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Answers to the Criticisms of Biofuels

April 29, 2008

On their impact on climate change and greenhouse gas emissions

Biofuels are the only available alternative for beginning to substitute the oil used for transportation, which produces 25% of greenhouse gases.

On their impact on environmental contamination

The use of biofuels in pure state or in gasoline and diesel blends improves air quality.

On their impact on energy dependence

The use of biofuels contributes to reducing energy dependence on oil and to increasing energy diversification and supply security.

On energy efficiency

Biofuels, in every case, have a better energy balance than fossil fuels, so, compared to gas oil and gasoline, they save primary and fossil energy.

  • A blend of gasoline and 85% bioethanol (E85) saves primary energy by 17% for each kilometer driven with respect to pure gasoline. A bioethanol blend of just 5% (E5) represents a savings of 0.28%.

  • A gasoline blend with 85% bioethanol (E85) saves 36% in fossil energy for each kilometer driven over pure gasoline. A bioethanol blend of just 5% (E5) represents a savings of 1.12%

  • A blend of gasoline with 85% bioethanol (E85) has a positive fossil energy efficiency, as it contains 26% more energy than the fossil energy consumed to produce and distribute this blend. On the other hand, although the 5% bioethanol blend (E5) has a negative fossil energy efficiency of 16%, it proves to be superior to pure gasoline.

  • Even though E85, and E5 as well, are negative in terms of primary energy efficiency, their energy efficiency is superior to that of gasoline, as these blends need only 3.5% and 18.4% more primary energy, respectively, to be produced and distributed than that which they contain.

    Support documentation: Análisis del ciclo de vida de combustibles alternativos para el transporte (CIEMAT)

  • A recent study conducted by the DOE/USDA suggests that, with intensive technological development, biofuels could supply 60 trillion gallons per year, 30% of the gasoline consumed in the U.S., in a responsible environment and without affecting future food production. Advanced Energy Initiative - The White House National Economic Council February 2006.


What Shortage?, National Corn Growers Association, 2007.
Growing Fuels, National Geographic, October 2007

On their impact on biodiversity

The demand for raw materials to make biofuels has very little influence on the loss of biodiversity that is being observed in certain areas of the world.

Reaching the EU target of 10% biofuels in 2020 will have a very limited and perfectly acceptable impact on nature.

  • The EC affirms that “if farming of the raw materials needed to produce biofuels takes place on appropriate land, the environmental impact entailed in achieving a 14% market share in biofuels will be manageable”.

    Support documentation 1: Biofuels Progress Report 2007 (Comission of the European Communities) (1)

    Support documentation 2: Biofuels Progress Report 2007 (Comission of the European Communities) (2)

  • The EC adds that this objective can be met without having to use “tropical forests or other habitats of high natural value”. Therefore, if the ultimate target is 10% in biofuels, the impact will be even more restricted.

    Support documentation: Biofuels Progress Report 2007 (Comission of the European Communities) (1)

  • Biofuel production can have a positive impact on biodiversity by diversifying crops into intensive systems, going from single-crop to polycrop farming, and by enabling the change from annual species to perennials –poplars or jatrophe for bioethanol and biodiesel, respectively.

    Support documentation: Biofuels and the Environment. Risks and Opportunities (Andrea Athanas. IUCN)

  • Increased biofuel consumption will mean lower consumption of petroleum products and, therefore, a decrease in the tremendous environmental impact associated with fossil fuels.

  • The EC has proposed a Directive for the Promotion of Renewable Energies that establishes strict criteria of sustainability for biofuels consumed in the EU:
    • Reduction of greenhouse gas emissions by at least 35% with respect to fossil fuels.
    • They cannot be produced from raw materials obtained from land which in January of 2008 or later had a high level of biodiversity (forests without significant human intervention, protected natural areas, highly biodiverse pastures).
    • They cannot be produced from raw materials obtained from land which in January of 2008 had a high carbon stock (wetlands and forest areas).

  • Biofuels must be viewed as a significant contribution to a new, more diversified, efficient and sustainable energy and transportation model.

    Support documentation: Directive on the Promotion of Energy from Renewable Sources (European Commission)

On their impact on cereal/food prices

The responsibility of biofuels for the increase in prices of nutritional raw materials (cereals) is limited.

  • In Spain, for example, 75% of cereal production is allocated to livestock feed, based on high consumption of meat and dairy products.

    Support documentation: Las verdaderas causas de la subida del precio de los cereales; consecuencias para el sector agrario (COAG)

  • Seventy percent of the world’s farmland is used for livestock, either for grazing or to produce cattle feed.

    Support documentation: Las verdaderas causas de la subida del precio de los cereales; consecuencias para el sector agrario (COAG)

  • In the European Union, less than 1% of all cereal production in the 2006 season was dedicated to bioethanol production, and is estimated to be 1.6% in 2007.

    Support documentation: Prospects for agricultural markets and income in the European Union 2006 – 2013 (European Commission)

  • Only 20% of the increase arising from world oil consumption between 2004 and 2007 (24.3 million tons) was due to biodiesel. This clearly means that traditional uses were mainly responsible for the increase in world oil demand.

  • The food industry is by far the main culprit behind the growing demand for agriculture-based raw materials worldwide.

  • The price increase is due to a combination of factors: low crop yields in the EU and other exporters (Ukraine, Russia, Australia, Canada); higher demand than anticipated in emerging countries (China, India); speculative practices in the commodities and futures markets; a process of storing up grain by farmers and traders based on forecasts of continued price increases; increased freight charges; a decrease in arable land in the EU...

    Support documentation: Las verdaderas causas de la subida del precio de los cereales; consecuencias para el sector agrario( COAG)

  • The EU's Common Agricultural Policy, which mandates maintaining a portion of unfarmed land, limits cereal production, the raw material for biofuels.

    Support documentation: European Union News Room

  • The biofuel-producing industry has the greatest interest in seeing the price of raw materials come to a halt, since most of its manufacturing costs come from the purchase of agricultural products that serve as its basis.

  • The food industry is behind the campaign of disinformation which has been put into gear with the twofold aim of discrediting biofuels –however modest, they represent a competition they would like to eliminate from the market– and justifying the rise in their prices and profits, thereby supposedly being exonerated of any blame on the part of consumers.

  • Biofuels have nothing to do with either the increase in consumer food prices or the rise in inflation.

  • The rise in energy prices has had a much greater impact on the recent increase in the price of bread than the increase in cereal prices itself.

    Support documentation: Prospects for agricultural markets and income in the European Union 2006 – 2013 (European Commission)

  • Prices paid to farmers for their raw materials are much more volatile than consumer food prices.

    Support documentation: Prospects for agricultural markets and income in the European Union 2006 – 2013 (European Commission)

  • In the EU, the cost of cereals makes up just 5% of the price of bread, with its main production costs being labor, energy and capital.

    Support documentation: Prospects for agricultural markets and income in the European Union 2006 – 2013 (European Commission)

  • The price of bread has been on the rise in recent years in spite of extremely low and decreasing real cereal prices.

    Support documentation: Prospects for agricultural markets and income in the European Union 2006 – 2013 (European Commission)

  • The increase in the price of milk is caused primarily by the growing imbalance between supply and demand due to misalignment between supply (reduction due to droughts and EC policy) and demand (India and China).

  • Biofuel production generates, directly or indirectly, byproducts for livestock feed, such as oleaginous cakes for biodiesel or the DDGS derived from cereal-based ethanol, partially compensating, in this case, for the rise in cereal prices.

  • "I refute the idea held by some people that recent interest in biofuels is causing a rise in cereal prices. This is not the case, as it plays a marginal role, at least in the context of the EU. More significant is the decrease in cereal production in some regions of the world, poor weather in Europe and growing demand from eastern Asia." Mariann Fischer Boel's Blog, Agriculture and Rural Development Commissioner for the European Commission.

  • "The biofuel sector began to grow right when food and cattle feed prices were at their all-time lows. This leaves erroneous conclusions in which the rapid growth of the biofuel sector is associated with the rise in cereal prices. It cannot be said that there is a direct causal relationship between the growing demand for biofuels and prices." Biomass, Food and Sustainability 2007, Louise O. Fresco, University of Amsterdam, member of the Supervisory Board of Rabobank Netherland.

  • "Meat, chicken, eggs and meat products - foods in which corn is an important factor and which are more subject to be affected by an increase in corn prices - represented approximately 0.2 percent of the total acceleration of 1.2 percent in the acceleration in food prices between September 2006 and April 2007... a rise in corn prices derived from greater demand for ethanol or an interruption in the supply, such as in the case of drought, is estimated to have half the impact of the same percentage of increase in petroleum and energy prices."

    Support documentation: The Relative Impact of Corn and Energy Prices in the Grocery Aisle (J.M. Urbanchuk, Director of LECG)

  • "Although there have been a series of reports in the media over the last year indicating that food prices are on the rise as a result of higher corn prices (caused by the increase in demand for ethanol), there is little evidence of a cause-effect relationship."

    Support documentation: Analysis of Potential Causes of Consumer Food Price Inflation (2007 Economics)

The future impact of biofuels on food prices will also be moderate (European Commission).


What Shortage?, National Corn Growers Association, 2007.

On their impact on the availability and use of land

The EC considers that in no case, neither in Europe nor worldwide, will there be a problem of a lack of land, as there is enough arable land to allow the development of biofuels without putting nutritional needs at risk.

  • The EC estimates that meeting the 10% biofuel objective in 2020 will have a “relatively modest” impact on the use of land, requiring the utilization of 17.5 million hectares, which represents 15.3% of arable surface area in the EU-27 (CE, The impact of a minimum 10%.).

  • The EC estimates that 11.3% of arable land will be dedicated to reaching the 10% bioethanol goal in 2020. Today, this percentage is at 1% (CE, The impact of a minimum 10%.).

  • The EC anticipates that the 10% bioethanol objective set for 2020 will be attainable without a significant increase in productive intensity and without having to resort to patterns of fertilizer and pesticide use that were customary in the last century until the end of the 80s (CE, The impact of a minimum 10%.).

  • The EC anticipates that EU agricultural yield will increase moderately at an average rate of 1%-2% annually, increasing crop yields and grain available for bioethanol (CE, The impact of a minimum 10%.)

  • The EC estimates that second-generation bioethanol production will enable taking advantage of straw and cereal wastes and other cellulosic biomass (wastes and specific vegetable matter) never used until now, thereby increasing energy yield (CE, The impact of a minimum 10%).

    Support documentation: Impact assessment of the Renewable Energy Roadmap 2007 (European Commission)

  • "Understanding the changes in the use of land around the world is important for developing strategies for combating climate change. However, like other previous studies, those published in Science magazine today fail to put the problem into perspective. Laying the blame for deforestation or the conversion of pastures to agricultural production dedicated to the renewable fuel industry ignores key factors that play a greater role. Continuous growth in world population, increasing demand for feeding the expanding middle classes in China and India, and continuous expansion and urban development are all factors that contribute to the growing demand for arable land."

    Support documentation: Simplistic View of Land Use Change Excludes Consequences of Continuing Petroleum Dependence (RFA)

On their impact on nutrional security

  • "The dramatic growth of biofuels in the U.S. in recent years has led to wide speculation regarding the additional corn needed to produce ethanol, considering that this corn would be diverted from exports.... This scenario has definitely not taken place. Instead of collapsing, U.S. corn exports have been growing in recent years... Increased production and higher yields have allowed the U.S. industry to meet the growing demand for ethanol, both nationally and for the rising export market".

    Support documentation: What Shortage? 2007 (National Corn Growers Association)

  • "There has been no indication to date that U.S. corn-based ethanol production has caused any kind of change in the use of land in other countries. Proof of this is that U.S. corn exports have held steady at around two billion bushels per year, and U.S. exports of the DGS byproduct have shown constant growth over the last 10 years..."

    Support documentation: Transportation Technology R&D Center

  • "Crop improvement based on energy characteristics could increase the volume of ethanol produced from corn, as the result of improved corn crop yield through selective breeding. Corn hybrids with a high starch content, coupled with higher yield, will increase ethanol production volume by bushels of corn, as well as the yield of bushels of corn by acre. "

    Support documentation: USDA. Committe to the future of rural communities

  • "The similar growth in the demand for ethanol and the national corn market is raising concerns about whether corn production can continue to increase. Indeed, farmers responded in 2007 with the largest corn crop ever planted since World War II. Moreover, another way to mitigate those worries is the development of different corn varieties with a higher yield. If seed industry objectives are met and forecasts prove to be true, corn used for ethanol production will exceed demand. Average corn yields have doubled in the last 30 years; biotechnology and research techniques may lead to similar advances in the next 25 years. Monsanto has stated that the average corn yield in the United States will reach 300 bushels per acre – double today’s national average."

    Support documentation: Ethanol producer Magazine

  • "Corn yield has increased drastically and continuously for the last 35 years (1965-2000) at an annual rate of 1.7 bushels per acre. The continuous increase currently used by the USDA for projections (1.8 bushels per acre) will turn into a 25% increase in yield (173 bushels per acre) in 2020 and a 50% yield increase (207 bushels per acre) toward 2043. The estimated yield value of 207 bushels per acre is quite reasonable (even conservative), given that this production level continues to be much lower than the average corn yield of around 300 bushels per acre in both areas irrigated by rain as well as non-irrigated regions."

    Support documentation: US Department of Energy

  • Some analyses of the impact of land use assume that for each acre of land dedicated to energy crops, another acre of land must be put into production in other parts of the world. This assumption is erroneous for various reasons: It does not take into consideration the value of byproducts, rich in protein, produced in biorefineries today.
    Advances in seed biotechnology and the technological process which is achieving greater yield per acre of raw material are not taken into account.
    It incorrectly assigns all of the effects of biofuel growth, without considering the effects of a growing world economy, as well as the increased demand for food, and urban demographical growth.

    Support documentation: Biomass Energy Crops: Massachusetts’ Potential ( MDER & MDCR)

  • Can American farmers feed the world and produce large amounts of biomass for the growing biorefinery industry? The answer is yes.
    The National Corn Growers Association projects continuous advancement in biotechnologies, which will achieve increased corn yield, to 5.95 trillion bushels of corn in the U.S. which could be available for the ethanol industry by the year 2015 – thereby meeting human and animal nutritional needs as well as the export demand. This amount of corn would produce almost 18 trillion gallons of ethanol, enough to cover more than 10 percent of the estimated U.S. demand for gasoline.

    Support documentation: Achieving Sustainable Production of Agricultural Biomass for Biorefinery Feedstock (BIO)

  • "Of the 14 million new acres of U.S. corn crops in 2008, 60 percent came from soy, of which 97 percent was dedicated to livestock feed. Due to DGS byproducts, only a fraction of an acre of soy is needed to replace an acre of corn. " "Most of the corn being grown in 2008 is taking place on land which has been used for corn production for many years, over many generations."

    Support documentation: Harvesting Clean Energy Journal

  • "The overproduction of food in industrialized countries, where supply has exceeded demand, due partially to domestic subsidies, lowered the prices of agricultural products. For decades, these low prices were one of the primary causes of economic stagnancy in rural areas. Biofuels absorbed crop surpluses in industrialized countries, and therefore prices rose, farmers’ income increased in poor countries, and at the same time political pressure was reduced in the form of agricultural subsidies in industrialized countries; all of this not without possible costs such as the following: a large budget for subsidies in industrialized countries, high food prices for poor consumers throughout the world, and an increase in the costs of staple foods. Nevertheless, the anticipated price increase due to higher demand for biofuel crops can make farmers increase production, consequently mitigating some of these price effects in the long term."

    Support documentation: Price developments for basic food commodities(FAO)

  • One of the most common myths is that biofuels are going to compete with food production. Today, the major food producers are those developed countries with strong agricultural subsidy programs. In developing countries, with few exceptions, large-scale food production does not take place. These countries simply cannot compete with countries that have abundant agricultural subsidies. It is more profitable to import products offered as food aid from developing countries, or those sold at subsidized prices, than to produce them locally.

    Biofuel production in developed countries is going to change this image. Large expanses of unused arable land in the southern hemisphere will be utilized for biofuel crops, thereby restructuring the agricultural sector. Millions of jobs will be created as a result, increasing income, food exports, and the purchasing power of the most impoverished. Furthermore, biofuel production in the south would help to prevent the reorientation of food-producing land in the north for this purpose.

    Support documentation: Article by Director of the Department of Energy. Ministry of External Relation (Brazil)

On deforestation

  • "Peter Zuurbier, associate professor of Picacicaba, stated that deforestation takes soy production very close to the Amazon; in other words, Fargione makes a correct correlation, but not of the causes of this problem; Zuubuer describes what is actually taking place in Brazil:

    Groups and well-organized corporations with dubious rights to the land, but officially the legal owners, begin to chop down enormous expanses of forest for the wood market, be it illegal or legal. Normally, these strips of already empty forest are abandoned, and the cattle owners move toward these cheaper areas of land. However, after three or four years of cattle grazing on the land, the soil weakens and is rendered completely useless, without any kind of fertilization, and the owners move to areas near the abandoned land. Soy farmers, nevertheless, replace the cattle in these areas, giving this land a chance to be fertilized by soy production."
    No Land Cleared For Biofuels, Blog of BIO (Biotechnology Industry Organization)

  • An additional problem vindicated by Fargione is that agricultural exports and grain distillation are at an all-time high. This is the connection made by professor Michael Wang, researcher at Argonne’s Transportation Technology R&D Center, creator of the GREET LCA model for biofuels:
    There has been no indication that U.S. ethanol production is the indirect cause of the change in farmland use in other countries, because wheat exports have held steady at around two million bushels per year, and because DGS exports have grown in the last ten years. Therefore, while nothing argues Fargione’s vindication that biofuels are causing the deforestation in the Amazon, there is a great deal of evidence to suggest that this will not occur for a very long time.
    No Land Cleared For Biofuels, Blog of BIO (Biotechnology Industry Organization)

    "Another myth is that biofuel production puts the Amazon jungle in danger. It must be pointed out that between 2004 and 2006, a period of tremendous growth in Brazilian biofuel production, the rate of deforestation in the Amazon tropical jungle was reduced by 52 percent. Likewise, the large sugar cane plantations are located at least 1,000 kilometers from the Amazon region, where it is virtually impossible for sugar cane to grow efficiently due to the high humidity that impedes the formation of sucrose.
    Biofuels could also contribute to a reduction in carbon emissions through the use of degraded land. In the case of Brazil, less than 10 percent of all farmland is used for cultivating sugar cane. There are, nonetheless, 150 million hectares of degraded pastures that the Brazilian government is working to recover. This land will receive plant cover from the sugar cane, which will aid in reducing carbon emissions. "

    Support documentation: Article by Director of the Department of Energy. Ministry of External Relation (Brazil)

On their impact on water consumption

  • "Specifically, criticism revolves around the amount of water used to produce corn and ethanol. For example, anti-ethanol groups point out that three gallons of water are needed to produce a gallon of ethanol. What the critics do not mention, using a real perspective- according to Jon Holzfaster of Paxton, president of the Nebraska Corn Commission- is that 94 gallons of water are required to process the crude oil for producing a gallon of gasoline. In order to make an average-size Sunday newspaper, 150 gallons of water are needed."

    Support documentation: Nebraska farmers

On Social Responsibility

  • "It is an opportunity to meet the growing worldwide demand for energy, and thus be able to mitigate some of the effects on prices. It is an opportunity to do this by respecting the environment, so that the carbon balance is neutral. It is an opportunity to do this so that developing countries like Brazil can provide income and employment to their inhabitants. And it is also an opportunity for developing countries to be able to achieve carbon credits for mitigating environmental impacts."

    Support documentation: World Bank

  • Joseph Schmidhuber, Senior Economist, together with the Department of Agricultural Development and Economics Division of the FAO, stated that if it is managed well, bioenergy could promote something similar to a “renaissance” in agriculture in some developing countries where biofuels can be produced.

    Support documentation: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations news room

  • "The ethanol industry employs almost 200,000 people in the United States and provides half a million jobs in Brazil. These benefits are, probably, of worldwide projection, with the greatest impact on agriculture-based economies, with favorable conditions for biofuel crop growth... In countries and regions where access to modern forms of energy is limited or non-existent, small-scale support can aid biofuel production, providing clean and accessible energy that is vital for rural development and mitigating poverty, thus achieving the “Millennium Development Goal” of the United Nations.

  • Support documentation: Biofuels for Transportation: Global Potential and Implications for Sustainable Agriculture and Energy in the 21st Century (WorldWatch Institute)

  • "If it is carried out on a large scale, the increased use of agricultural resources for energy would have the effect of increasing the prices of most crops and reducing the need for subsidies – with benefits for growers of staple crops in developing countries. According to an analysis by researchers at the University of Tennessee, increased demand for energy crops would bring about the elimination of the need for payments based on support of most U.S. crops. In other words, an aggressive program of biofuel development could lead to reductions in government aid to farmers without any kind of loss of income.
    In the industrialized world, the problem of agriculture is not scarcity, but rather overproduction – this is why there are surplus perennials. Surplus crops are sold to third parties, and they end up impoverishing farmers in developing countries, since they cannot compete with foreign subsidized crops."

    Support documentation: The benefits of biofuels: International Development

  • "Bioenergy could reconcile the priorities of the world’s wealthiest countries (securing the energy supply and combating climate change) with those of the impoverished (access to energy, generation of income and opening up new markets)."

    Support documentation: ICTSD Project on Trade and Sustainable Energy

Other Documents

Support documentation: Biofuels and Sustainability, Myths and Realities 2007 (Renewable Energy Producers Association)

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