Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics

, Volume 25, Issue 6, pp 909–925 | Cite as

Bioenergy and Land Use: Framing the Ethical Debate

  • C. GamborgEmail author
  • K. Millar
  • O. Shortall
  • P. Sandøe


Increasingly, ethical concerns are being raised regarding bioenergy production. However, the ethical issues often do not stand out very clearly. The aim of the present paper is to improve on this situation by analyzing the bioenergy discussion from the perspective of land use. From this perspective, bioenergy production may give rise to ethical problems because it competes with other forms of land use. This may generate ethical problems mainly for two reasons. First, bioenergy production may compete, directly or indirectly, with food production; and as consequence the food security of poor people may be adversely affected (social aspects arguments). Secondly, the production of bioenergy may directly or indirectly lead to deforestation and other changes of land use that have a negative effect on greenhouse gas emissions (environmental arguments). So from this perspective the main challenge raised by bioenergy production is to secure responsible land use. The purpose of the paper is not to advocate, or promote, a specific ethical position on bioenergy, but to structure the main arguments found. The paper falls in two parts. One part addresses social aspects arguments for using agricultural land for bioenergy—where food insecurity, malnourishment, and significant food poverty are the main concerns. The second part scopes environmental implications—notably greenhouse gas emissions impact, as affected by deforestation and other (indirect) land-use changes. Alongside showing some of the current dilemmas presented by wider land-use changes, arguments are analyzed from two ethical angels: a consequentialist and a deontological.


Biofuels Bioenergy Consequentialist Deontological Environment Ethics Food security 



We would like to thank two anonymous referees for helpful comments. Special thanks are also due to Paul Robinson. Financial support through the Subproject “International and national governance of bioenergy: trade, environment and integration of energy systems” under the Research Alliance “Enabling and Governing Transitions to a Low Carbon Society” funded by the Danish Council for Strategic Research (Grant no. 09-067275/DSF) and the UK project LACE and the BBSRC Sustainable BioEnergy Centre (BSBEC) is gratefully acknowledged.


  1. Antizar-Ladislao, B., & Turrion-Gomez, J. L. (2008). Second-generation biofuels and local bioenergy systems. Biofuels, Bioproducts & Biorefining, 2, 455–469.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Bach, F. B. (2009). Biofuels: Hunger, subsidies and lack of effect on CO2 emission. In M. Gjerris C. Gamborg J. E. Olesen & J. Wolf (Eds.), Earth on fire (pp. 169–174) Copenhagen: The Institute of Food and Resource Economics, The Faculty of Life Sciences, University of Copenhagen. Available at: < Accessed 2 March 2011.
  3. Bindraban, P. S., Bulte, E. H., & Conijn, S. G. (2009). Can large-scale biofuels production be sustainable by 2020? Agricultural Systems, 101, 197–199.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Bouët, A., Dimaranan, B. V., & Valin, H. (2010). Modeling the global trade and environmental impacts of biofuel policies. IFPRI discussion paper 01018. The International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI). Available at Accessed 7 August 2011.
  5. Campbell, J. E., Lobell, D. B., & Field, C. B. (2009). Greater transportation energy and GHG offsets from bioelectricity than ethanol. Science, 324, 1055–1057.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Cassman, K. G., & Liska, A. J. (2007). Food and fuel for all: Realistic or foolish? Biofuels, Bioproducts and Biorefining, 1, 18–23.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Connor, D. J., & Hernandez, C. G. (2009). Crops for biofuels: Current status and prospects for the future. In R.W. Howarth & S. Bringezu (Eds.), Biofuels: Environmental consequences and interactions with changing land use (pp. 65–80). Available at Accessed 2 March 2011.
  8. Croezen, H. J., Bergsma, G. C., Otten, M. B. J., & van Valkengoed, M. P. J. (2010). Biofuels: Indirect land use change and climate impact. Delflt: CE Delft.Google Scholar
  9. Cushion, E., Whiteman, A., & Dieterle, G. (2010). Bioenergy development: Issues and impacts for poverty and natural resource management. Washington, DC: The International Bank for Reconstruction and Development/The World Bank. Available at Accessed 7 August 2011.
  10. Delshad, A. B., Raymond, L., Sawicki, V., & Wegener, D. T. (2010). Public attitudes towards political and technological options for biofuels. Energy Policy, 38, 3415–3425.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Doornsbosch, R., & Steenblik, R. (2007). Biofuels: Is the cure worse than the disease? OECD Roundtable on Sustainable Development. Available at Accessed 2 March 2011.
  12. European Commission. (2010). Report from the commission on indirect land-use change related to biofuels and bioliquids. Available at: http://ec.europa/energy/renewables/biofuels/doc/land-use-change/com_2010_811_report.en.pdfhhtp:.
  13. FAO. (2008a). The state of food and agriculture. Biofuels: Prospects risks and opportunities. Rome: FAO.Google Scholar
  14. FAO. (2008b). Bioenergy, food security and sustainability—towards an international framework. FAO. Available at: Accessed 2 March 2011.
  15. Fargione, J., Hill, J., Tilman, D., Polasky, S., & Hawthorne, S. (2008). Land clearing and the biofuel carbon debt. Science, 319, 1235–1238.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Franco, J., Levidow, L., Fig, D., Goldfrab, L., Honicke, M., & Mendonca, M. L. (2010). Assumptions in the European union biofuels policy: Frictions with experiences in Germany, Brazil and Mozambique. Journal of Peasant Studies, 37(4), 661–698.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Gamborg, C., Madsen, K. H., & Sandøe, P. (2009). Keeping warm in an ethical way is it acceptable to use food crops as fuel? In K. Millar, P. Hobson-West, & B. Nerlich (Eds.), Ethical futures: Bioscience and food horizons. Nottingham: Wageningen Academic Publishers.Google Scholar
  18. German, L., Schoneveld, G., Skutch, M., Andriani, R., Obidzinski, K., Pacheco, P., Komarudin, H., Andrianto, A., Lima, M., & Dayang Norwana, A. A. B. (2011). The local social and environmental impacts of biofuel feedstock expansion: A synthesis of case studies from Asia, Africa and Latin America. [online] available at: Accessed June 2011.
  19. Gomiero, T., Paoletti, M. G., & Pimentel, D. (2009). Biofuels: Efficiency, ethics, and limits to human appropriation of ecosystem services. Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics. doi: 10.1007/s10806-009-9218-x.
  20. Howarth, R. W., & Bringezu, S. (2008). Biofuels: Environmental consequences and interactions with changing land use. Available at Accessed 2 March 2011.
  21. IEA. (2008). From 1st to 2nd-generation biofuels technologies. Accessed 20 March 2011.
  22. Jamieson, D. (2008). Ethics and the environment: An introduction. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Jasanoff, S. (2010). A new climate for society. Theory, Culture and Society, 27(2–3), 233–253.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Landeweerd, L., Osseweijer, P., & Kinderlerer, J. (2009). Distributing responsibility in the debate about sustainable biofuels. Science Engineering Ethics, 15, 531–543.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Levidow, L., & Paul, H. (2008). Land-use bioenergy and agro-biotechnology. Berlin: WBGU.Google Scholar
  26. Mathews, J. A. (2008). Opinion: Is growing biofuel crops a crime against humanity? Biofuels, Bioproducts and Biorefining, 2, 97–99.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Melillo, J. M., Reilly, J. M., Kicklighter, D. W., Gurgel, A. C., Cronin, T. C., Paltsev, S., et al. (2009). Indirect emissions from biofuels: How important? Science, 326, 1397–1399.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Mol, A. P. J. (2007). Boundless biofuels? Between environmental sustainability and vulnerability. Sociologica Ruralis, 47(4), 297–315.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Mudge, S. M. (2008). Is the use of biofuels environmentally sound or ethical? Journal of Environmental Monitoring, 10, 701–702.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Nuffield Council on Bioethics. (2011). Biofuels: Ethical issues. London: Nuffield Council on Bioethics.Google Scholar
  31. O’Neill, O. (2000). A simplified account of Kantian ethics. In J. E. White (Ed.), Contemporary Moral Problems. Belmont CA: Wadsworth.Google Scholar
  32. Pahkala, K., & Kontturi, M. (2009). Potential of straw as bio-energy raw material in northern European countries. NJF Report, 5(3), 56.Google Scholar
  33. Palmer, J. (2010). Stopping the unstoppable? A discursive-institutionalist analysis of renewable transport fuel policy. Environment and Planning C: Government and Policy, 28(6), 992–1010.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Pimentel, D., Moran, M. A., Fast, S., Weber, G., Bukantis, R., & Balliett, L. (1981). Biomass energy from crop and forest residues. Science, 212, 1110–1115.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Pimentel, D., Marklein, A., Toth, M. A., Karpoff, M. N., Paul, G. S., & McCormack, R. (2009). Food versus biofuels: Environmental and economic costs. Human Ecology, 37, 1–12.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Rawlings, A. (2007). An expanding liquid biofuel market: Investigating the likely impacts on welfare and environment. Environmental Ethics, 1, 26–37.Google Scholar
  37. Rice, T. (2010). Meals per gallon. The impact of industrial biofuels on people and global hunger. London: ActionAid UK. Available at Accessed 19 March 2011.
  38. Runge, F., Senauer, B. (2007). How biofuels could starve the poor. Foreign Affairs, 41–53.Google Scholar
  39. Searchinger, T., Heimlich, R., Houghton, R. A., Dong, F., Elobeid, A., Fabiosa, J., et al. (2008). Use of US croplands for biofuels increases greenhouse gases through emissions from land-use change. Science, 319, 1238–1240.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Sodano, V. (2009). Food security, human rights and gender equality. In K. Millar, P. Hobson-West, & B. Nerlich (Eds.), Ethical futures: Bioscience and food horizons. Nottingham: Wageningen Academic Publishers.Google Scholar
  41. Steinfeld, H., Gerber, P., Wassenaar, T., Castel, V., Rosales, M., & de Haan, C. (2006). Livestock’s long shadow—environmental issues and options. FAO report. Accessed 7 June 2011.
  42. Thompson, P. A. (2008). The agricultural ethics of biofuels: A first look. Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics, 21(2), 183–198.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  43. Tilman, T., Socolow, R., Foley, J. A., Hill, J., Larson, E., & Lynd, L. (2009). Beneficial biofuels–the food, energy, and environment trilemma. Science, 325, 270–271.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  44. UNEP. (2009). Towards sustainable production and use and of resources: Assessing biofuels. [online] available at: Accessed February 2011.
  45. UNICEF, WHO, UNESCO, UNFPA, UNDP, UNAIDS, WFP, The World Bank. (2010). Facts for life. (4th ed.). New York: United Nations Children’s Fund. Availble at Accessed 8 August 2011.
  46. Wenzel, H. (2007). Bio-ethanol: Is the world on the wrong track? Analysis of energy issues. In H. Gani & K. Dam-Johansen (Eds.), ECCE6 Book of Abstracts, 1. Lyngby: Department of Chemical Engineering, Technical University of Denmark.Google Scholar
  47. Yuan, J. S., Tiller, K. H., Al-Ahmad, H., Stewart, N. R., & Stewart, C. N. (2008). Plants to power: Bioenergy to fuel the future. Trends in Plant Science, 13(8), 421–429.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2011

Authors and Affiliations

  • C. Gamborg
    • 1
    Email author
  • K. Millar
    • 2
  • O. Shortall
    • 2
  • P. Sandøe
    • 1
  1. 1.Danish Centre for Bioethics and Risk AssessmentUniversity of CopenhagenFrederiksberg CDenmark
  2. 2.Centre for Applied BioethicsUniversity of Nottingham, Sutton Bonington Campus LoughboroughNottinghamUK

Personalised recommendations