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Big dangers in second (next) generation agrofuels.

There's no evidence to support large-scale, second-generation agrofuels being either sustainable or climate-friendly, instead they are likely to accelerate biodiversity loss and reduce carbon storage in forests, amongst many other serious dangers. Yet they are funded and promoted without assessment of their many risks and at the expense of truly renewable technologies which could reduce emissions considerably. This article is abridged from a section of a report by BIOFUELWATCH, CARBON TRADE WATCH, CORPORATE EUROPE OBSERVATORY, GRUPO DE REFLEXION RURAL, ECONEXUS and WATCH INDONESIA.

Second generation agrofuels and climate

To mitigate climate change, a technology, must show potential for large-scale emissions reductions, after considering its life-cycle emissions of greenhouse gases. If a technology, directly or indirectly, destroys ecosystems which play an essential role in the earth's carbon cycle, or indirectly delays the transition from fossil fuel-intensive production systems, it risks accelerating, not abating global warming.

Biomass-to-liquid agrofuels could have very serious negative impacts on ecosystems, including soils and forests. Second-generation agrofuels could accelerate global warming by further decreasing the Earth's capacity to regulate carbon dioxide. Government research funding and policy support is increasingly being channelled into agrofuel research, particularly into second-generation agrofuel research, at the expense of sustainable renewable energy development. The US Department of Energy, for example, is seeking to divert the entire budget for geothermal energy and advanced hydropower research to second-generation agrofuel research. (1) The European Union also gives stronger policy support to agrofuels than to other types of non-fossil fuel energy and has agreed to mandatory 'biofuel targets' by 2020, with specific reference to second-generation agrofuels being necessary to meet its targets.

Solid biomass-to-liquid agrofuels may never become commercially viable. There is no evidence it will have the potential to reduce greenhouse gas emissions at the global level, yet they are promoted at the expense of truly renewable technologies which could help reduce emissions considerably. There are clear constraints on the amount of biomass which can be used for energy production without causing ecosystem degradation. Also, any biomass which can be sustainably used will always yield greater emissions and energy savings if used in heat and electricity production rather than for transport, particularly in combined heat and power generation. Even with future technological breakthroughs, refining plant material into liquid transport fuel will always require additional energy, reducing possible emission savings. The case for investing in second-generation agrofuel research to mitigate climate change is not convincing.

Genetic engineering and 2nd generation agrofuels

The genetic engineering industry is seeking ways to use genetic engineering to simplify and streamline industrial processes to produce agrofuels more easily, cheaply and efficiently from plant biomass. Scientists are likely to genetically engineer microbes or fungi for this task, with all the associated risks of GM microorganisms. The industry is looking at ways to modify plants to produce less lignin; make it easier to breakdown lignin and cellulose; and to speed plant growth and yields.


The industry is simultaneously experimenting with engineering microbes and enzymes to break-down plant matter efficiently in an extreme industrial environment and looking for new microbes and enzymes to perform these tasks more effectively. Craig Venter, for example, has collected micro-organisms from sea water for further investigation, including so-called extremophiles living in volcanic vents on the sea bed that could withstand extreme industrial conditions. Others are looking at microbes in termite guts because they digest plant matter very efficiently.

Companies like Genencor and Novozymes are trying to reduce industrial enzyme production costs, and

Diversa Corporation is studying enzymes to breakdown hemicellulose. (2) There is great interest in using biomass from trees for second generation agrofuels, if and when methods are developed to break-down plant matter cheaply and effectively. Trees require lower maintenance and fewer inputs than field crops, promising a double advantage for industry and contain more carbohydrates, the raw material for agrofuels, than field crops. Genetic engineering is again being used to try to reduce lignin levels in trees and change their hemicellulose structure.

The aim is to reduce ethanol production costs and increase production volumes so agrofuels can compete economically with fossil fuels without subsidies. Willow, poplar and eucalyptus are major targets for research. Purdue University, for example, funded by the US Department of Energy is working on a poplar hybrid to produce a low-lignin, faster-growing tree for mass production on 'unused' and fallow land. (3) Little is known of the impacts of releasing genetically engineered trees, yet it's certain the complex interaction of trees with ecosystems, their long life cycle and wide dissemination of fruit and pollen, mean impacts will be of far greater magnitude than impacts of annual field crops. Risks for natural forest ecosystems could be very serious. (4)

Ecosystems and global climate impacts

Advocates of large-scale biomass use for second generation agrofuels (e.g. the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), the US Department of Energy (DOE), or the International Energy Agency) assume large amounts of wood, grasses, and "plant waste" can be sustainably used for agrofuel production. If second generation agrofuels became viable, production would rely on large-scale refineries, needing a constant supply of very large amounts of biomass. A 2005 DOE/USDA report, for example, speaks of using 1.3 billion tonnes of dry biomass annually, just from the US.

To accomplish this, the report says it would be necessary to remove most agricultural residues from soils to plant 55 million hectares of land in the US under perennial crops for agrofuels, using more manure than now allowed by the Environmental Protection Agency. Putting all US cropland under 'no-tillage' agriculture, would require vast increases in pesticides and fertilizer use. (5)

Other dangers

* Removing organic residues from fields will require greater use of nitrate fertilisers, increasing nitrous oxide emissions, nitrate overloading and the very serious impacts on biodiversity on land, freshwater and oceans.

* Complete removal of plant material is likely to accelerate topsoil losses, causing further decline in soil nutrients.

* This could have serious implications for human health through future nutrient deficiencies in food crops.

* It's also likely to reduce soil water retention, making agriculture more vulnerable to droughts.

* Removing dead and dying trees from managed forests already leads to large-scale biodiversity losses and possibly to lower carbon sequestration in forests.


According to a recent study, less than 5% of biomass in managed forests in Germany comes from dead or dying trees or fallen branches, whereas in natural forests they account for around 40%. An estimated 20-25% of all woodland species depend on so-called 'forestry waste'" being left in woodlands, including 1,500 types of fungi and 1,350 types of beetles in Germany alone, and many other species of insects, lichens, birds, and mammals.

* Removing even more "wood residues" for agrofuels will almost certainly accelerate biodiversity loss and reduce carbon storage in forests.

* Growing millions of hectares of land under perennial crops for bioenergy will put intense pressure on land both for food production and communities, and for natural ecosystems.

* Many plants identified as preferred choices for second generation agrofuels already cause serious environmental harm as invasive species, such as miscanthus, switch grass, or reed canary grass. (6)

* So called 'set-aside' land in the EU and Conservation Reserve Programme areas in the US are already being sacrificed for biomass expansion. These programmes play a major role in reducing soil erosion and depletion and halting biodiversity decline.

Biodiverse prairie or meadow grasses, have been suggested as offering the most productive feedstock for second generation agrofuels and for increasing soil carbon sequestration. (7) But technical hurdles of such multiple agrofuel feedstocks are far greater than for monoculture feedstock, a mix of different enzymes would be required to break-down different plant materials effectively which is far more complicated than breaking down one particular feedstock Research and development investment is clearly biased towards genetically engineered monocultures rather than native, biodiverse grass mixes, and its unlikely companies would delay commercializing second generation agrofuels to wait for more environmentally-friendly feedstock sources.

Agrofuel crop yields will increase in future, it's claimed, but there's no evidence for this, in fact global grain yields have fallen for the past two years, and European rapeseed yields have fallen for three years. A Carnegie Institute study recently found global grain yields have been reduced by global warming, a trend likely to worsen. (8) Falling yields will result in more pressure on land to produce the same amount of agrofuels.


Cellulosic ethanol is not close to becoming commercially available, and faces technical barriers that may not be overcome in the foreseeable future. Much research and development investment in cellulosic ethanol goes into genetic engineering, without any risk assessment There has been no assessment of the consequences for food production, ecosystems, global greenhouse gas emissions, soil fertility, or water supplies in using large amounts of biomass from so-called 'plant waste,' from tree plantations, or perennial crop plantations.

Consequently, there's no evidence to support large-scale second-generation agrofuels being either sustainable or climate-friendly. Promises being made by industry about future second generation biofuels are also used by governments, including the EU to promote agrofuel production, justifying large-scale expansion of first generation agrofuel monocultures, particularly in the global South, despite growing evidence of severe negative impacts on communities and the environment.



(2.) The Economist, 8 March 2007, 'Could new techniques for producing ethanol make old-fashioned trees the biofuel of the future?'

(3.) Fast-growing GM trees could take root as future energy source, Checkbiotech, 25 August 2006,

(4.) See ETC backgrounder: J Craig Venter Institute's patent application on world's first human-made species, 7 June 2007.

(5.) See DOE/USDA report by Perlack et al. (2005), Freiburg, March 2007,

(6.) Adding Biofuels to the Invasive Species, Fire, S. Rathu, et a., DOI: 10.1126/ science. 1129313, Science 313, 1742 (2006)CC

(7.) Tilman, D., Reich, P. B. & Knops, J. M. H. Nature 441, 629-632 (2006); and Tilman, D., Reich, P. B., Knops, J., Wedin, D., Mielke, T. & Lehman, C. Science 294, 843-845 (2001)


This article is abridged by Pacific Ecologist editor Kay Weir from Chapter 3 of the report: Agrofuels: Towards a reality check in nine key areas, published June 2007 by Biofuelwatch (; Carbon Trade Watch/TNI (; Corporate Europe Observatory(, Econexus(;Ecoropa;Grupo de Reflexion Rural (, Munlochy Vigil (; NOAH (Friends of the Earth Denmark) (; Rettet Den Regenwald (; Watch Indonesia (
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Publication:Pacific Ecologist
Geographic Code:9INDO
Date:Jun 22, 2009
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