Biofuel production ‘needs ethical policies’

Producing biofuels from crops has led to social and ethical concerns Copyright: Flickr/Woodlouse

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[LONDON] Existing biofuel policies in developing countries encourage unethical practices and offer few incentives to develop new, more ethical technologies, a major report has concluded.

"The rapid expansion of biofuels production in the developing world has led to problems such as deforestation and the displacement of indigenous peoples," said Joyce Tait, a scientific advisor to the Innogen Centre at the University of Edinburgh, United Kingdom, who led an 18-month inquiry that culminated in the report ‘Biofuels: Ethical Issues’, produced by the Nuffield Council on Bioethics.

"We want a more sophisticated strategy that considers the wider consequences of biofuel production," she said.

The production of biofuels — based on crops such as soya beans, maize, palm oil, rapeseed, sugar cane and wheat — gives rise to a number of social and ethical concerns, including human rights violations; lack of environmental sustainability; failure to reduce carbon use; violations of labour and fair trade rules; and inequitable distribution of costs and benefits.

However, these are not a result of the technologies themselves but of the policies that led to their extremely rapid adoption, the report said.

"People have taken the path of least resistance and gone where it is easy in countries where rules are not so stringent," said Ottoline Leyser, associate director of the Sainsbury Laboratory at the University of Cambridge, United Kingdom.

The rapid expansion of Malaysian palm oil biodiesel, for example, has led to worries over the conversion of forests to oil palm plantations affecting South-East Asia‘s biodiversity. Some conservation groups have warned of the possible extinction of the Orangutan ape as a result of habitat loss.

Accusations of ‘land grabs’ by palm oil producers, where indigenous groups have been displaced from the land they have inhabited for generations, are also rife, the report noted.

In Brazil, breaches of workers’ rights have been brought to light. "There have been reports of unhealthy working conditions and even deaths from overwork during sugar cane cutting," the report said.

Meanwhile, so-called ‘first generation’ biofuels from food crops have shown that in some cases net greenhouse gas emissions after transportation and processing were not significantly lower than for fossil fuels. Some have low yields, requiring inputs such as fertilisers and pesticides that damage the environment.

Competition with food crops fuelled high food prices in 2008, sparking unrest in several developing countries. This has led to a research focus on so-called second generation biofuels that do not compete with food crops. 

"Researchers are developing new types of biofuels that need less land, produce fewer greenhouse gases and do not compete with food, but commercial-scale production is many years away," said Leyser. "Governments should do more to encourage research into these more ethical types of biofuels."

They include biofuels from non-edible parts of crops such as stalks and residues, technologies that enable all of the plant to be used in biofuel production — producing less waste and higher energy outputs, and using energy crops such as jatropha that do not compete for agricultural land.

Alena Buyx, assistant director of the Nuffield Council, said policies on biofuels have backfired. "We need to raise the ethical bar. Governments need to support new and better biofuels."

The council recommends that there should be a set of overarching ethical conditions for the import of all biofuels into Europe. This would include certification that imported biofuel products have not violated human rights or fair trade principles, and that they are produced in an economically and socially equitable manner that is environmentally sustainable and contributes to a reduction of greenhouse gas emissions.

Link to full ‘Biofuels: Ethical Issues’ report  [2.2MB]