SAVING the planet and feeding the world are incompatible.

That‘s if you believe Guardian columnist, George Monbiot, who last week suggested that the adoption of biofuels would lead to a humanitarian and environmental disaster.

“Those who have been promoting these fuels are well-intentioned, but wrong,” he stated.

The main tenet of his argument was that with 800m starving people in the world, there was insufficient land to feed them, let alone indulge global warming through the production of biofuels, for which the motorist would have better buying power than the malnourished.

And he expressed concerns about the natural environment being run in the future by the major oil companies.

But his views are as unhelpful to the renewable energy cause, as they are misleading.

While his logic may seem compelling, Mr Monbiot fails to offer a solution. But worse, he does not provide a rounded assessment of the truths:

  • Global warming is with us and a reality. Scientists predict some already-marginal areas of land (in Africa and elsewhere) will become infertile arid wastelands within the current century, exacerbating starvation
  • Fossil fuels are running out. Believe whatever predictions you like, but most agree oil and gas supply will be seriously threatened in the latter part of the 21st century
  • Car ownership will increase alarmingly, particularly in developing economies, and notably in the biggest of them all – China – adding to fuel demand
  • Food production and bioenergy are not mutually exclusive. Indeed, for every tonne of food, another tonne of biomass is produced which can be used as a co-product for energy or fuel production. Developing countries can use this for indigenous energy resources rather than wasting scarce foreign currency reserves on imported fuel
  • The main constraint on third world development (food production) is the availability of energy to pump water 

Against this background, politicians, scientists, environmentalists, industrialists, and farmers have to find solutions to feeding the hungry, and preserving the planet for future generations.

That‘s why renewable energy (in the form of biofuels for road transport, and biomass – predominantly woody material – for heat and power) has come to the fore.

Few who support these crops believe they provide the single long-term answer to climate change, but they do provide a step along the way that could bridge the gap until newer, cleaner, and more energy efficient solutions, become a reality.

In the UK alone, an annual 3.5 million tonne surplus of wheat has to be exported onto the world market, depressing prices, and adding to the economic malaise of farmers at home and in the poorer parts of the world.

But wheat can be converted into bioethanol (a petrol substitute). If the EU‘s proposed 5.75% inclusion rate for biofuels in fossil fuel forecourt supplies were adopted, we would need all of that exportable surplus to feed demand in the UK.

One consequence (if multiplied across the developed world) is rising prices for staple commodities and with it an improvement in the economic fortunes of the developing world.

Then there are requirements for the UK diesel market. At the same 5.75% inclusion rate, we would require enough land to produce oilseed rape for biodiesel equivalent to the area currently in compulsory fallow (set-aside) under the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy – there are 4 million hectares of set-aside in the EU in total.

Policy is about meeting social needs. Sadly, the policies of the past have created food surpluses where they are not needed, and shortages where those surpluses are wanted most.

But with an increasing acceptance among parties to the World Trade Organisation negotiations that liberalisation (rather than protectionism which tends to dump surplus production on world markets) is desirable, Western countries, responsible for the majority of global warming, can “indulge” the longer-term needs of the planet by concentrating their efforts on alternative crop uses other than food, while Africa, and elsewhere, participates in food production at more prosperous prices.

Many in the renewable energy industry have consistently promoted the growing of “green” crops in the UK to provide new markets for farm products, to work towards a reversal in climate change, and to provide an uplift to rural prosperity.

It‘s no quick fix, but it can help.

It‘s a matter of balance in government, as it is in the press.

To read George Monbiot‘s article in full, click on