04.04.2016 |

Biofuels lead to increasing competition for land and water, study warns

40% of the U.S. corn supply is used to produce ethanol (Photo: mrobenalt/

The growing production of biofuels is leading to increased competition for land and water that could otherwise be used for food production, new research shows. According to a study published in March in the Nature journal “Scientific Reports”, the arable land and water now used for the production of bioethanol and biodiesel could produce sufficient food to feed about 280 million more people. “We are investigating and evaluating the effects of biofuels on food security – the food-energy nexus – and its link with the global appropriation of land and water,” said Paolo D’Odorico, a professor at the University of Virginia who co-wrote the paper with colleagues from Italy and the US. “The land and water resources claimed by biofuel production have been poorly quantified, and we are trying to gain better understanding to help inform public policy.” The researchers based their analysis on biofuel data by the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation and other sources and estimated the water and land footprints per unit of biofuel energy. Their findings show that first generation biofuels (i.e. produced from food crops) in 2013 claimed an area of about 41.3 million hectares, which accounts for about 4% of the global surface of arable land. In addition, biofuel production consumed 216 billion m3 of water, which corresponds to about 3% of the global water consumption for food production. The researchers determined that these resources, if used for the cultivation of food crops, would be sufficient to feed about 280 million more people – about one third of the undernourished people in the world. However, the authors stress that this is not the number of people that would likely get access to food should biofuel use be reduced to zero since the availability of food alone does not ensure that poor people will have enough to eat. The findings suggest that with the world’s population projected to grow to about 9 billion by the middle of the century, the need for food and fuel could increasingly be at odds. The study shows that if biofuel production for transportation were to be increased to 10 percent of the total fuel used by the transportation sector – in line with recent policy and business patterns that encourage renewable energy production – the planet could meet the food needs of only about 6.7 billion people. “These results clearly show the extent to which biofuels are competing with food for the limited land and water resources of the planet, and are becoming an additional obstacle to bringing food production in line with the increasing needs of the human population,” D’Odorico said. According to the authors, first generation bioethanol is still the major contributor to the global biofuel supply while the production of second and third generation biofuels from cellulosic plant tissues or algae or new technologies relying on agricultural waste are overall still negligible. (ab)

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