De nourriture à combustible

En raison de l’incertitude concernant non seulement les futures réserves de combustible mais aussi des efforts consacrés à la réduction des changements climatiques, pour ainsi dire, la production des biocombustibles comme l’éthanol et le biodiesel explose.  Toutefois,les biocombustibles dépendent d’un mode intensif d’agriculture qui, de son coté, est de plus en plus à l’origine d’émissions de gaz à effet de serre, de destructions d’habitats, de déboisements, de pertes de biodiversité et de modifications aux relations des sociétés avec la terre sous la forme de migrations croissantes de la campagne vers la ville.  Si les biocombustibles sont vraiment appelés à devenir des énergies renouvelables, on faudra modifier les modes actuels de production non durables qui sont encore utilisées dans la culture des aliments et des combustibles.

From Food to Fuel

Julia Ostertag
September 2006

l.gif (280 bytes)ncertainty over future fuel supplies and efforts to mitigate climate change are fuelling the production of biofuels such as ethanol and biodiesel. Although using biofuels reduces greenhouse gas emissions, there are growing concerns that widespread production could worsen present environmental pressures and social inequality around the world, particularly as land and crops are shifted from food crops to biofuel feedstocks.

Biofuels are presently made from agricultural products. Ethanol is derived from the fermentation of sugar cane in the south and corn in temperate climates; biodiesel is produced from palm oil in the tropics and canola, rapeseed, soybeans, or sunflowers in the north. Deriving fuels from agriculture means that the fuel source is renewable and this process contributes to the capture of carbon dioxide (CO2)during the crop's growth period.

Cellulosic feedstocks derived from Guayule used for biofuel production

The food for fuel issue comes down to the fact that biofuels are dependent on intensive agriculture, which is increasingly the cause of greenhouse gas emissions (primarily due to the use of nitrogen-based fertilizers), habitat destruction, deforestation, loss of biodiversity, and changing social relations to the land in the form of increasing rural-urban migration. If biofuels are truly to become renewable fuels, they must address the current unsustainable production patterns in agriculture for food and fuels.

In addition, growing food crops for biofuels is only effective if present fossil fuel consumption is reduced. According to the European Union's Environment Commissioner, Stavros Dimas, "The only long-term sustainable solutions to the energy challenge are to achieve dramatic, indispensable improvements in energy efficiency and, at the same time, to expand renewable energy sources." This statement was made recently at a high-profile conference in Brussels titled "A Sustainable Path for Biofuels in the EU" (

If reductions are not made in overall fuel use, increasing pressure will be exerted on lands around the world that are presently forested, under conservation, or in food production to become croplands for biofuels. Although world hunger is primarily a result of unequal access to and distribution of resources and not a result of the world's capacity to produce food, biofuel production can exacerbate this situation. Presently, soybean, corn, and palm oil demand for biofuels is growing so rapidly, that prices are rising and stocks for edible oils are decreasing (Reuters). Rising food prices as a result of growing demand is a concern for global food security.

Biofuel production will increasingly be located in southern countries, since "the potential for biofuels is particularly large in tropical countries, where high crop yields and lower costs for land and labour-which dominate the cost of these fuels-provide an economic advantage that is hard for countries in temperate regions to match" (Worldwatch Institute, 2006).

Biofuel yields from feedstocks grown in tropical climates compared with temperate crops (Worldwatch Institute, 2006:

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(Photo: Julia Ostertag)

For instance, British Petroleum has announced it will fund a $9.4 million project by the Energy and Resources Institute in Andhra Pradesh to produce biodiesel from jatropha, a non-edible oilcrop. The project, expected to take 10 years, would involve cultivating jatropha on about 8,000 hectares currently designated as "wasteland" ( In addition, Wilmar Holdings Ltd. in Indonesia, the world's second-largest palm oil producing country, plans to develop another 3,000,000 hectares of forest into plantations in the next five years, partly to meet biofuel demand. The company also has a joint venture plan with Archer Daniels Midland Company (ADM), an American oilseed processing company, to build a biodiesel plant in Singapore, but both companies are still considering the project's feasibility (

Increasing pressure to convert "wastelands," forests, or even fallow fields into biofuel feedstock plantations or field crops results in the release of large amounts of carbon dioxide that is captured by the soils and the biomass. According to the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM), "One third of all carbon dioxide emissions comes from changes in land use (forest clearing, shifting-cultivation and intensification of agriculture). Approximately two thirds of methane and most of nitrous oxide emissions originate from agriculture." Changing conventional agricultural practices to include wider crop rotations, cover crops, and natural means of fertilizing and managing pests and weeds could improve biofuels' capacity to provide a sustainable fuel source.

Although large scale projects are promoted as beneficial to developing nations' economic development, problems arise when they perpetuate colonial relations between the First and Third World. For instance, banana and tea plantations and even mines have been developed to provide the First World countries with cheap resources, mostly without consideration for human rights or environmental protection. Increasingly, non-governmental organizations and governments are recognizing the need for certification and standardization of biofuel production in order for the fuel to fulfill its mandate as a sustainable, renewable resource. For instance, the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil demonstrated how accrediting palm oil, one of biofuel's key feedstocks, can improve its sustainability, particularly through the reduction of tropical rainforest deforestation (

Banana Plantation

With drastic reductions in fuel consumption, biofuel production based on sustainable agricultural practices and respect for human rights can develop into a sustainable fuel source. To guarantee this, however, governments will be required to implement policies that "…compel the biofuel industry to maintain or improve current management practices of land, water, and other resources," (Worldwatch Institute, 2006) and ensure strong labour standards. Small-scale cooperative models of growing biofuel crops sustainably or recycling waste vegetable oils for biofuel production are steps toward ensuring the benefits from biofuels are maintained in local communities, without jeopardizing food production or the environment.