Bio fuels
Human beings are by instinct insecure about everything. In fact it is insecurity that drives us to strive for everything in our lives. The need for energy security has for long propelled research for finding renewable , cost effective and cleaner  alternatives to fossil fuels which have been the engine of our economic growth in the modern era. In fact we are left with little option but to find  alternatives to fossil fuels. This quest has been throwing up several alternatives from time to time. One of the viable alternatives discovered long back is what we call bio fuels. Viable?? Or so we thought. Research conducted into the state of our present energy and food security  scenario reveals that bio-fuels may possibly not be ‘viable’ alternatives.
What are Biofuels?
Biofuel is derived as any solid, gaseous or liquid fuel obtained from biomass; this may be in its natural form (e.g. wood, peat) or a commercially produced form (e.g. ethanol from sugarcane residue, diesel from waste vegetable oil). Simply put, they are derived from recently dead biological material most commonly plants. This is in contrast to fossil fuels which are derived from long dead biological materials.Bioethanol and biodiesel are two major types of  bio-fuels.
Bioethanol can be produced from traditional sugar-based crops, such as sugarcane, sweet sorghum and sugar beet, as well as from starch-rich crops, such as maize, barley, wheat and cassava.
Biodiesel can be produced from oil seed crops, such as soya, rapeseed (canola) , sunflower, jatropha ,from used cooking oils and from animal fats.
Worldwide national biofuels programmes were initiated primarily for supply security and to mitigate against massive trade deficits caused in 1973 by the oil price shocks.  Biofuels programmes are again gaining popularity, as they can replace crude oil, which is becoming more expensive and they can play a role in reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
There are however concerns about biofuels and their production processes, including the debate around food vs fuel, the use of water to produce the crops for biofuels and the impact that global climate change can have on future crop production.

In the recent months policy research has brought out some startling facts about the impact of bio fuel production on food security which may prompt a serious rethink and re-orientation of their possible uses.
What’s wrong with bio fuels??
Bio fuels it seems are getting into serious competition with humans. Well if you are baffled by this, take a look for yourself. The major inputs for bio fuels are constituted by cereals, sugar, oilseed and vegetable oils, all of which are major food stocks for human use and contribute to a sizeable portion of our calorie intake . It has come to light that one of the major contributors to the recent spurt in global food prices and supply short falls could very well be the diversion of large chunks of food grains especially cereals and edible oils towards bio fuel production.

Grappling with frequent droughts , increased crop losses and decreased yields owing to climate changes and other factors, the use of food stocks for bio fuels has aggravated the supply shortfall and tilted the supply-demand balance  adversely. The number of underfed or starving people mostly in under developed countries is still very high. These vulnerable countries have been affected the most by the startling rise in prices . In such a situation where a huge chunk of the global populace goes to bed with a half filled or an empty stomach, the rationale of using food grains for production of biofuels has now come in for some serious scrutiny.
The main reasons put forward for going for mass production of biofuels are
Reduction of dependence on fossil fuels which are non-renewable and finite in nature and whose depletion is a virtual certainty.
Reducing the damage to the environment caused by burning fossil fuels.
However, a closer scrutiny of the dynamics of biofuel inputs and production reveals that cultivation of bio-fuel inputs crops  , which is heavily subsidised, is a way of boosting the income of farmers particularly the developed countries . Thus apart from the environmental and energy security, a vested interest has also creeped into the system either by default or by design. There may now be powerful lobbies which are at work to increase biofuel production. Food grains which could be used to feed millions of hungry mouths are being diverted towards bio fuels. Diversion has caused reduced supplies for human use causing a steep rise in prices. This has benefited the cultivators of these crops. It is a paradox. Increase production of food stock which should have helped fight hunger is causing food insecurity around the globe. Can the world afford to fund fuel for cars by snatching food from the mouths of millions. A serious rethink is  warranted .

This has created a difficult situation for livestock production also.Increased feed stock prices may have benefited the farmers cultivating these crops but have also made animal feed derived from feed stock much more costlier. Thus the income of livestock farmers have been hit and food products derived from livestock have become dearer.It has been argued that subsidies for bio fuels that use agricultural production resources are extremely anti-poor because they implicitly act as a tax on basic food , which represents a large share of poor peoples consumption expenditure and becomes even more costly as prices increase.Impressive targets for bio fuel production have been backed with impressive subsidies fror the development of the bio fuel sector. In the United States for example tax credits for maize based ethanol production have been estimated at US$ 5.5 to 7.7 billion discounting direct payment to maize farmers. With the share of maize production directed towards ethanol mills growing, prices are rising sharply, In  2007 they reached a 10 year high even though the crop of the previous year was the third highest on record.

Feedstock represents the principal share of total biofuel production costs. For ethanol
and biodiesel, feedstock accounts for 50–70 percent and 70–80 percent of overall costs,
respectively .Net production costs—which are all costs related to produc-
tion, including investments—differ widely across countries. For instance, Brazil produces ethanol at about half the cost of Australia and one-third the cost of Germany. Significant increases in feedstock costs (by at least 50 percent) in the past few years impinge on comparative advantage and competitiveness. The implication is that while the biofuel sector will contribute to feedstock price changes, it will also be a victim of these price changes.

In the United States of America,  ethanol production is still assumed to double between 2006 and 2016.
Use of maize for fuel production, would increase from some 55 Mt or one-fifth of maize production in 2006 to 110 Mt or 32%  by 2016.
Soya oil use for bio-diesel production is expected to reach  2.3 million tonnes  in 2011.
The European Union too has priorities set on biofuel.
Mostly bio fuel based on oil seeds mainly rapeseed has been used. Use of ethanol mainly from wheat and maize is likely to gain importance.
Use of bio fuels will increase by almost 170% between 2006 and 2010.
Despite some increased imports of biofuels, this growth in biofuel markets translates
into strongly increased demand for feedstock products. Use of wheat in particular is set to
increase twelvefold and to reach some 18 million tonnes by 2016. Growth in the use of
oilseeds (largely rapeseed) and maize is less dramatic, but would still reach 21 Mt and
5.2 Mt by 2016, respectively.

Even fossil fuel rich countries like Canada have set high targets for bio fuel production.
. In 2006, ethanol production doubled and bio-diesel production commenced. the Canadian
government is likely to mandate a 5% ethanol blend in gasoline by 2010 and a 2% bio-diesel blend in on-road diesel and heating-oil by 2012.  To achieve this target ethanol production based on maize and wheat may reach almost 1.9 billion litres in 2009.
Bio diesel production is assumed to reach 600 million litres by 2012 mainly from oilseeds.
Use of maize for ethanol is likely to be about 3.4 million tonnes in 2008. 1.5 million tonnes of wheat is likely to be consumed in the process.

The fast racing economy of China ethanol production is likely to reach 3.8 billion  litres up from 1.5 billion litres in 2006 mostly based on maize. About 9 million tonnes of which are expected to be used for the purpose in 2016 up from 3.5 million tonnes in 2006.

The global leader in ethanol production, Brazil is not only the pioneer in biofuel production but also been a role model for others . Ethanol production is likely to  reach about  44 billion litres by 2016, a jump of about  145% over  2006 figures.About 60% of all sugar cane produced in that country would be coverted to ethanol by 2016.

With such ambitious targets being set for enhancement of biofuel production it is little wonder that we are headed for a very precarious situation where we will have more food production but a substantial portion of which will be  unavailable to the most deprived people. A situation of threat to the food security has already arisen. Research reveals that even if most of the arable land in the world is used to cultivate input crop for biofuels, even then only a small portion of the fuel needs will be met. There is talk of utilising waste lands for crop production exclusively for biofuels. The investment required for that may far outweigh the benefit to be gained. Imagine the amount of water needed to irrigate the crop , in a scenario where water scarcity is a reality and droughts are the order of the day.
Recognising the impact that biofuels have on food security, the government of India is reportedly not keen to press ahead with a proposal of diverting land for crops for hybrid fuels. This at a time when impressive economic growth and poverty alleviation measures have resulted in heightened demand for food products.

Globalisation has meant that barriers to the to and fro movement of literally everything are being removed, inflation being no exception. Inflation is now cutting across geographical boundaries. As more and more people are affected with relentless price rise of food products, a global rethink on land use and food security may prompt a serious review of bio fuel production targets. While there should be no let up in the search for and the increasing use of renewable sources of energy, prudence is warranted in careful evaluation of the pros and cons. Use of solar and wind energy as well as some other promising sources although costlier may have to be explored in more  depth and promoted with greater zeal. Securing the supply of energy at the cost of food may not after all be in the best interests of mankind.

(with input credits to the FAO, OECD, IFPRI)

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