that they have today with some adaptations, for example in the distribution of fuels for vehicles and other forms of transport that require this form of energy.

Identified as alternatives to the motorized transport are the following forms of fuel: Natural gas, hydrogen, bio fuels, biomass liquid fuels (BTL) and liquid gas.


Various European countries have established goals that increasing use biofuels as a substitute to gasoline and diesel.

Biofuels include ethanol and biodiesel that are obtained from conventional agricultural crops such as sugar cane, cereals and oilseeds.

The European Union has established that by the year 2010, 6% of fuels will be biofuels and hopes that by 2020 the percentage will increase to 8%.

However it is unlikely that Europe will dedicate its soils to the growth of these types of crops.

In this new world scenario, the Third World Countries are playing an important role: they will provide the land and their fertility, cheap labour and will retain all environmental effects caused by large plantations from which the biofuels and refining.

In the same manner as occurs with the oil industry, the increasing European demand for biofuels means that countries of the Third World become the sources of supply of this new industry.

In effect currently the main supplier of bioethanol to the United Kingdom is Brazil.

Companies dedicated to the business of biodiesel have placed their sights on Latin American, African, Asian and Pacific countries, since they consider that these countries can obtain raw material at competitive prices. According to declarations made by the CEO of the DI Oils, they are working with plantations of crops known as Jatropha for the production of biodiesel from Ghana to the Philippines, passing through India, Madagascar and South Africa. Up till now they have established 267.000 Ha and have the intention of expanding to 9 million Ha in the future.

According to the British Crop Protection Council (BCPC) the use transgenic crops for the biofuel industry will be inevitable.

Currently President Lula of Brazil has declared transgenic soya to be used for biofuels and good soya for human consumption. Argentina is also advancing plans to transform transgenic soya into biodiesel.

The industry considers the for the processing of biofuels, large refining plants need to be constructed close to agricultural areas or forests which is where the raw material is found. This will depend on whether the biofuel is sold in its pure form or as a mixture. Generally biofuels are mixed with gasoline or conventional diesel. The forms of transport are similar to those used in the oil industry.

It is predicted that the oil industry with the aim of maintaining control over the distribution of fuels, will enter an agreement with these new companies since in many cases the production chain can be very complex.

To refine biodiesel a transesterification method is needed via a catalytic breaking of the acid oily chain of crude oil to transform it into alcohol ester (biodiesel) and glycerin.


Apparently this is a business in which everybody wins. The European emissions of CO2 decreases, third world countries increase their exports increasing the quality of life of rural populations.

However the reality is different.

In relation to climate change, it is said that during the growth of the crop, these absorb CO2. This is true only in relation to what was growing before the plantation was established. Since the industry has plans of growing exponentially, it is possible that they occupy primary or secondary forested areas, as already occurs with the plantations of soy in Argentina (where slowly forests of el Chaco have been displaced), Paraguay (where soy has replaced Pantanal, Atlantic Forest and Chaco areas) and even more dramatically in Brazil where Amazon forests, Pantanal, Atlantic forests have been replaced by soy. In this case the CO2 balance is negative.

On the other hand the moment in which the biodiesel is burnt CO2 is regenerated as product of the combustion.

Additionally other green house gases are generated as a product of the crop itself, the refining and distribution of the fuel. Therefore we can say that the use of biofuels generates CO2 and other green house gases.

In relation to the benefits to the producers of the raw material these can be extremely negative.

Firstly we have the destruction of forest and other original vegetation, as has been seen, but if we include the mass expansion of these crops it could threaten food sovereignty of local populations, because they would stop producing food crops for the population with the aim of producing "clean fuels" for European countries.

Argentina for example has planned to increase the production of soya to 100 million tons, which implies a huge environmental and social cost to the Argentinean people, such as the displacement from rural lands, growing deforestation and desertification of soils and therefore greater hunger and social inequity.

Large scale agriculture, such as is needed to comply with the demand for biofuels is highly dependant of oil derivates which apart from producing CO2 emissions are highly contaminant.

The predictions for Brazil are alarming, since this country could become the world leader in the substitution of fossil fuels for sources of renewable energy, with all the impacts this implies. Even though in Brazil biofuels have been obtained from sugar cane the increase expansion of soy (transgenic?) will make the substitution of this crop inevitable.

Recently the Spanish government of Zapatero announced that Repsol will install a biodiesel plant in Leon. It is predicted that the raw material will be obtained from oily crops and will come from regions where labour and land is cheap and where transgenic crops are permitted. This is in the Southern Hemisphere.

To look for solutions to the current energy model, it is not enough to think of technological solution or substitute one source of energy for another, but instead we need to think of new sustainable decentralized and just.societies,


Grupo de Reflexión Rural. 2005. Argentina

Energy Institute. Petroleum Review. Suplemento Especial sobre nuevos combustibles. Septiembre 2005.

ASAJA Leon. 2005. 'Aquejados por la fiebre del biodiesel'. El anuncio de Zapatero de traer de la manos de Repsol una planta de biodiesel a Leon ha generado no pocas expectativas dentro y fuera del mundo agrario.

2.Biofuels – towards an integrated approach
ECOS, Vol 26 No2 pp.18-25.

The Energy White Paper gives an apparent commitment to appropriate scale, decentralised and embedded systems for biofuels. This, however is not evident in current trends and incentives toward large-scale, centralised technology with potentially damaging implications for landscape and communities.


In June 2003, the East of England Development Agency (EEDA) published a report on The impacts of creating a domestic UK bioethanol industry. In 2005, plans to build large biofuel plants are being fast tracked by the EEDA and a powerful lobby of agri-business interests. This development trajectory is entirely at odds with government energy policy for localised, distributed energy production and is being fast tracked in advance of comparative assessments of local scale technologies. If the historical pattern of centralised energy provision prevails for the development of biomass energy, the pressures for intensive production will be immense. Choices being made now about development of biofuels are of vital importance for a broad spectrum of environmental issues.

The Energy White Paper

The vision and strategy of the 2003 UK Energy White Paper (EWP) are for the energy system in 2020 to be "much more local" and "much more diverse". Targets are set for doubling small and community Combined Heat and Power (CHP) capacity by 2010 because it is "an efficient form of providing heating and electricity at the same time". The Paper then goes on to support use of biomass for co-firing in power stations in order to meet targets quickly and to develop supply chains, despite acknowledging (though understating) the inefficiencies of central generation.

Development of biofuels is rather vaguely associated with waste and rural development policies:

"Biofuels are currently made from food crops. We are also interested in supporting the development of bioethanol and biodiesel production from biomass such as farm wastes, forestry residues, coppice crops and possibly also domestic waste. These can potentially deliver bigger carbon savings and wider environmental, farming and rural employment benefits." (p69)

Yet while the EWP supports use of Natural Gas (methane) for transport fuel, the potential of biogas methane from waste for fuel and energy is not recognised, despite methane captured from landfill sites being the second largest source of renewable energy in 2002 (Onshore wind 500 MW; Landfill Gas 400 MW).

The possibilities of proven small and medium scale technologies for achieving the shift towards local energy production, meeting climate change commitments and wider policy objectives remain unexplored.

This article compares technologies and scales of operation for biomass from energy, in order to clarify their relative benefits for two vital policy objectives: reduction of greenhouse gases (Ghg) and fossil fuel use. Ghg reduction is assessed by comparing emissions across the main modules of Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) - provision of feedstock, transportation, processing and use; fossil fuel substitution is considered in relation to resource efficiency.

Biomass for large scale uses: wood for co-firing

Central Generating Plants burn enormous amounts of fossil fuels. In 2002, 48.5 Mt (million tonnes) of coal were consumed to provide 32% of UK electricity; gas provided 40% (DTI p13 ). According to the EWP, large generating plants are "only up to around 40-50% efficient", though the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution (RCEP) gives a figure of 30% as the typical efficiency in its report Biomass as a Renewable Energy Source. Energy losses are also extraordinarily high:

"Energy industry use, losses during conversion to secondary fuels and losses during distribution accounted for 31% of inland energy consumption in 2002" (DTI p4)

Figures for the £30m failed Arbre demonstration gasification plant in Yorkshire give some idea of the volumes of feedstock and large land area of wood to produce 10MWe (e = electricity, th = thermal). At average UK household consumption, the plant would supply 17,285 households per year. It required 43,000 tonnes of wood fuel (dried weight), half of which was to come from willow Short Rotation Coppice (SRC) and the rest from forest management. The EEDA report gives yields of 3-8 dry tonnes per year for SRC, 12 for "better sites", but only 1.8 t/ha from managed forests and between 0.5 – 0.7 tonnes for unmanaged forests. Using all SRC at six tonnes per hectare, the land requirement would be 7,167 hectares (716 square kilometres). Forests are dispersed and yields relatively low, so catchments would be extended and transportation mileages considerable.

Biomass for large scale uses: crops for biofuels

Provision of crop and SRC feedstocks requires fossil fuels for chemical inputs, cultivation and harvesting. Fertiliser production accounts indirectly for over half of agricultural energy use. One of the main source documents for the EEDA report uses a figure of 5.7 tonnes of ghg emissions (carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide expressed as total Carbon Dioxide equivalent) for each tonne of fertiliser.

Fertiliser inputs for crops such as miscanthus and SRC are relatively low and vary for food crops, though removal of crop residues, eg straw for energy, increases fertiliser requirement. Assuming 150 k of nitrogen fertiliser per hectare per year for 1.3 million hectares of fuel crops to meet the 5.75% mix suggested by the EU, the production emissions, in addition to on-farm emissions associated with use of nitrogen fertiliser, such as nitrous oxide from soils, and the emissions for the other chemical inputs, all add up to substantial ghg emissions for provision of feedstock crops.

Transportation distances of feedstocks to centralised plants are also considerable. The EEDA report states that 12 plants of 100,000 tonne capacity would be needed to achieve a 5% bioethanol blend in the UK petrol mix. About the same number of biodiesel plants would be needed for the same mix in UK diesel. This is the smallest of three proposed plant sizes (100 000, 200 000 and 300 000 tonnes) and would entail over 4 million HGV kilometres from a catchment area of more than 24,000 square kilometres. To meet the 5.75% level would require more plants, or larger plants sizes for which transportation distances would be significantly greater due to extended catchments. So a UK biofuel programme as proposed by the EEDA would account for well over 100 million HGV kilometres each year.

Production of ethanol is by fermentation and about half the sugars are converted to CO2. The energy requirement is significant "being in the range of 30 – 40% of the energy content of the bioethanol produced from wheat". The EEDA and source reports do not show that combustion emissions from biofuels are very much different to fossil fuels and the EEDA report states that bioethanol "provides few air quality benefits".

Small-scale technologies for conversion of biomass

Combined Heat and Power systems designed to fully utilise heat achieve around 85% efficiency of fuel use.

Biodiesel equipment for small scale production is fairly cheap and simple. Oil seed crops can be cold pressed and the residues can substitute imported soya for animal feed, or be used for anaerobic digestion. Energy is needed to maintain the processing temperature.

Anaerobic Digestion (AD) of organic matter in the absence of oxygen produces methane biogas, which is the same as Natural Gas and can be compressed for vehicle fuel or used to run CHP systems. The technology is well tested and Centralised Anaerobic Digestion (CAD) plants are in operation across the world, including Sweden and one in the UK (Holsworthy, Devon). China has a long tradition of AD systems as an integral part of its small holdings, and Germany has recently contributed to funding for over 400 on-farm AD units, but there are few examples in the UK. A Walford College demonstration project shows the economic viability of farm-based AD/CHP systems in the UK and provides operation details and costings.

If biogas is used for CHP, about a third of the heat production is required for AD processing. Biogas contains up to 30% CO2 and combustion of methane produces lower levels of CO2, NOX and other pollutants than combustion of biofuels or wood.

Local energy from biomass wastes

There is much potential for production of biogas from food industry and biodegradable municipal waste, farm slurries and wastes and sewage. Biogas provides a reliable and continuous energy source which can be used as a spinning reserve to balance intermittent renewables.

Building on a successful pilot project, Stockholm is investing in AD equipment for its sewage works. The cost of the pilot plant was 738,000 Euros in 1995, and annual income from sales of biogas was 215,600 Euros. The city’s 700,000 tonnes of sludge would provide about 10 million cubic meters of biogas each year. The city of Linkoping is using biogas from slaughterhouse wastes and manure to run public transport vehicles and reduce urban air pollution. One cubic metre of biogas is equivalent to one litre of petrol, and figures for Stockholm show that it costs 20% less than petrol at the previously lower oil price in 2000.

An energy hierarchy to guide public investment

Energy from biomass is said to be ‘carbon neutral’ because the CO2 in combustion emissions is absorbed by the next crop, but this is far from the whole story. The emissions reductions claimed for a UK biofuel programme to fully meet the EU suggested target are between 0.738 Mt C and 1.06 Mt.C (taken to mean CO2 only ). But this is in comparison with fossil fuel supply, not with more efficient local scale options.

Local use of biomass is shown here to offer the greatest potential for ghg reduction, and the highest level of resource efficiency and therefore potential for fossil fuel substitution. Local wood supplies for CHP, and crops for farm biodiesel production or AD, avoid large transportation distances and the inefficiencies of centralized conversion. Use of farm wastes and residues for AD avoids both provision of feedstocks and transportation, as does AD of sewage, municipal biodegradable wastes and food industry wastes. Energy from AD can be part of closed loop resource systems and therefore as close to ‘zero carbon’ as possible using biomass for energy. Combustion of biogas produces lower levels of ghgs and other pollutants than liquid biofuels and wood.

AD has additional multiple environmental benefits. For example, emissions of the powerful ghgs methane and nitrous oxide from decomposing wastes are avoided. AD liquors and residues can be used to substitute nitrogen fertilizer inputs and avoid associated damage to soils and ecosystems. Fibrous residues contribute to reversing the decline of soil organic matter, improving soil organism diversity and activity, improving water retention capacity in drought and helping to reduce erosion rates. These will all be increasingly important as anticipated climate change impacts become more severe, concerns which scarcely impinge on the largely economic preoccupations of the liquid biofuel lobby.

The brief overview provided here indicates a hierarchy to guide investment of public money in renewable energy:

1. Local AD of wastes: farm slurries, residues and surplus or damaged crops; biodegradable municipal and food industry wastes (including abattoir) and sewage.

2. Local energy from biomass: wood for local CHP systems; AD of crops; farm biodiesel from crops

3. Centralised energy plants: co-firing; biofuel production.

The role of the Regional Development Agencies in delivering energy policy

The EWP emphasises the key role that RDAs will play in delivering government's energy policy, particularly in channelling funding. Yet the EEDA report doesn't even mention on-farm and smaller scale technologies in its assessment for biofuel plants in the region as part of the UK biofuel programme which it proposes.

Throughout 2004 and into 2005 a lobbying campaign has built up a head of steam to exert pressure on the government to provide further fuel duty reductions and considerable capital subsidies to developers of large biofuel Plants. Proponents include the EEDA, the National Farmers Union (NFU), the Country Land and Business Association (CLA), the Royal Norfolk Agricultural Association (RNAA), two organisations funded by the EEDA - Renewables East and CRed (a regional carbon reduction team), and agri-businesses interests including British Sugar.

Capital allowances of 40% are assumed in the EEDA report, and according to the ‘Economic Analysis’ on the DfT Consultation web site, the 30p duty reduction called for by the biofuel lobby would cost the tax payer between £640m and £660m a year by 2010 in lost revenue at the suggested 5.75% mix.

Ligno-cellulosic technology is not discussed in the EWP, but the EEDA report strongly supports construction of a demonstration 156,000 t/year plant costing GBP134 - 143m, while acknowledging that there are "high levels of uncertainty and risk" associated with developing this complex new technology. The given catchment areas for feedstocks of wheat straw, miscanthus, SRC and forestry are enormous and transportation emissions would be proportionally higher than for food crops only. Processing energy (and water requirements) are also even higher than for ethanol from food crops due to additional processing to break down lignin, for which genetically modified enzymes are proposed. Fungi are currently being engineered for the same purpose. There is also great interest in GM crops for biofuels, whether sugar beet, oil seed rape, or trees.

Time to choose – central or local?

This is the time to look carefully at how scarce public funds are being used to subsidise biomass energy developments. In view of the urgency of taking effective action to slow down climate change it may seem reasonable in the short term to subsidise biomass for central generators and biofuel plants. Apart from their ineffectiveness for meeting policy objectives, there are important reasons why this course is misguided.

First, the enormous feedstock demands of centralized plants will put tremendous new pressures on agriculture to intensify and maximize industrial production. And just at the time when CAP reform is allegedly to reduce those pressures in recognition of the fact that ecosystems, soils, water and biodiversity are already seriously damaged by agri-chemicals and intensive practices (see Rutherford in ECOS 25 (2) 2004). If biomass is to be exploited with the sensitivity to resource degradation and biodiversity which is displayed in the EEDA's bioethanol report, the future looks terribly barren, especially under the additional pressures of climate change.

Secondly, the effect will be to lock resources and funding into the prevailing centralized system and block the more efficient smaller technologies and fuel supply links which are crucial to low carbon energy infrastructure and creating the relevant skills at local level. This appears to be the sub agenda in the Eastern Region. For example, a small CHP system proposed by the Broads Authority to run on clippings and wastes from fen conservation is experiencing great difficulties in finding funding, yet EEDA (a partner in the project) is keen to develop highly uncertain and complex ligno technology at GBP140m. The feedstock survey for the ligno plant includes every bit of woodland across the Eastern Region, including SSSIs and Ancient Woodland.

The futility of sinking hundreds of millions in large scale biofuel plants can be demonstrated quite simply. Norfolk has a high proportion of arable land (about a third of the total UK crop area for 5.75% mix). Even if all of it were planted with crops for fuels, the county could not produce anywhere near enough biofuels to run even its own cars - never mind vans, buses and HGVs (under 8mpg, or 2 kilometres per litre) at 100% biofuel.

In addition to the 1.3 million hectares for liquid fuels an even greater area of SRC would be required to make more than a tiny dent in fossil fuel use for electricity generation. This all adds up to an enormous land requirement which will increase food and animal feed imports, as well as highly polluting shipping emissions and associated ghgs. The pressures on remaining global forests and wildlands will become even more acute, with bleak prospects for the poor and hungry across the world as land is taken for food exports or fuel crops.

Instead of pouring money into complex, uncertain new technologies and developing feedstocks and supply chains to large plants, funds could be invested to support long term infrastructure for small scale, proven and effective technologies. The government’s Strategy Unit report on waste (Waste not, Want not, November 2002) identifies AD as a technology which could play a "potentially significant role", be implemented within the current policy span up to 2010 and at "low-medium cost".

The costs of meeting the EU Landfill Directive binding targets to reduce biodegradable wastes to landfill are estimated at "GBP600 - GBP700 per annum over the next 10 years". This is about the same as the annual biofuel duty reduction cost to the tax payer. But instead of pouring it into the pockets of agri-businesses, it would make far more sense to invest the money in local waste recycling schemes, including equipment for making biogas from green wastes and biodiesel from waste cooking oil. And instead of capital allowances for large biofuel plants, public money could be invested in AD plants at sewage works, food processing plants and on farms.

Farms could become central to rural green waste collections, so gaining the ‘gate fee’ and income from energy and sales of bagged compost. Costs could be further reduced for small farms by co-operative sharing of AD and biodiesel equipment. This would be genuine diversification. It would also provide the environmental benefits, economic security and energy sufficiency necessary to long term food security in the face of increasingly severe conditions, increasing risk of crop losses and rising costs of energy. The resilience and flexibility of agriculture will be vital as global food production is hit by more severe weather events.

A priority for the EWP is to double CHP capacity, particularly in public buildings such as town halls, hospitals and universities, so procurement policies could support development of local wood supplies. The Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution advocates planning of SRC and forestry for multiple purposes, such as diversity of tree and wildlife species, for ecological corridors, landscape and recreation, as flood buffers and protection against wind erosion, as well as for rural skills development and reliable farm incomes. To achieve such multiple objectives will require the very different approach of "planning land management and wildlife habitats at a landscape scale" which is described by O’Riordan et al in ECOS 21 (1). Defra's agri-environmental schemes and payments could evolve to support whole landscape management.

Conservation and environmental organisations need to take a concerted stance and call on government to prioritise its localised energy policies. The key energy options should be conditioned by landscape character assessments. Particular attention and funding support should be directed to small technologies, particularly anearobic digestion of wastes, and combined heat and power, which could so effectively meet multiple policy objectives.

References and notes

1. A report for the EEDA prepared by ADAS Consulting Ltd. and Ecofys UK Ltd.,

2. UK Energy in Brief July 2003. DTI

3. CADDET IEA OECD Renewable Energy, Technical Brochure No 60. Anaerobic Digestion of Farm Waste in the UK



6. ‘Company Expands: Fill up with biogas for a cleaner environment.’ June 2000. Stockholm Water Company

7. Annex B Economic Analysis to Biofuels Consultation
8. Note: there is much variation in the way global warming gas emissions are described. Some sources use figures for the separate emissions of major ghgs, others refer to total carbon dioxide equivalents - calculated by applying conversion factors for the greater global warming potential of nitrous oxide and methane. Sometimes Carbon refers to carbon dioxide emissions, and sometimes it means only the carbon element of carbon dioxide.

9. See also O’Riordan T. and S. Stoll-Kleeman (eds) (2004), Biodiversity, Sustainability and Human Communities: Protecting beyond the Protected (2002). Cambridge University Press.

· CLA (2005) Renewable Energy – more than wind?

· Lukehurst C.T. (2004) ‘The role of biogas plants as an integrated approach to rural regeneration' in Proceedings of the 'Biogas in Society' Conference held at Enniskillen, 21-23rd October 2004' Proceedings can be obtained in hard copy or on disc at £25 from Alan Burke, the Department of Environmental Health, Dungannon and South Tyrone Borough Council, Circular Road, Dungannon BT 71 6DT.

Sue Pollard is an independent researcher. [email protected]


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