Agrofuel from the soy desert


Another raw material that has been featured on tv and the newspapers recently is soy. For years it has been used extensively as an ingredient in cattle feed for European factory farms, but during the past year more attention has gone to its negative side; massive deforestation, pollution of underground water and rivers, the expulsion of small farmers and indigenous populations, the large scale introduction of genetic manipulation which is goes hand-in-hand with dependence on the patents owned by agro-multinationals.
However, the direct link between agrofuel and soy didn’t receive much attention. This article takes a closer look at it.

The advantages of agrofuel
Agrofuel has definitely got its good points. It is possible to produce it from old fat from deep frying and other ‘waste products’. And indeed, fuel made from organic materials can be CO2 neutral. The exhaust fumes from a car running on ‘bio-diesel’ or ‘pure plant oil’ (PPO) are much cleaner than those from a car running on fossil petrol or diesel; the exhaust fumes do not contain sulphur or heavy metals and produce less soot. To be clear; there is a difference between PPO and ‘bio-diesel’, that has undergone a chemical processing, to make it less viscous.

Another advantage is that it is possible to grow the raw materials in your own region. This keeps circuits closed, requires less transport, makes you less dependant on dubious regimes and can stimulate the local economy. But as well as these possible advantages there are a whole lot of ifs and buts. The following paragraphs will examine them in greater detail.

But first something about the terms: involved companies and other promoters are normally talking about ‘biofuel’. This sounds green and sustainable. But when we are talking about fuel produced from agriculture crops is it more correct to use the word agrofuel. Biofuel or bio-energy can be used for fuel or energy made out of waste products.

Energy efficiency

Agrofuel from rape or sunflower oil and ethanol (alcohol) from sugar beet or maize, belong to the first generation of agrofuels. The energy efficiency of these agrofuels is low because the cultivation, transport and production of these crops requires a relatively large amount of energy. Tractors and harvesting machines cause pollution and the fact that these crops need a lot of artificial fertiliser and pesticides limits the CO2 reduction potential to 50% (figures from NOVEM). According to a study by the University of Ghent in 2005, it would take 1kWh of non-renewable energy (mainly fossil fuel) to produce 3 kWh of bio-diesel or 4 kWh of agro-ethanol. Again, this is about pesticides, fertilisers and chemicals, etc.

Second generation agrofuels
It is a slightly different story when it comes to the second generation of agrofuels, like FischerTropischdiesel and ethanol from woody biomasses. Extensive experiments are still being carried out, but the results are definitely better than those from the current generation of agro-diesels and PPO: there are more greenhouse grass reductions and a much greater yield per hectare of agricultural land. The CO2 reduction potential is 80 – 90% across the entire chain and production per hectare is 5 – to 10 times higher that from rapeseed. The crops concerned are woody crops with high cellulose levels. As well as trees,  straw and grass can also be used. It is possible to cultivate this in Europe, but these raw materials can also be imported from Latin America or other developing countries. A small part of it can consist of waste, but serious production would mean that  large areas would have to be planted to provide agrofuel.

Pressure on ever decreasing space

While policy makers, politicians and a large part of the population now know that eating meat puts too much pressure on agricultural ground and that it will be difficult to feed the growing world population in the future, little attention is paid to this in the arguments about agrofuel. A few figures: One hectare can produce 4500 kilograms of rape seed, which can yield approximately 1500 liters of oil. One lorry can drive 4500 – 5000 km on this. To be able to run an average car for a year would take approximately a football field’s worth of rape seed. This might be a viable alternative for someone with an income 4 times the national average and a big piece of land but when you consider that there are 4,7 hectares of land available for each of the planet’s inhabitants and that food, building materials, other produce and energy has to be produced from this area, you can understand that this cannot be seen as a general solution. The possible yields for agrofuel from cellulose are better. But whatever way you look at it, the production of agrofuel increases pressure on food production and what is left of the forests and fresh water.

It is true that farmers in Europe are finding it increasingly difficult to cope and that there is still overproduction of certain crops. It looks like a great solution to use some acreage for agrofuel; extra income and hopefully, less waste. But if you look at the problem more carefully, you will notice that Europe imports masses of food and raw materials for cattle feed. The populations of western countries are continuing their consumption patterns at the cost of the poor in the developing countries. Would it not be more logical to produce more of this ourselves and pay the farmers a fair price? This option is currently blocked by international legislation in the WTO.

Trailing raw materials around
In a time of energy scarcity and efforts to combat climate change, there is, strangely enough no criticism of the present day transport of large quantities of raw materials from one part of the world to another. The energy that this transport requires is not included in all the positive calculations about fossil fuel. Free trade, enforced by the WTO ensures that the food industry and supermarket chains can buy their commodities and products from the cheapest producer anywhere in the world. This has caused a downwards spiral for environmental legislation and labour conditions. It would be obvious to use the scarce land in Europe to produce food and use whatever is left over to produce biofuel to enable the modern car show to keep on the road.

Meat, fuel or environment
Back to the link between Brazil and soy production; There has been an immense increase in soy production during the last few years due to increased demand worldwide for meat and cattle feed. To give you an impression; in 1999 18 million hectares of soy were grown in South America. Just 5 years later, in 2004 this had grown to 38 million hectare, about 5 times the size of the Netherlands and Belgium together. Since 2000, the annual expansion in Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay has been more that 10%, mainly at the expense of  rainforest and savannah. In Paraguay especially, soy expansion has been accompanied by an outburst of violent conflicts, the victims of which are small farmers and Indians.  

In 2003, the EU imported 36,9 million tonnes. If the current trend in increased meat consumption continues, the global demand for soy could rise by 60% by de  2020 to 300 million tonnes. It is impossible to produce this amount. (sources:, Managing the Soy Boom, Aidenvironment, 2004, Factsheet Soja productie in Zuid Amerika, Aidenvironment)

As well as meat production, the popularity of agrofuel has brought extra problems the last few years. Brazil is now diving into the world of bio fuel and hopes to become a world leader in this field. Even with more efficient techniques, this will only increase the current pressure on vulnerable areas and population groups. Governments and oil companies who are thinking ahead are currently abusing agrofuel’s green image: ‘biofuel’. It is time for some different ideas. The problem is not just soy or Brazil. Similar problems surround other oil containing crops like palm oil and in other countries that produce for the global market on a massive scale.

What next then?

Diverse problems are being looked at as being connected. People are worried about the climate, the dependency on energy from areas with unstable regimes, pollution, public health, biodiversity, food security, poverty, bad working conditions, human rights and much more. Mostly just one aspect is considered at any given time. Despite the participation by many scientists, this also applies to official international meetings like the UN summit on biodiversity (COP8 Biological Diversity) taking place in March 2006 in Curitiba, Brazil.

The impact that activities have on available space should be given a more central role. This is a way in which to compare very different problems and the impact had by products. When considering the production of food, natural raw materials for other ends and energy, it is possible to make a reasonable estimation of how many hectares of agricultural land are needed. There are also these sorts of figures for measuring CO2. Remember though, that these figures must be for really sustainable land use. It is possible to work out how much is available per land and globally. The tricky bit is to decide how much land must remain available for nature. The remaining forests and other uncultivated areas are not just of vital importance to biodiversity. Most of the areas where agriculture would be possible are already inhabited by people, who often live there in a sustainable manner and who are dependant on the area. This is one reason to propose that on a global level, we will just have to cope with the amount of cultivated land that is already in use. In addition to this, access to land (and water) is crucial to many people in developing countries. This is often overlooked in the cold economic statistical figures.

If you take all this into consideration, you have to conclude that as consumers, we have choices to make. You can’t drive cars, fly to holiday destinations, eat meat and insist that you have the interests of the planet and people in developing countries at heart. Even without knowing all the ‘ins and outs’ everyone can try to live in a sustainable way. But governments also have a task; environmental costs should be included, international transport should be taxed, and a halt should be called to a free trade system that has spiralled out of control.

To return to the question of agrofuel in Europe; if you were to apply the current logic of the free market, agrofuel would not be an alternative for European farmers. This product can also be produced in low-wage countries that do not respect environmental legislation and human rights.

A SEED Europe, March 2006

further reading:

Information about soy
A SEED Europe:
Both Ends Soy Resource Centre:

Information about agrodiesel
Dossier Biobrandstof Agriholland:
VROM dossier Biobrandstoffen:

Information about oil prices and energy scarcity
Stichting Peakoil Nederland, think tank on peak oil and energy related matters: