Agriculture land is a scarce resource but crucial for human survival. Bioenergy places yet another strain on this important natural resource – a strain that we can barely afford
Bioenergy coming from agricultural land often comes in the form of regular crops such as maize, rapeseed or sugar cane. These crops have traditionally been used for food production but can also be turned into different forms of bioenergy. Also waste and residues of agriculture crops such as straw from wheat, empty palm fruit bunches or the cobs and husks of maize are seen as potential sources for bioenergy.
Agriculture products are currently mostly used for biofuels in the transport sector and for biogas to produce electricity. Most biofuels are biodiesel, made of vegetable oils from rapeseed, oil palm and soy. A fifth of biofuels consumed in Europe are bioethanol made from plants like sugar cane, maize or wheat rich in sugars. Biogas is also often produced from food crops. About half of the biogas in the EU is made out of maize, the rest of agricultural residues.
Three-quarters of the world’s land area capable of supporting vegetation is already managed or harvested to meet human food and fiber needs
The rest mostly contains the world’s remaining, crucially needed natural ecosystems. A growing quest for bioenergy exacerbates this competition for land. When agriculture expands into new territories it usually happens at the expense of natural areas, further pressuring remaining forests and grasslands worldwide and creating Greenhouse Gas emissions through deforestation and land use change. This, together with impacts on global food markets and prices, has brought the EU to limit the amounts of biofuels in the renewable energy targets.
Even if there’s an ongoing trend of abandonment of agricultural land in some parts of Europe as food production is intensifying and moving elsewhere, opportunities to expand energy production to new land areas remain scarce. Abandoned land is often in areas difficult to reach, can have poor soil condition and hence lead to low yields. If policies are used to bring such land back to cultivation, questions remain on whether bioenergy production would be the most appropriate use of land or whether other demands in society should be getting priority (such as food or material production).
There is also an issue with the way agricultural land is currently being farmed, specifically in the Western world. The latest outlook of the European Environmental Agency highlights the negative impacts of agriculture, water pollution, excessive use of fertilizers and loss of grassland biodiversity. Increased pressures from a growing global population and a shift towards the bio-economy, including bioenergy, are pushing the bar further and further. As many species have already adopted to agricultural landscapes, some of the negatives impacts of land abandonment could potentially also be reserved by something like bioenergy.