Biofuels compete little with food production – So far

WAGENINGEN, The NetherlandsA recent study reveals food production is not suffering much from the use of corn, wheat or palm oil in biofuel production.

Calculating land use changes in Brazil, the USA, the EU, China, Indonesia, Malaysia, South Africa and Mozambique, a team headed by Hans Langeveld demonstrated biofuels are not likely to compete with food production – or cause major deforestation, usually indicated as indirect land use change (ILUC). According to the study, between 2000 and 2010, urbanisation claimed twice the amount of land used for biofuel expansion.

Farmers adapted to increased demand for crops, says Hans Langeveld, who is the main author of the study. “Not so much by opening new land”, he adds, “but by using it more effectively”. “This study is the first of its kind. We collected land use and crop data from the Food and Agricultural Policy Research Institute (FAPRI) and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO).”
Langeveld: “Biofuel producers may use land that was used for other crops.” He emphasises that this should be discouraged. “Existing land rights should be respected – at all times”. But biofuel policies are not inherently bad. “Farmers have provided sufficient extra crops to compensate for biofuel expansion, serving both food and fuel markets”.

Complete land balances
The authors present an impressive set of data showing that biofuel expansion in the study area is based on a harvested area of 25 million ha. More than 40% of the biomass used in the biofuel production process is recovered in by-products used for animal feed.

Data presented are based on a combination of land use and crop production statistics, the first time this type of data are combined. So far, discussions on biofuel land use were based either on local observations or on modelling studies which used scenario projections.

Over 30 million ha of agricultural has been lost in the study area since 2000. This is more than two times the area used for biofuel expansion. Loss of land has been especially high in China and the EU. Most of this land has been used to host new houses, roads, industrial activities, etc.

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Land grab and carbon debt

New research by Biomass Research is focussing on land use changes and its impact on carbon release. We study ways in which farmers can adjust their activities to provide more biomass – in a sustainable way. Special attention is given to land rights (preventing land grab), and soil organic matter.

Further activities will focus on ways to quantify carbon dynamics related to land use. We will use crop modelling principles to tackle the concept of carbon debt.

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