Agrifuels – Back to the Fields?

Agrocarburants (1) Le retour aux champs ?
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The idea of agrofuels is not a new one in the automobile industry. On the other hand, the project of producing them industrially with the aim of meeting global energy needs is a new one. Currently, productions are not adapted to consumer structures and even less to the requirements of Europe, the United States and other countries, for meeting the consumption targets recently set by governments.

It is above all on the American continent that the agrofuel offer is the most developed. With 36 billion tonnes of oil equivalent (Mtoe) used in 2008, the United States are the leading global market, followed by Brazil (20 billions). Both primarily produce and consume ethanol. In Europe, despite long experience and proactive policies, the establishing of agrofuels continuously comes up against a series of problems: European vehicles run on diesel oil, and the only biodiesels available on the market are from oil-bearing crops, which means they enter into competition with food productions.

Only the big agricultural countries (France, Germany and Italy) have the financial means to develop a production which is globally lower than the needs. And pending the second or even third generation of biodiesels (Read AGROFUELS (2) MEASURING CLIMATE IMPACT ), European supply of biodiesel (Spain, Poland and the United Kingdom) is carried out by importing already refined oils or even biodiesels. The European production of ethanol (France, Germany, Spain, Poland and Hungary) for its part mobilises a variety of resources: cereals (wheat, rye), beetroot and surplus wine alcohols. It must be noted that the countries which are less endowed in terms of agriculture (Sweden, United Kingdom, Netherlands, and Finland) mainly import ethanol from Brazil because it is cheaper. (See figure 1)

AGRICULTURAL CONCURRENCE

Agrofuels available on the market are criticized due to the environmental and agricultural impacts related to their production. In addition to this they rival with the big agricultural crops for the use of soil, water and input. Agriculture already mobilizes 86% of the available fresh water resources. Producing biofuels from irrigated crops necessarily raises the question of the allocation of available natural resources per region, country and region, and on a global scale. Water withdrawals are actually quite variable according to the channels and the cultivation methods.²

Therefore, for a same quantity of energy produced, some crops such as wheat, sorghum and rice may need a lot of water and this leads us to wonder how relevant it is to produce them. Moreover, first generation agrofuels can require a large amount of input. When they replace food crops, the level of pollution often remains the same. The problem increases when they are grown on originally virgin soils (bare soil, wooded land, etc.) and leads to a deterioration of the quality of waters which had up until then been free of pollution.

Figure 1 | A PRODUCTION LOWER THAN REQUIREMENTS

Despite a recent and highly publicized development, the volumes of biofuels today are still well below existing needs. Most of them are consumed on their production site.

Figure 2 | COMPETITION FOR WATER

1st generation biofuels enter into competition with big agricultural crops for land, input and water. This finding supports actually the active research for second or even third generation agrofuels