Agrofuel Crops

Co-operative Research on Environmental Problems in Europe (CREPE)
06 April 2010

In recent years, there has been renewed interest in developing agrofuels on a large scale as an alternative to fossil fuel. EU biofuels policy, in particular, assumes that the environmental impacts associated with agrofuels production will be largely beneficial. This study questions such optimistic assumptions.

Latest version of the paper available via the Journal of Peasant Studies.


In recent years in Europe and North America, there has been renewed interest in developing agrofuels on a large scale as an alternative to fossil fuel, especially -- if not exclusively -- for use in transport. Today, compared to fossil fuel, agrofuels are increasingly portrayed as a more secure and ‘greener’ renewable energy source that ought to be tapped, and in Europe, in particular, a new wave of agrofuels promotion has made substantial inroads in official policymaking. in late 2008, a basic energy package was officially adopted as public policy within the European Union (EU).

Contemporary agrofuels discussions are less about enabling people to fulfil the most basic of human needs for survival and desires, than about the survival of a broadly distinct type and scale of economic system and a way of life associated with particular patterns of capital accumulation and consumption, production and exploitation, technology and ecology, than it is to. This raises questions about the relationship between agrofuels and sustainable development. For some, agrofuels are a means to sustainable development, while for others they inherently undermine it. The underlying issue is what kind of development and way of life is being supported in the current global promotion and expansion of agrofuels. It is with this larger question in mind that the Transnational Institute (TNI), in collaboration with researchers located in different regions of the world, has undertaken a comparative study on agrofuels in Brazil, Mozambique, and Germany.

EU biofuels policy has been driven by a partnership between government and agri-energy business extending the industrial model from commodity crops to energy. Similar alliances in the global South have been promoting agri-industrial biofuel development there. EU policy creates a agrofuels market and thus commercial incentives for agri-industrial agrofuels development, both in the EU and in the global South. An emerging global agrofuel market is illustrated by interactions and inter-dependencies among our three case studies – Germany, Brazil and Mozambique. In these cases, the agrofuel project encounters various frictions – inadvertent or intentional resistances. EU biofuels policy rests upon arguments about societal benefits of three main kinds – environmental protection, especially GHG savings; energy security through import substitution; and rural development, especially in the global South. Each argument in turn involves several assumptions, e.g. about what these putative benefits mean and how they can be fulfilled.

European Union (EU) policy promotes agrofuels in several ways. By 2020, 20% of all energy used in the EU and 10% of each Member State’s transport fuel must come from renewable sources. Fulfilment of such an ambitious target will depend on large-scale agri-industrial crops for agrofuels in the global South as well as in Europe – a fact that has helped to make the policy highly contentious, especially regarding its development and environmental impacts. EU biofuels policy assumes that these impacts will be largely beneficial, and that any potential harms can be adequately mitigated or managed, e.g. by self-regulation and technological innovation. This study questions such optimistic assumptions.

Against such a backdrop, the intentions, interests and worldviews underpinning agrofuels promotion must continue to be interrogated, now perhaps more than ever and partly because the agrofuels policy debate in the context of the EU appears to have been won by the proponents of a certain type of bioenergy sourcing (e.g., favouring large-scale, export-oriented mono-cropping production), at least for now.

Research activities during the last year have focussed on: (i) sharpening a review of the larger context within which the current controversy over agrofuels has arisen; (ii) looking at the political forces and agendas that have turned biofuels into a high priority for EU policy; (iii) analysing  pro-biofuels arguments and assumptions; (iv) comparing those assumptions with policies, practices and effects in three different countries – Germany, Brazil and Mozambique; and then, finally (v) and finally summarising how our findings challenge policy assumptions and hold wider implications for agrofuels critics.

The study proceeded along three tracks: first, the country case study researchers conducted their fieldwork and produced their preliminary write-ups; second, the TNI-based lead researchers prepared the CSO workshop in August-September 2009 where our preliminary findings were presented and discussed with invited CSO representatives; third, the case studies are re-interpreted so that they address the emerging global agrofuels market, and workshop outcomes are incorporated into the analysis.  EC policy assumptions are contradicted by practices, experiences and effects in our three case studies. For example:

Environmental protection: Doubts about efficiency of GHG emissions savings emerge from the evidence from the case studies. Agrofuels seems not to be the most efficient use of biomass in terms of diversifying energy matrixes. Moreover, indirect land use change (present in all the cases) is a significant source of GHG emissions, producing negative balances, but not officially counted.

Energy security: Agrofuels feed industrial expansion by supplementing fossil fuels, thus effectively limiting the benefits for energy security as well as for GHG savings. In EU, Germany and Brazil,  energy usage in domestic industry and transport has likewise expanded, being fed increasingly by agrofuels. By 2007 biofuels contributed to only 7.3% of total transport fuel in Germany, yet more than 10% of arable land in Germany was already used for cultivating crops for energy, and a great proportion of energy biomass was already imported;  so any increase in agrofuel usage would require even more imports of oilseeds.  In Mozambique agrofuels can play only a small role in import substitution and thus energy security; most agrofuel production is aimed at exports, like its current electricity production.

Rural development: In all the cases, agrofuels have been promoted in the global South as an opportunity for rural development, giving special emphasis to inclusion of small-scale producers. But in practice, the latter’s role has remained marginal; instead agro-business interests have prevailed. Land availability assumptions, such as the existence of ´marginal’ or ‘degraded’ land, provides a basis for plantations to expand there – supposedly without harming the environment or food production. Treating land as ‘marginal’ can justify its agri-industrial appropriation for agrofuels but may provoke protest from local people being dispossessed.  In Brazil agri-industrial plantations create ‘employment’ but degrade its conditions and readily undermine other livelihoods in the informal economy.  Promoting such agri-industrial development creates conflicts with Brazil’s environmental protection law, which has undergone pressure to be softened, thus contradicting EC policy assumptions about national regulatory regimes.

In all those ways, practices, experiences and effects in our three case studies contradict EC policy assumptions. Such contradictions may intensify with the future rise of agrofuels and so warrant systematic attention through critical research. Critical research can help to hold biofuel policies accountable for harms that result, and at the same time, can also question the fundamental development models that corporate-led agrofuels serve.

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