Science - December 3, 2009

Are plants going to save the world?

Don't be too quick to promote biofuels - they are supplanting world food supplies. Encourage the production of biofuels by making better use of residual waste and crops on marginal soil. Wageningen researchers give conflicting advice when it comes to the biobased economy. Time for a round table discussion in Hoekelum Castle in Bennekom.

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The production of energy and materials from biomass, the biobased economy, is slowly getting going. Proponents feel there are good reasons for going down this route. The Earth's fossil energy sources are finite, especially oil. That is why renewable energy and raw materials are needed if we are to have sustainable production. What is more, biofuels can help in tackling the climate problem. On the other hand, biofuels should not come at the expense of food production. The biobased economy lies at the crossroads of three major issues in the twenty-first century: food, raw materials and the climate.
Wolter Elbersen is a researcher at AFSG. 'I see biobased economy as a means to an end, not an end in itself.' His customers include the EU, Shell, SMEs and various ministries. 'I see problems and I see solutions. It's my responsibility to make sure people take better decisions.'
Ken Giller is professor of Plant Production Systems. 'I do a lot of work with small-scale farmers in the tropics. I am working for a better world. We've got funding for biofuel research from the Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research and Shell Global Solutions, i.e. industry as well. I feel the debate on these kinds of complex issues is often too simplistic. There is no one answer. There are thousands of answers, depending on the circumstances.'
Prem Bindraban studied production ecology and still works one day a week at Plant Research International. His main job is as the director of the international soil institute ISRIC. 'It doesn't matter who I'm working for. I approach the subject from the point of view of production ecology. I, too, am working for a better world.'
Johan Sanders is professor of Valorisation of Plant Production Chains. 'I focus on extracting bulk chemicals from vegetable matter. Biorefining is a key tool in that process.  In industry I learnt that things need to be affordable too. You need the right balance between the three P's: People, Planet and Profit. Finding that balance is an intellectual challenge.'
Johan Sanders: 'We are moving towards a world with nine billion people in 2050, a world with several concurrent areas of scarcity. That's an unusual situation for us because here in the West we are used to surpluses. So we will have to look at what is the best way for dealing with these scarce resources. Biomass, land, minerals and water will all become scarce.' That is why Sanders wants to develop new technologies to enable more efficient use of those resources. But does the Earth have the ecological capacity to provide food and energy for nine billion people without wreaking any more havoc on the climate?
No, says Prem Bindraban. 'We will have to bring more land under cultivation to meet food requirements; we will simply not be able to increase agricultural productivity, and associated with that food production, sufficiently rapidly over the next few decades to avoid this. All the studies point that way. It took Europe forty years to get our production to this level. The demand for food is increasing, so supplies will have to increase and more land will be required. You will need an even bigger increase in the area under cultivation if you are also going to grow crops for energy. That will come at the expense of the climate and biodiversity.'
One of the bones of contention in the debate on biofuels is: should we allow food and fuel to compete? Bindraban: 'The question is: will the competition between food and fuel lead to a rise in food production? I don't think so. Who benefits if food prices rise, as they did a few years ago? Not the poor farmers in Kenya, that's for sure. The ones getting in on the act will be their fellow farmers in Brazil; the only people who will benefit are those who are able to make the investments needed to raise production levels quickly.'
Giller: 'I agree that small-scale farmers find it difficult to adapt quickly to new circumstances. Even so, high food prices really can have a positive effect on smallholders in the long term. I think it would be good to use the same crops for biofuel as for food. That allows smallholders to be flexible. Farmers can sell their harvest on whichever market they want. That flexibility is great.'
Bindraban: 'And yet there are flaws in that flexibility argument.  If you set up a sugarcane processing factory in Brazil, the raw materials need to be grown within a radius of fifty kilometres. The company renting the land from the farmers concentrates entirely on that one crop. But seven years later - because that's how long the sugarcane cycle lasts - the farmers' tractors have rusted and the company's offering them a contract price that isn't viable. But they can't go back because their former production system and network have collapsed. Small-scale farmers are running a risk if they go into biodiesel.'
 Giller: 'I think you should also develop policy to protect the vulnerable smallholders. But there are positive examples. We carried out a study of smallholders growing oil palms in Indonesia. These smallholders were producing about 30 tons of bunches of oil palm fruit per hectare, compared with 22 tons on the large plantations. Their yield was twice as high. This was making them pretty rich. These are smallholders who are well organized. Such success stories are thin on the ground, but they do exist.'
Sanders: 'A century ago, a lot of small-scale potato farmers joined forces in Groningen and Drenthe. That initiative grew to become the cooperative Avebe. Smallholders are always in a weaker position than organized farmers, whether they are growing food crops, cotton or energy crops.'
Elbersen: 'There is another difference between food and fuel. In Europe, biofuels are expected to have a positive effect on CO 2 , but food isn't. If I eat beef, I don't need to worry about the net effect the meat has on CO 2 . But if I order palm oil in Brazil for use as a biofuel, then I do need to know what effect it has on the climate. That's the difference with food. The underlying values are different.'
 
Elbersen throws in a fundamental question: Why do we produce biofuels, and with what objective? The objectives of the Dutch government are clear to him: biofuels are supposed to contribute towards the security of energy supply and to be CO 2 neutral.
He criticizes policymakers for not acting in line with those objectives. 'When food prices were high, we made the big mistake of continuing to mix in biofuels at the pump. That only served to increase food prices further. If higher food prices lead to an expansion in agricultural land and a bit more deforestation, that could result in such an increase in CO 2 emissions that you would have been better off running on diesel than biodiesel. That is why you should only use food surpluses as biofuel. That gives you a mechanism for aligning food supplies with demand, enabling you to stabilize food prices a bit.'
Sanders: 'Other countries have different objectives. The US wants to end dependency on the Middle East. They are not worried about climate change. They developed a process for producing ethanol from maize, which uses a lot of coal for distilling. As a result, the US pumps so much CO 2 into the air that it could well have a negative effect on CO 2 levels. We can't understand that at all. We are able to burn palm oil to generate electricity, and that's something the Americans don't understand.
'Germany and France want to give support to the countryside. In Germany, you get huge subsidies for producing electricity from maize. That is totally wrong because you would be much better off using maize to produce bioethanol, chemicals or cattle feed rather than electricity. These subsidies cause us to use raw materials in the wrong way.'
Elbersen: 'It makes the farmers happy but you can question whether this really benefits the climate. Perhaps it would be better to send the farmers to the Bahamas for a year. It probably costs less money and it's better for the climate. I'm exaggerating of course, but the crucial question is: why do we want to produce biofuels?  If it's to help the farmers then it's a very inefficient method. 
'Look, you could also replace coal by biomass. That would help to reduce CO 2 emissions but doesn't help the security of supply. We've still got enough coal for two hundred years, you can get it anywhere for a reasonable price. You could also replace oil and natural gas by biomass. That would do more to increase the security of supply but it gives less of a reduction in CO 2 per ton of biomass. So, what does the government want?'
Sanders: 'That is not clear. The government should present a single point of view. Not just the opinion of the Ministry of the Environment but the agriculture and finance viewpoints too. They need to work together to present a clear policy. Then they should reward people who come with solutions and penalize those who don't do the right things.'
Bindraban: 'If the goal was clear, everyone could spell things out properly. There are several objectives: supporting farmers, CO 2 arguments and energy security. What you see at the moment is a tendency to justify the use of biofuels because of the problems we have. I want to go back to the fundamental issue. Biofuels are inefficient because plants take up so little sunlight. You need a lot of surface area for a little energy -  that is: land, water and nutrients. On the global scale that will always mean more agricultural land.'
Elbersen: 'You are saying that bioenergy gives disappointing results due to the ecological system. I think it's because of policy errors. In the Netherlands, we burnt 400 thousand tons of palm oil in an electricity power plant due to a mistaken subsidy policy. There was a short-term subsidy but no-one knew whether that subsidy would still be around the following year. In that case, the cheapest option is to burn the palm oil in the power plant. You order a boatload of palm oil and it's there the next week. If the subsidy is no longer available, you just cancel the boat.
'At that time we were also doing research into the by-products of palm oil. There is about one ton of by-products available on a plantation for every ton of palm oil, and very inefficient use is made of them. You can turn them into energy using sophisticated technology. But you do need an expensive factory to do this, so you need to be able to sign a contract for ten years. That waste is still rotting away, producing the inevitable methane emissions. That is mistaken policy.'
Giller: 'The organic compounds in the soil need to be kept at the right level in order to enable reasonable rates of palm oil production. You can't just take away all the waste products without negatively affecting production. You should just put that waste into a tank to make methane. You can use what remains as fertilizer. That's simple.'
Bindraban: 'It's perfectly possible to get gas from palm oil waste; we get gas from manure in the Netherlands. That's fine, but you're not going replace ten percent of fossil fuels that way.'
Giller: 'I agree entirely. But what is going to be the basis for mixing in ten percent of biofuels at the pump? There isn't one. It's just an ambition. We are currently writing a report for Shell, which will have to mix in biofuels. There's nothing to choose from and so Shell will have no option but to buy palm oil and similar products.'
Sanders agrees that the current situation is far from ideal, but he does see options for combining food and energy objectives in the longer term. The key word is efficiency. 'We all get 2500 kilocalories of edible energy on our plates. It takes 40 to 50 thousand kilocalories of energy to produce that with our current food system.  That shows how inefficient our utilization of our biomass is. If we could halve energy consumption in the food chain to 25 thousand kilocalories, that would save the Netherlands as much energy as we consume in all our cars together.
'To give an example: the amount of energy we give to a cow in terms of biomass is five times as much as the energy contained in the resulting milk and meat. That can be made much more efficient. You can refine the grass until you are giving the cow just what it needs in terms of feed. That leaves proteins that can be fed to pigs. That will reduce the amount of soya we need to import. We will need a lot of solutions like this.'
Bindraban keeps returning to the question of ecological capacity.  'Whichever way you look at it, every hectare of land used to grow biofuel crops leads to another hectare being brought into cultivation for food. It may be two hectares or it may be a half, but you still need to take account of these indirect effects when considering whether biofuels are possible from an ecological point of view.'
Giller: 'That's impossible! Take the deforestation in Malaysia and Indonesia. How many hectares of forest have been cleared and how many hectares of oil palms have come in their place? It's less than ten percent of the total. It's not that simple. Why are rainforests cleared? The primary reason is for the wood. You can earn a lot of money with that. Then the land is taken over by someone else for another purpose. The oil palms, the plants, get the blame. But it's not the plants clearing the rainforests, it's people.
'There is a huge amount to be gained. We are talking here about standard technologies that can easily be implemented. You could double the production of palm oil on plantations. The point is, you should only do this if you also set strict rules. You need strong governments to preserve biodiversity.'
Bindraban: 'Fine, but you always need to calculate the effects and look at the ecological preconditions when taking any decisions. One plus one is always two.'
Giller: 'I like what you're saying there; one plus one is two, but that doesn't apply when you are making calculations at the global scale. There are so many uncertainties. We know that one plus one is two as scientists, but that's not the case for such complex issues. We have to keep going but we shouldn't imagine that we'll get answers straight away.'

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