Biofuels: Efficiency, Ethics, and Limits to Human Appropriation of Ecosystem Services

Abstract

Biofuels have lately been indicated as a promising source of cheap and sustainable energy. In this paper we argue that some important ethical and environmental issues have also to be addressed: (1) the conflict between biofuels production and global food security, particularly in developing countries, and (2) the limits of the Human Appropriation of ecosystem services and Net Primary Productivity. We warn that large scale conversion of crops, grasslands, natural and semi-natural ecosystem, (such as the conversion of grasslands to cellulosic ethanol production, or plantation of sugar cane and palm oil), may have detrimental social and ecological consequences. Social effects may concern: (1) food security, especially in developing countries, leading to an increase of the price of staple food, (2) transnational corporations and big landowners establishing larger and larger landholdings in conflict with indigenous areas and the subsistence of small farmers. Ecological effects may concern: (1) competition with grazing wild and domesticated animals (e.g., millions of grazing livestock in USA prairies), (2) an excessive appropriation of Net Primary Production from ecosystems, (3) threatening biodiversity preservation and soil fertility. We claim that is it well known how ecological and social issues are strictly interwoven and that large scale biofuels production, by putting high pressure on both fronts, may trigger dangerous feedbacks, also considering the critical fact that 9 billion people are expected to inhabit the planet by 2050. There is a need to conduct serious and deep analysis on the environmental and social impact of large scale biofuels production before important energy policies are launched at global level. Biofuels will not represent an energetic panacea and their role in the overall energy consumption will remain marginal in our present highly energivorous society, while their effect on food security and environment preservation may have detrimental results. We should also have the courage to face two key issues: (1) we cannot keep increasing resources consumption at present pace, and have to change our life style accordingly, and (2) we have to deal with population growth; we cannot expect to have 9–10 billions people inhabiting the earth by 2050, without this representing a major impact on its support system.

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Fig. 1

Notes

  1. 1.

    Although production has generally increased, the rising prices coincided with extreme weather events in several major cereal producing countries, which resulted in a depletion of cereal stocks. The 2008 world cereal stocks were forecast to fall to their lowest levels in 30 years time, to 18.7% of utilization or only 66 days of food (FAO 2008a).

  2. 2.

    WHO (2000) reports 3.7 billion people are estimated to be somehow malnourished. Malnutrition is defined as a poor nourishment resulting from an inadequate or improper diet, or from some defect in metabolism that prevents the body from using its food properly (Dorland's Medical Dictionary 2008). In this sense it includes conditions such as obesity. US professor Barry Popkin told the International Association of Agricultural Economists that the number of overweight people worldwide has topped 1 billion, overtaking the number of undernourished (BBC 2006). WHO (2000) reported the obese were just 320 million in the late 1980s.

  3. 3.

    Taking a thermodynamic approach, Patzek (2008), argues that currently corn production in USA is unsustainable, with or without tilling the soil. He calculates an average erosion rates of soil necessary to dissipate the entropy produced by US maize agriculture of 23–45 t ha−1 yr−1, this is bounded from above by an experimental estimate of mean soil erosion by conventional agriculture worldwide of 47 t ha−1 yr−1 (Montgomery 2007b).

  4. 4.

    World energy consumption will increase from 472 quadrillion British thermal unit (Btu) in 2006 to 552 quadrillion Btu in 2015 and 678 quadrillion Btu in 2030—a total increase of 44% over the projection period (EIA 2009).

  5. 5.

    At current subsidy rates, EU taxpayers will be spending $34 billion (€22 billion) a year to support biofuels by 2020 (Bailey 2008).

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Gomiero, T., Paoletti, M.G. & Pimentel, D. Biofuels: Efficiency, Ethics, and Limits to Human Appropriation of Ecosystem Services. J Agric Environ Ethics 23, 403–434 (2010). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10806-009-9218-x

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Keywords

  • Agricultural ethics
  • Biodiversity
  • Biofuels
  • Crop residues
  • Food security
  • Social responsibility
  • Soil ecology