fuelling a balanced debate

While biofuels have long courted controversy, the debate around them has recently hit the headlines as the EU plans to review its biofuels policy. Developed as a sustainable alternative to fossil fuels, many have argued that they are neither sustainable nor green. Critics have also examined the economic case and questioned whether biofuel production is currently cost effective.

Criticism of the relationship between biofuels and development has been further supported by growing evidence of the link between biofuel production and food price spikes. Adding to these reservations is the issue of land rights: as the industry expands, how can we ensure these are preserved?

But, last month’s report (pdf) by the FAO on biofuels and food security suggests it might be time to reconsider its benefits: employment and income opportunities, increased agricultural productivity, reduction of CO2 emissions and increased energy independence. But in its conclusions, the report’s authors concede that “the potential impact of biofuel policies and projects can differ widely according to national and local conditions and to the choice of specific technologies and feedstocks.”

So given all the conflicting evidence, is it time we ask not whether biofuels are fundamentally good or bad but how, in policy and practice, their cultivation can be green, equitable and sustainable? On what scale should biofuels be produced? Is effective technology or the evidence of social and economic impact what’s missing? And as policymakers in the developed world consider fuel options for a sustainable future, how do we not lose sight of farmers and consumers in low and middle-income countries?

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