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id21 viewpoint: Biofuels, climate change and GM crops – who is really benefiting?

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Rod Harbinson
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Governments, oil companies and agribusinesses all support biofuels as a way to combat climate change. Genetic engineering plays an increasing role in biofuel production. Can replacing fossil fuels with biofuels reduce carbon emissions?Biofuels are renewable fuels produced from crops or biomass,
including crops grown specifically for converting into fuel. Political leaders
and businesses increasingly suggest biofuels as an alternative to declining
fossil fuel reserves. One attraction is that they can reduce a country’s
dependence on imported fuel supplies, an increasingly important political
Several countries invest in biofuels:
Brazil leads the world in domestic biofuel
production, mostly from sugar cane.
Small-scale production helps small communities
to raise an income and meet their fuel needs, for example in Peru.
The European Union target for biofuels in the transport
sector is 5.7 percent by 2010. In March 2007, the European Council agreed a
binding minimum level for
biofuels of 10 percent of vehicle fuel by 2020.
has recently built more than 50 ethanol refineries to meet its target of producing
5 billion gallons of biofuel each year by 2012.
Ambitious targets in rich countries have placed demands on
developing countries to provide crops for biofuel, especially maize. It is not
clear whether developing countries can benefit from large-scale biofuel
production because growing crops for biofuel can take up water and land currently
used for domestic food production. Reduced exports of crops from rich countries
can also hit poor people; in 2007, there were demonstrations in Mexico about
the rising price of maize from biofuel demand.
Some governments support biofuels to meet targets to reduce
carbon emissions. However, biofuels have limitations as a source of ‘clean’ energy.
Many have low or negative carbon savings, because growing crops and the process
of converting them into fuel is energy-intensive, often relying on fossil fuels.
Clearing land for biofuel crops also affects natural ecosystems, particularly
tropical rainforests. In the Amazon, clearing forest for biofuel crops releases
more carbon into the atmosphere than the biofuels save.
Research into biofuels based on cellulose from trees or crop
wastes uses genetically modified (GM) bacteria and enzymes to break down plant
waste and convert it to biofuels. Other GM research seeks biofuel crops which
grow faster. High-yield GM biofuels crops also require large land areas, putting
pressure on natural vegetation or displacing food crops. Shared concerns, as
with food crops, include the impact of GM organisms on human health and the environment,
such as the risk of genetic pollution.
Biofuels are attracting increasing attention and investment
as an alternative to fossil- based fuels. Before trying to meet global fuel
demands and increase trade in developing countries, governments in each country
must answer some important questions:
Will the biofuel industry in developing
countries support local energy needs, or just meet the demands of richer
Will biofuel crops displace domestic food
Are there laws and controls in place to track
any GM organisms used to produce biofuels?
Has there been any public discussion about GM
crops, and which issues do people consider most important?
What limits are there to ensure that expanding
the area of cultivated land does not damage natural ecosystems?