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Re: HLPE consultation on the V0 draft of the Report: Biofuels and Food Security

H.J.M. de Groot Leiden Institute of Chemistry, Netherlands
06.02.2013
FSN Forum

Please find below my thoughts, in the form of a strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats analysis as I see it from my own non-normative scientific perspective.

S: The draft report on biofuels and food security is an example par excellence of scientific integrity at the executive level, making readily available to the public scientific data that are neither distorted nor concealed to serve a political agenda. A sound basis for the further analysis below.

W: The comprensive and profound overview of the report raises one question with me: the draft report does not consider how agriculture can become a meaningful part of the solution to the global energy challenge. The CO2 problem is not solved, and the only market that can make a meaningful contribution to recycling CO2 is the fuel market. Apparently agriculture is considered by our societies already part of the solution, irrespective of the fundamental problem that lies in the relative inefficiency of biomass for energy as plants are unlikely to transform more than 0.5% and the observation that current biofuels practices are insufficient. This in itself is not surprising. In all possible scenarios for a sustainable energy system solar power plays a mayor role. However, it is a dilute energy source, it does require surface on earth to collect the energy, and solar energy production needs to be balanced with demand by fuel.

O: I don’t think the current effort in biofuels can be fully put away as some perverse form of market failure, and I also don’t think we will converge on a small contribution of farmers in the end, which I feel the report suggests. The fundamental opportunity lies in the relative inefficiency of biomass for energy. As plants are unlikely to transform more than 0.5%, there is 99.5% of the incoming energy left unused in farming. While food is and will always remain the priority of agriculture both for humanitarian and cultural reasons, there currently exists a potential 200-fold increase in energy yield to explore, far more than what is needed for maintaining both food and energy security. I find it difficult to imagine that society will allow a hugely inefficient industrial practice go on for much longer. Other sectors are under strong and continuous pressure to improve their energy efficiency continuously. Why not agriculture? Farmers own the land and thus the source of energy. In addition current biofuels practice shows that the farming business model is capable of producing high volume at low cost. To overcome the efficiency hurdles in current biofuels practice while maintaining full capability for food and feed production requires technology for multiple use of the same area. Windmills are an early example, where food production and energy conversion go hand in hand. This requires technological breakthroughs, in domestication of algae and their improvement with synthetic biology, in breeding for the development of food crops with high yield at low light, in re-inventing natural photosynthesis with highly efficient (semi-) artificial devices for solar to fuel conversion that can be deployed on a large scale, and in integration of such new technologies with the existing agricultural infrastructure. Since the farming business model is here a critical success factor, city dwellers will adopt the new technologies as well, for food, and for solar energy. They will become part-time farmers, we see that already happening in the Netherlands on a small scale.

T: That we maintain a huge agricultural infrastructure that is highly inefficient for too long. Energy transitions take time, typically 30 years, which implies that we have to be at the start of exponential growth with new technology by ~2020 if we want to be sustainable by 2050. It will be difficult to let agriculture walk away with not optimally using the incoming power. But the technology that should allow landowners to take their responsibility in our societies and economies is not yet there and needs to be developed urgently. In this respect I find the statements on p 20 missing the point. The agricultural revolution of the past century was the first major improvement of agricultural practice since the stone age. I think it is time to speed up a bit now, in learning how to domesticate and improve photosynthetic micro-organisms, in designer phototrophs, breeding of dedicated plant phenotypes, devices for solar fuels, and last but not least, integration of the technology with the broadest possible scope, and with due respect for the biodiversity on the planet and for its inhabitants in different cultural settings.