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Agricultural, Economics and Environmental Considerations of Bio-fuels Essay

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Updated: Aug 16th, 2019

Introductory Background

Dufey (2006, 3) provides the definition of bio-fuels as the liquid fuels made from biomass intended for transport or combustion. From a broader perspective, Robertson et al. (2012, 1) views that all bio-fuels originate from plant materials. The main sources of bio-fuels are products from agriculture as well as forests.

In addition, matter from municipal release and industrial waste that can undergo a biodegradation process are also considered as bio-fuels. Globally, the bulk of consumption (at approximately 90 percent) of bio-fuels have concentrated on two, that is bio-ethanol and biodiesel (Dufey 2006, 3).

The initial cradle of the automobile provided the advent into bio-fuels. However, petrol which was a relatively cheaper substitute out-competed and dominated the gasoline use up to the 1970s decade when the world was hit by an oil crisis. This called for players to explore possible alternative for petrol.

The Government of Brazil through a program called PROALCOOL sought to substitute foreign sourced petrol with its domestically manufactured bio-ethanol from sugarcane (Dufey 2006, 3). This sparked the international curiosity of realizing possible alternatives away from petrol. With the end of the oil crisis at the onset of the 1980s decade, the keen interest in bio-fuels fizzled out (Dufey 2006, 3).

Key Processes in Production of Bio-fuel Types

Bio-ethanol sub-type of bio-fuels occurs as a liquid manufactured through fermentation of sugars from cereal crops or other plants that are sugary. The manufacturing of the liquid involves a distillation process. Robertson et al. (2012) considers corn ethanol produced from corn grain products as the leading source of bio-fuel in the U.S.

Other bio-ethanol crops include Sugarcane, cassava, corn, sorghum, beet and wheat. Over the time, there has been a crop of new bio-ethanol popularly referred to as the second generation. Bio-ethanol have been produced in a purified state for vehicular use. Moreover, portions of the bio-duel have been successfully mixed with gasoline for use (Dufey 2006, 3)

The biodiesel is also referred to as the vegetable oil methyl ester (VOME) comes from a catalytic chemical interaction process of vegetable oil with ethanol or bio-ethanol. The process results in a mono-alkyl esters and glycerin that are later isolated (Puppán 2002).

A range of trees and oil crop have been exploited in the production of the oil. Soya, palm, jatropha, rapeseed, coconut as well as sunflower is some of the crops and tree plants that have been exploited.

There are interests to include fats from animals; bye products of cooking oil as well as tallow among the exploits in the production of biodiesel (Dufey 2006, 3). The boiling range of biodiesel is between 370⁰ and 780⁰ F. This is favorable for burning in a pressurized condition of an ignition engine.

Properties such as increased viscosity and reduced volatility lead to issues of lifespan in the fuel system in the case of vegetable oils. Vegetable oils tend to generate residues that lower the power of the engines that call for regular stopping to clean and unblock the fuel injectors (Escobar 2009, 1276). Portions of biodiesel and bio-ethanol have been successfully mixed for vehicular use. There are a crop of second generation technologies developed in the production of bio-diesel such as the Fischer-Tropsch process (Dufey 2006, 3).

Tilman et al. (2006, 1598) consider a highly diverse composition of plants growing with reduced input from agriculturally demeaned land as a potential third form of bio-fuels. Tests have been conducted on degraded and deserted fields that are under sandy soils and nitrogen deficient. Productivity of the plots that were highly diverse ranged between 84 to 230 percent indicating a major breakthrough.

Factors influencing Production of Bio-fuels

State of global oil reserves

Foremost, oil reserves are unevenly distributed, globally; thus, being in favor of certain geographical areas such as the Middle East that accounts for two-thirds; Europe and the rest of Asia contribute 11.7 percent and Africa accounts for a tenth.

South America, North America and Asia Pacific are the least contributors at 8.6 percent, 5 percent and 3.4 percent, respectively. Forecasts on fossil fuel show a rise but a decline in production that will ignite the search for alternatives such as bio-fuels.

Climate Change

It is anticipated that changes in climate concern variation in the intensities and geographical distribution of precipitation, rise in the sea level as well as rise in the events and severity of extreme weather conditions. Experts from the IPCC consider the future demand for bio-fuel for automobile use in 2030 to average at 65 EJ with regard to basic biomass or 40 EJ for fuels at large.

Moreover, by 2050 energy provision originating from biomass is pegged at 125-760 EJ. These statistics build curiosity on bio-fuels as a possible agent of greenhouse gas effect amelioration.


Biodiesels proximate the mineral diesel in terms of physical and chemical properties. Bio-diesels are equally miscible as well as applications in compression engines with minor adjustments to the engine. Popular blends within volumetric proportions range between 5 to 20 percent.

Blends falling under the B5 category require no modification of vehicle engines. Brazil considers ethanol as a main source of fuel; while, India, USA and Canada use it as an additive to raise the gasoline octane number.

Crude Products for Synthesis of Bio-fuel

Escobar (2009,1278) views that countries can engage in bio-fuel production and consumption with greater benefits such as broadening the sources of energy, stabilizing the provision of energy to consumers as well as stimulate rural growth through job creation. Furthermore, countries that have greater capacity to produce bio-fuel from their large biomass are those outside the bracket of the fossil fuel oil producing states.

This will give them the opportunity to be included in the list of global energy markets, while reducing the dependency on the few countries with oil reserves. The economic viability of bio-fuels is that countries lie on different climatic, topographic and other conditions that limit production and encourage export trade.

Production Cost

The nature of raw material used in the bio-fuel production determines a lot of the cost implications. Bio-fuel from re-used cooking oil and animal fat fetch lower prices compared to the vegetable oil ones such as colza and soybeans. Some of the prices have fallen even below those of the fossil diesel.

Escobar (2009, 1281) explains that the break-even point where the production of bio-fuels becomes economically viable for the EU nations ranged between US$ 75 and 80 for every barrel of oil is-à-vis colza oil; US$ 90 per barrel this-à-vise bio-ethanol; US$ 100 per barrel in relation to biodiesel as well as US$ 155-160 per barrel in relation to bio-fuels produced through second generation technologies.

In Brazil, break even points per oil barrel with reference to ethanol range between US$ 30 and 35; vegetable oils were at US$ 60 per barrel. In the case of the US, the breakeven point for oil relative bio-ethanol ranged between US$ 40 and 50 per barrel.

This implies that those producing at prices below US$ 40 per barrel are greatly unfavored. With regard to the inflation production costs, governments can play a lead role in providing subsidies to encourage stakeholders to continue with production.

Augments Against Bio-fuels

Agricultural and food production Issues of Bio-fuel Production

Worldwide exponential rise in the demand for food as well as energy have sparked discontent on the continued exploitation of food-based bio-fuels. Currently, the production is increasingly putting pressure on land set aside for food production. In addition, farming for bio-fuels are resulting in a rise in pollutant release through pesticides and fertilizers.

Furthermore, land under natural vegetation that hosts hordes of diverse species and species of conservation concern is being targeted for conversion into fields for biodiesel crop production.

Rosegrant (2008, 1) explains that bio-fuel production and demand have led the rise in food prices as triggered through policy instruments targeting food and bio-fuel products. Maize and sugarcane are food products that have experienced a rise in demand; yet, they are key ingredients in the production of bio-ethanol. Rosegrants (2008, 1) adds that ensuing scenario has had a range of impacts on the supply and demand systems for grains.

An increase in the volume of corn meant for ethanol production has contributed immensely in the rise of the overall demand for maize and has led to dedication of more land away from the production of maize for food and feed leading to the escalation of maize prices.

On the demand side, escalating prices of maize have lead to consumers to switch from them in favour of rice as well as wheat (Rosegrants 2008, 1). Nevertheless, maize remains a key staple food for most developing states of the world.

On the supply side, since maize are fetching higher prices, thus, relatively profitable to venture in enticing farmers abandon cultivation of crops such as wheat and rice crops. The interplay of these demand and supply variables has led to an escalation of prices of wheat and rice as well as other related crops (Rosegrants 2008,1).

Stochastic analysis involving an actual demand for food-based bio-fuel crops as a feedstock up to 2007 and the broader growth rates for bio-fuel in the decade ending 2000 just before the exponential rise in the demand of bio-ethanol projects a significant play of the bio-fuel demand in the escalation of grain prices in the period between 2000 and 2007 (Rosegrants 2008, 2).

The price differential implied between the two cases, divided by the rise in the baseline costs in the period between 2000 and 2007, gives the percentage factor brought about by demand of bio-fuels on the rise of the prices.

The calculated value across the different grains was 30 percent. Maize alone was at 39 percent in the real prices. Rise in the commodity demand for bio-fuels will lead to inflation in rice prices by up to 21 percent and wheat by 22 percent (Rosegrants 2008, 2).

In the event, the production of bio-fuel (including other crops used as feedstock) was limited to the 2007 level across the countries, then corn prices will plummet by up to 6 percent and 14 percent by 2015 (Rosegrants 2008, 3). Other crops that will also experience declines are wheat, oil crops, sugar as well as cassava.

In a scenario where the demand of bio-fuels originating from food crops is eliminated post-2007, globally; this will lead to a significant decline in prices of associated food crops (Rosegrants 2008, 3). By 2010, maize prices would have fallen by a fifth, cassava by 14 percent, sugar by a tenth as well as 8 percent for wheat (Rosegrants 2008, 3).

Figure 1: Top 10 Bio-ethanol Producers

Bio-ethanol Production in 2004.

Modified from Dufey (2006 p.6)

Environmental Considerations

On environmental grounds, bio-fuel have been viewed as cutting down on the greenhouse gas releases. However, it has been revealed that bio-fuels are increasing stress on water supplies, locally and regionally. With reference to the location where the crop is grown, a rise in production of bio-fuel could lead to expanded problems on water quantity and quality.

On the this subject, the production of corn has been put into perspective since the rise in the need to apply nitrogen and other pesticides rises causing threats of eutrophication of the waterways. Depending on the agricultural practices applied the threat of erosion may become severe in some places. Prospects by the NACEPT on the sustainable production of bio-fuels hint that the resultant is not cheap, easy and within reach.

This is implied by the broadly differing outcomes due to range assumptions brought about by diverse agricultural regimes, fossil fuel sources applied during ethanol production, the apportioning of GHGs releases (and energy units) to related products derived alongside ethanol as well as the degree and effect of land use variations.

Pro-bio-fuels Arguments

Lowering of GHGs from Fossil Energy Sources

The US through the National Advisory Council for Environmental Policy and Technology (NACEPT) has initiated studies on sustainable production of bio-fuels with focus on sustainable production without water and soil degradation. Some of the models applied in the studies indicate that ethanol from maize cuts down the use of petrol by 95 percent this-à-is gasoline, but eliminates GHGs by a meager 13 percent.

This implies that to achieve significant GHGs cuts this will need use of the cellulosic ethanol (Searchinger et al. 2008). On these grounds, there is a return on investment in marginal energy and GHG incentives from maize ethanol, but greater benefits originating from cellulose. Actually, cellulosic ethanol leads to declines in GHGs by more than 85 percent vis-à-vis that of gasoline (Hoekman 2009).

Recommendation on Bio-fuels

The advancement in the production and consumption appears to be inevitable considering the possible exhaustion of fossil and limited alternatives and replacements decade. This is signalled by the aftermath of the short-lived oil crisis of the 1970s. However, there is a need for a paradigm shift in the life cycle (cradle to grave) of the bio-fuel products in order to achieve economic and environmental sustainability.

Assessing and Recommending for Sustainability in Bio-fuel Use

Robust technologies in the production process will have to take into consideration five elements. These five elements combine environmental and economic considerations. First, large plants ought to have adequate volumes of feedstock. This calls for considering re-use bio-wastes (as applied in industrial parks).

Nevertheless, a lot of Bioengineering is necessary, especially to shift a lot of attention from the crop feedstock to reuse and recycle industrial and municipal waste matter that could be useful in the his paradigm will lower complexities in demand and supply brought about by shift in production of bio-fuel feedstock at the expense of food crop production of maize, wheat and rice resulting in price inflations.

Second, there is a need to upgrade technologies that involve feedstock logistics. The idea will be to reduce the pressure of crop feedstock by focussing in the utility of other bio-fuels sources such as grass and algae derivatives that need fresh equipments and methodologies that cheaper during harvesting, warehousing and processing. In addition, cleaner technologies adopted in order to maximize on what ends up as waste residue.

Third, the bio-fuel processing should be rigorous, flexible for upgrading and cost friendly. This requires the adoption of integrated bio-refineries that demonstrate efficiency in energy release.

Fourth, distribution lines to consumers should be compatible with the existing infrastructure layout by demonstrating ease of transportation, blending as well as dispensing. Fifth, there should be ease of the utility of bio-fuel products on vehicles that allows greater customer satisfaction.

There is a need for global rethinking and reversing of ethanol blending mandates and subsidies as well as surcharges levied on the ethanol imports. In Europe, policies that encourage bio-fuels ought to be abolished in order to reduce the prices on food crops.

There is need increase food security in the developing states through policy instruments and infrastructure development. This will call upon technology sharing and transfer from the well-off countries like the US.


Dufey, Annie. “.” IIED. Web.

Escobar, Jose´, Electo S. Lora, Osvaldo J. Venturini, Edgar E. Ya´n˜ez, Edgar F. Castillo, and Oscar Almazan. “Biofuels: Environment, technology and food security.” Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews 13, (2009): 1275–1287.

Hoekman, S. Kent. “Biofuels in the U.S. – Challenges and Opportunities.” Renewable Energy 34, (2009): 14–22.

Puppán, Dániel. “Environmental Evaluation Of Biofuels.” Periodica Polytechnica Ser. Soc. Man. Sci. 10, no. 1 (2002): 95–116.

Robertson, G. Philip, Douglas A. Landis, and Madhu Khanna. “.” Ecological Society of America. Web.

Rosegrant, Mark. “Biofuels and Grain Prices: Impacts and Policy Responses.” International Food Policy Research Institute. Web.

Searchinger ,Timothy, Ralph Heimlich, R. A. Houghton, Fengxia Dong, Amani Elobeid, Jacinto Fabiosa, Simla Tokgoz, Dermot Hayes, and Tun-Hsiang Yu. “.” Sciencexpress. Web.

Tilman, David, Jason Hill, and Clarence Lehman. “Carbon-Negative Biofuels from Low-Input High-Diversity Grassland Biomass.” Science 314, (2006): 1598-1600.

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