Cleantech Market Intelligence
Hunting Fertile Fields, Advanced Biofuels Providers Look Abroad
With nearly 70% of global biofuels production centered on the United States’ corn and Brazil’s sugarcane harvests, concentrated commodity feedstocks have been the common denominator in biofuels industry growth over the past decade. Advanced biofuels companies seeking to produce next-generation fuels derived from non-food feedstocks are attempting to replicate this model – without the associated social and environmental externalities of using food-based crops. Access to land for mass feedstock production is a difficult challenge for which many innovative strategies have been proposed.
Companies like SG Biofuels, Ceres, and others are squarely focused on biotechnology innovation, involving complex biological modifications at the crop’s cellular and genetic level. The central focus of these efforts is the optimization of dedicated energy crops for growth in a variety of locations where food crops are not currently grown, including poor soils and areas lacking irrigation. Among these, jatropha, camelina, energy grasses like miscanthus, and dedicated trees like eucalyptus have received the most attention.
But optimizing crop strains to thrive in a variety of climates and soils is only half the battle. Recent experience has shown that the success of even miracle next-generation feedstocks like jatropha, which can produce oil-rich seeds in poor soils and without irrigation, is exaggerated. As with food crops, bountiful energy crop harvests (i.e., lots of biomass material for biofuels production) require irrigation and nutrients.
Meanwhile, finding suitable tracts of land with nutrient-rich soil and irrigation for which a large quantity of crops can be grown – but without diverting land otherwise dedicated to food production (see The New York Times blog on food vs. fuel) – remains an elusive goal. Increasingly, governments and corporations are looking abroad.
Since the food crisis of 2007-2008, foreign direct investment into countries with undeveloped agricultural potential has accelerated. According to data compiled by the Oakland Institute, an estimated 56 million hectares of land (nearly the size of France) has been acquired in the developing world by international governments and investors since 2008.
Last month, China announced that it will invest billions of yuan into 3 million hectares (7.5 million acres) of farmland in Ukraine, its biggest overseas agricultural project. This will more than double China’s current portfolio of 2 million hectares (5 million acres), mostly concentrated in Latin America and Southeast Asia.
China is not alone in this quest. According to a policy paper published by the Woodrow Wilson International Center, “One of the largest and most notorious deals is one that ultimately collapsed: an arrangement that would have given the South Korean firm Daewoo a 99-year lease to grow corn and other crops on 1.3 million hectares of farmland in Madagascar – half of that country’s total arable land.” Government and institutional investors across other developed economies, including Japan, the United States, the European Union, and wealthy Gulf states, are all actively involved in this rush.
Complicated by the checkered history of international land grabs, this trend is not without its critics.
While intentions may be in the right place in most instances, the past has shown that consolidation of cultivatable land for foreign or multinational interests can often lead to the displacement of local subsistence farmers, as well as other negative environmental impacts. In recent years, governments have, at least publicly, imposed more restrictions on biofuels investments abroad to prevent a scramble toward destructive plantation-style feedstock cultivation.
The EU’s Renewable Energy Directive (RED) mandates that member states derive 10% of energy consumption within the transportation sector from renewable sources by 2020. Recently signed legislation caps the contribution of conventional food-based biofuels, calling for a rapid switch to advanced biofuels. A slew of sustainability standards, meanwhile, aim to mitigate the negative impacts of large-scale dedicated energy crop production for advanced biofuels.
In Navigant Research’s recently published report, Advanced Biofuels Country Rankings, issues such as available arable land and potential for sustainable feedstock hubs figure heavily into assessments of the potential of individual countries to support advanced biofuels commercialization. At one time regarded as an issue exclusively focused on conventional biofuels, access to land for advanced biofuels production is proving equally sensitive.