Defra scientist: second generation biofuels need investment

Biofuel production has caused deforestation, increased food prices and displaced small-scale farmers in some parts of the world - but in many cases does not significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions, a Government scientist has said.

Professor Robert Watson, Defra’s chief scientific advisor, told this year’s Oxford Farming Conference that the rapid growth in production of first-generation biofuels, such as bioethanol and biodiesel, is creating new social and environmental problems.

In a speech discussing the challenges facing the agriculture industry, Professor Watson said second-generation biofuels, such as the production of cellulosic ethanol and biomass to liquid technologies, offered a huge potential to reduce these problems.

He recommended significant public and private funding should be used exploit these opportunities.

The production of non-traditional agricultural products such as biofuels is creating public concern, Professor Watson warned, and diversification of agriculture had to be done very carefully.

Describing current biofuel production, he said: “The net energy balance and level of greenhouse gas emissions varies considerably, and in many instances does not significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions compared to fossil fuel energy when the full energy balance is taken into account, for example, the use of maize in the USA.

“Deforestation can be attributed to largescale biofuel production in some parts of the world, for example, palm oil plantations in South East Asia.

“From a social perspective, using food for fuel has, in some instances, increased food prices, hence threatening hunger alleviation, and some small-scale marginalized farmers in developing countries have been displaced by large industrial-scale plantations.”

Professor Watson told delegates that agriculture had a role to play as the solution to environmental and solution problems, rather than the cause, and reducing the use of fossil fuel energy in the sector, and its impact on climate change, was a key challenge facing the industry.

Kate Martin

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