Will agrofuels force us to choose between eating and driving?


Over the past few years, the European Union has been supporting the development of agrofuels as part of its fight against global warming. But controversies over the actual environmental impacts of these new sources of energy are on the verge of changing the European approach. Fingers are being pointed at 1st generation agrofuels – 2nd and 3rd generation energy sources might be the solution.


“We cannot keep having to choose between eating and driving.” This comment was made by Corinne Lepage, former French Minister of the Environment and now a Member of the European Parliament (in an interview with Le Monde in April 2013). She has just submitted a proposal to the European Commission regarding the European directive on renewable energies. Over the past few months, Lepage has in fact been advocating a drastic change in the way we measure the environmental impacts of these energies, and of agrofuels in particular. The aim is to influence the European Commission’s directives and ensure that the most environmentally-friendly fuels are favoured. What is really at stake? Why would Lepage say that agrofuels are forcing us to choose between eating and driving? What are the current perspectives for renewable energies, which are supposed to account for 10% of the European Union’s transportation energy supplies by 2020?


The flaws of 1st generation agrofuels


First, a bit of vocabulary and history. What we now call “agrofuels” were originally known as “biofuels” – the name is progressively being abandoned precisely because it is considered that the “bio” part could trick people into thinking that they are per se ecological. There are 3 generations of agrofuels. The first encompasses fuels created from “new” agricultural products: biodiesel, which comes from palm oil, soy, sunflower and colza, and bioethanol, which originates from sugar cane, beet, corn and wheat. The 2nd generation comprises fuels made from plant residues, waste and by-products. 3rd generation fuels are obtained using microorganisms such as algae. What is being explored in the current debates at European level is how to favour 2nd and 3rd generation agrofuels over 1st generation products that have been proven to be less than environmentally-friendly. In fact, several studies (in particular one by French Environment and Energy Management Agency Ademe in 2010, and another one by the International Food Policy Research Institute in 2011) have established that biodiesel, in particular, ends up emitting more carbon than fossil fuels. There is one reason for this: Indirect Land Use Change (ILUC). For fuel to be made using new agricultural products, these products need to be cultivated somewhere – and obviously they occupy plots of land. And that causes a series of environmental problems.

- Production factory of biofuel from algae, in the southwest of Spain | ©REUTERS / JON Nazca -

First, dedicating plantations to energy crops forces food crops to move: in Amazonia and Indonesia this causes the destruction of forests and fields that sequestrate carbon, and thus aggravates global warming. Intensive seed culture also causes soil erosion and pollution. Secondly, 1st generation agrofuels are accused by NGOs of depriving local populations of their food crops. In June, the High Level Panel of Experts of the Committee on World Food Security (an emanation of FAO) wrote that “there is a general consensus (…) that biofuels provoke a rise in food commodity prices,” although they did add that “the controversy still persists on the extent of this impact, and their role in driving price volatility.” Whatever the extent, they are linked to the 2007-2008 food price riots. And this is why Corinne Lepage declared that the issue can be summarised as a choice between food and fuel. Thirdly, agrofuels are expensive. A recent report by the International Institute for Sustainable Development evaluated that they cost Europe 10 billion euros in 2011.

In France, the Cour des Comptes has estimated that French citizens spent 3 billion euros funding these new fuels between 2005 and 2010.

Of course, the technology is young, and prices are bound to decrease over the coming years.


Will we reach a consensus fast enough?


But this series of criticisms has been feeding a rather harsh debate on agrofuels and their pertinence. While the European Union and other national & international institutions rely on them to reach their goals in terms of renewable energies, the fact that some of these fuels are not that environmentally pertinent calls for rapid political decisions. This is the fight that Corinne Lepage has been leading; she notably declared that

not taking into account (all the environmental impacts of agrofuels) is not compatible with the European Union’s goals in its fight against climate change.

The solution that seems to be emerging now is to limit the share of 1st generation agrofuels (more specifically biodiesel) to 5% of the total fuel used by 2020, and to encourage the development of 2nd and 3rd generation products. This is at least what the European Commission recommended in a draft directive in October 2012. The final vote will take place in the European Parliament in September.

But even though this decision (if it is taken) is definitely a step in the right direction, it does not yet represent a consensus. Firstly, the agrofuel industry fears that the massive investments that have been made (1 billion euros and nearly 20,000 job creations in France for example) will go to waste. Secondly, NGOs feel that the European Union is not going far enough: they believe that agrofuels, with their 5% share, will continue to push food prices up, accelerate climate change and take land from poor farmers in developing countries.

In the meantime, cleaner energy sources continue to develop, but the pace of research and development is not always as rapid as we would hope. Action on carbon emissions from human activities is urgent, and we face a stiff challenge ahead of us, with the predicted exhaustion of fossil fuel resources. First generation agrofuels have been intended to tackle this twofold issue, but they are now showing their limits and are likely to be replaced by other innovations. Some would say that this is exactly how innovation works: each idea is replaced by a better one, until an even better one comes along. Let’s hope that the idea capable of providing enough energy without harming the environment is already here – or that it will soon be found.


If you read French, you can refer to the series of articles that Le Monde published on the subject (here, here and here) for further details. Some of the information used in this article was taken from these pieces.

Photo © Shutterstock / Micha Klootwijk