A freeze on biofuels would be bordering on Luddite

By Giles Clark, the editor of Biofuel Review. Response to If we want to save the planet (THE GUARDIAN, 30/03/07):

I have to take issue with George Monbiot (If we want to save the planet, we need a five-year freeze on biofuels, March 27). While prices in the grain markets have indeed increased, in part due to the use of grain for biofuels, it is disingenuous to suggest that the problems in Mexico could be laid entirely at biofuels' door.There could be enough locally produced Mexican grain, at a reasonable price, had the farm subsidies in the United States not skewed the market so fundamentally that many local farmers found it uneconomic to grow maize. Monbiot wheeled out the UN to support his argument: "According to the UN food and agriculture organisation (FAO), the main reason [for the price increases] is the demand for ethanol: the alcohol used for motor fuel, which can be made from maize and wheat" - the clear implication being that the FAO is against biofuels. However, nothing could be further from the truth. Last September the UN launched the global bioenergy partnership, with its secretariat in the FAO's offices in Italy.

In a press statement at the time, the FAO made its position on biofuels very clear: "[The] FAO has always actively promoted biofuels as a means of reducing poverty while producing clean, low-cost energy. Given the right technologies, an abundant energy supply could be tapped by converting biomass such as crop residues, grass, straw and brushwood into fuel, while crops like sugar cane, corn and soybeans are already being used to produce ethanol or biodiesel."

The central thesis of Monbiot's piece is that there should be a five-year moratorium on all targets and incentives for biofuels until the second generation of biofuels "can be produced for less than it costs to make fuel from palm oil or sugar cane". This simply isn't the real world. All scientific and technological advances have come through long-term development. His argument is akin to suggesting that the Wright brothers should have waited until they could build a jumbo jet.

There are some truly incredible scientific advances being made for the biofuels market that will produce high-quality sustainable fuels for the future. Work on new - non-food - fuel feedstocks, on technically advanced fungi to convert the feedstock, and on development of both engines and fuels, is happening now. The transition to the second generation of biofuels is happening now. To call a moratorium on this development is bordering on Luddite.

Unfortunately, in any market there are going to be those who choose to cut corners. The biofuels market is no different and has more than its fair share of "snake-oil" salesmen promising quick riches. However, what the market really needs is control, not a hiatus. It needs an honest and open discussion about the future, not spin. It needs agreements on what is and isn't acceptable, and they need policing.

Biofuels are neither a silver bullet that will save the world, nor a Frankenstein fuel waiting to destroy the fine ecological balance. But with care they can provide a valuable, safe and greener contribution to the planet's continuing energy needs.