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Energy: Fuel Ethanol

Volume 685: debated on Monday 9 October 2006

asked Her Majesty's Government:

What assessment they have made of the impact on food supply and prices in the United Kingdom of the worldwide diversion of significant volumes of wheat and other crops to the production of fuel ethanol; and [HL7343]

What assessment they have made of the impact on agricultural policy in the United Kingdom of the worldwide diversion of significant volumes of wheat and other crops to the production of fuel ethanol.[HL7344]

The primary market for wheat and other crops is still the food market despite the recent increases in their use for biofuels. The availability and price of the feedstocks have played an important role in the development of the biofuel sector. The most rapid development of the bioethanol market has been in countries with large surplus production in crops that can be used to produce bioethanol. In the UK, biofuel production offers new markets for the UK cereals and oilseeds surpluses. However, in practice, it is likely that the UK sector will use a mixture of home-grown and imported crops, recycled waste vegetable oils and tallow, and imported biofuels.

In the short term, bioethanol production will mainly use cereals and other food crops as feedstock. The market, through the price mechanism, will guide the allocation of the crops to the different sectors.

Over the medium to long term, it is likely that second generation biofuels derived from cheaper and more abundant feedstocks, such as straw or waste products, will play an important role in meeting the increased ethanol demand. Rising prices for food crops would give additional impetus to the development of technologies for the production of biofuels based on alternative feedstocks.

asked Her Majesty's Government:

What assessment they have made of the impact on the supply of food aid of the worldwide diversion of significant volumes of wheat and other crops to the production of fuel ethanol.[HL7345]

DfID is in the early stages of weighing up the arguments and evidence on how production of biofuels, including ethanol and biodiesel, could impact on food production and food aid. Overall, more evidence, including on the right balance between food and fuel production in different regions, is needed. We will continue to monitor the situation carefully.

In 2005 production of fuel ethanol rose by 19 per cent, driven largely by rising oil prices. There is no evidence that this has so far affected the supply of food aid. Food shortage and famine are more related to poor distribution and a shortage of disposable income to buy food rather than agricultural production or provision of food aid.

Expansion of the area under biofuel crops is likely to happen in countries with the right growing conditions and sufficient land. This could reduce the area of land devoted to food production. However some energy crops can be grown on degraded land too marginal for food crops; others can promote land restoration.

There are ways that the trade-offs between food and biofuel production can be managed. Increasing the productivity of both food and energy crops can promote economic growth and poverty reduction. Crops can be developed that yield much higher quantities of energy per unit of land or water, or that generate by-products that can be used for bioenergy.

DfID plans to support the Global Bioenergy Partnership (GBEP), announced at the G8 in Gleneagles in 2005 and launched this year. This will promote collaboration between developed and developing countries. We will continue to support international efforts to increase food production, for example through the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research, and to increase poor people’s access to food.

asked Her Majesty's Government:

What is the carbon dioxide release arising from the production of fuel ethanol and bio-ethanol compared with the carbon dioxide reduction resulting from using ethanol instead of petrol or diesel, taking into account the net volume of carbon dioxide released in the course of growing and harvesting a crop such as wheat or sugar beet.[HL7346]

The amount of carbon emitted during production, and saved through substituting bioethanol for petrol, depends on the feedstock used, the way the crop is cultivated, the way it is processed, how that processor is powered, and the mode and mileage travelled by the feedstock and the bioethanol before it is used. The following table gives average figures for the net lifecycle reduction in carbon dioxide emissions for various feedstocks:


Processing Technique

Average reduction in carbon emissions compared to fossil fuel

Sugar Cane

Sugar Distillation

89 per cent

Sugar Beet

Sugar Distillation

40 per cent


Starch Distillation

40 per cent

Emissions can be further reduced if low input methods of cultivation are used and renewable energy replaces fossil fuels in the production process. In the longer-term, second generation technologies offer opportunities for even greater reductions in emissions.