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30 Apr 2007

The Future of Biodiesel, or not.

cc2I travelled back from Lewes on the train last week, and was really struck by the amount of yellow fields I could see from the window as I passed. There is a lot of money going into the creation of a UK biodiesel sector, with very favourable subsidies, and the English countryside is becoming increasingly yellow. The farming press is abuzz with regular talk of the glittering potential future in biodiesel, and refineries are being built. It is a great green illusion (or delusion), although there are many others who can argue the case against biofuels far better than I can. David Strahan sums up the case against biofuels in his new book The Last Oil Shock (review pending) when he writes that they offer the prospect of “starving to death in a traffic jam”.

Possibly the only benefit of large scale plantings of rapeseed is the wonderful canvas is makes for crop circles, those geometric wonders of the English summer, which have just begun appearing again after their winter dormancy (see left). The green of the flattened rape against the bright yellow of the flowers is a striking medium for these artistic creations.

I take a very strong position against biofuels, believing them to be profoundly unethical. Either we eat or we drive, or, to begin with at least, we do both, while millions do neither. I believe that the argument comes from the wrong direction, we should begin by working out how much land we will need to feed ourselves, and then if we have any left over, then it could be used for biofuels. I think we will see the booming of a biodiesel industry, and then its equally rapid disappearance as the pressures for increased food security mean that food begins to increasingly take precedence.

At our recent Transition Tales storytelling day in Totnes we spent the day writing newspaper articles from different points along a notional timeline we devised from now until 2030. Writing stories and what Tom Atlee calls “imagineering” are a very useful way to explore the ways the future might play out. Here is one that emerged which gives quite a nice overview of the way biodiesel might be viewed in 2021…

**Totnes Times March 21st 2021**

**The Last Drop.**
**“I felt like a chip,

Categories: Energy, Food, Peak Oil

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Mark Forskitt
30 Apr 8:41am

I am inclined to agree that growing oil seed rape for biodiesel in lieu of food is a gross error. But that does not mean I am anti biodiesel – far from it I make some myself, albeit mostly from waste oil from local restaurants and pubs.

If (and it is questionable) you want to continue using tractors and other powered machinery to produce food, then you need to use approximately 10% of the cultivatable area for oil crops. It is a mistake to think of that as ‘lost’ to food production. Many sustainable horticultural systems depend on having land devoted to fast growing high volume crops simply to make compost. In this case growing say sunflowers supplies both needs.

The key point is that 10% is just keeping the food production system going more or less along the lines it does now – it doesn’t include the distribution of food. Localistion and descaling production into units suitable for using walk behind rather than ride on tractors, and eventually manual production seems inevitable.

Jason Cole
30 Apr 3:28pm

Wasn’t there a consensus of 30% biofuels, 70% food at the “End Of Oil” conference some time ago, where it was mentioned that in a self-sufficient smallholding, 30% of the land is used by the draft animals?

solar bud
30 Apr 4:45pm

What’s the potential for making biodiesel from sunflowers in the UK?

30 Apr 6:24pm

The picture of biodiesel and wind cogeneration heading these two threads may be of interest, as may be the discussions.

Mark Forskitt
1 May 7:35am

I can’t see any problem producing oil from sun flowers in the UK – they grow well. However it isnt’ the best of oil for producing biodiesel. I doubt anyone would do it commercially, but for on farm generation, it seems to be just fine. A commercial biodiesel generator sees a low yield, harde rot proces product, but a farmer sees an easy to grow crop with useful by product. It depends how holistic a view you take of the farm/smallholding.

Yes, it may be that IF you use draft animals, you would need 30% – 50% of the land area devoted to forage crops etc to feed them. But that is not the only way to be self-sufficient. Smaller scale approaches using walking tractors or beds are more believeable in the short term. We don’t have enough stabling, farriers, or other skills in place to switch quickly to draft animals. Bear in mind a heavy horse mare is only going to produce 1 foal a year -it will take generations to bred up a significant herd in the UK.

1 May 9:27am

Perhaps one day all farms will have efficient small-scale bioreactors to generate fuel for on-farm use. As I understand it, the methane produced from manure and green waste can be captured and converted into liquid fuel. The problem, however, is getting bioreactors to work efficiently and consistently in this climate.

I’m glad that there is now growing scepticism about the future of biofuels. However, it seems that this scepticism has not yet reached the hearts and minds of policymakers in Europe, who are planning to increase EU Biofuels targets. They will almost certainly have to look to developing countries to source them.

Already, companies are rushing to Africa to convince them to turn over their land for Biofuels, telling them that they’ll get rich and save the world at the same time. Unfortunately, forests are being cut down for Palm Oil and Sugar Cane (Uganda and Benin for example) and people are being turfed off their land to make way for privatisation and large-scale Biofuels crops (South Africa).

Interest in Biofuels, particularly from China, has raised the global price of grain, leading to riots over food prices in Mexico. Plus, the advent of biofuels will basically mean an open door for GM companies, who hope that consumer rejection will not be as strong if not intended for food crops. (Even though there is nothing to stop GM biofuel crops from cross-pollinating with conventional crops.)

Hopefully in the UK, consumers’ ability to pay for food will ultimately be higher than their obsession with oil. However I fear that there will be many in Africa who will not be able to compete with rising oil/biofuel prices in order to buy food.

1 May 1:09pm

As has been said, we will need to find a way to run the agricultural machinery that replaced draft animals earlier on in the oil age. I guess that assertion assumes that biodiesel production for farm-equipment will use up less land than that needed by draft animals doing the equivalent work.

In the long term, if we de-industrialise more, draft animals are a ‘lower tech’, renewable resource and may be more practicable, even if they do take land.

In a less de-industrialised future, maybe we could fit hybrid (bio)diesel-electric engines to agricultural machinery to make ‘Prius’ tractors! Also, there are newer cellulose (?) forms of biodiesel production being developed that use the inedible parts of the crop, therefore not competing directly with food (although the inedible portion can be used for composting).

The other key use for bio-diesel on the farm will be to run water pumps for irrigation. It will be essential to have timely, on-demand power to run the pumps when the times the crops need watering. If we get that wrong, food production could drop significantly.

Does anyone know what percentage of our UK-produced food needs to be irrigated? I’ve read (in “The Last Oil Shock”) that 40% of our calorie production globally relies on irrigation and I guess that climate change will increase that figure.

1 May 4:17pm

The comment about the return of horses was intriguing. Does anyone have leads on good books about the transition from horses to cars, social history kind of thing?

Jan Steinman
2 May 12:40am

As long as there’s fried foods, there will be waste vegetable oil.

Will such a waste oil stream be sufficient to supplant petro-diesel for Life As We Know It? Absolutely not! But it could be used for farm machinery, perhaps even a significant portion of it.

2 May 6:25am

The solution for fuel crisis is to source the feedstock from developing countries so that it is sustainable as the price is competitive and at stable. jatropha oil from developing countries like India and Africa is a good posibility, the jatropha oil is not edible and jatropha does not reguire good lands as such plenty of land is available for jatropha cultivation in developing countries.
it is also a win win situation to reduce poverty and get feedstock oil for the Biodiesel industry in developed countries,

2 May 6:29am

We are consultants for jatropha plantation in India and Africa, we can arrange for contract farming to get jatropha oil, interested biodiesel producers can contact us for cooperation,

5 May 11:54am

Unfortunately seems that biofuels have no future! Infact, recently were published two important scientific studies about biofuels’ emissions that have catastrophic conclusions: biodiesel and bioethanol are mutagenic!

Bunger J. et alii
“Strong mutagenic effects of diesel engine emissions
using vegetable oil as fuel”
Arch Toxicol 2007; DOI: 10.1007/s00204-007-0196-3

Jacobson MZ.
“Effects of Ethanol (E85) versus Gasoline Vehicles on Cancer and
Mortality in the United States.”
Environ Sci Technol 2007;DOI: 10.1021/es062085v.

Mark Forskitt
7 May 12:11pm


I have scanned the article at
The headline comment refers to RSO (straight veg oil fuel). The figures for RME (rape methyl ether – typical biodiesel ) are much lower then RSO, and only fractioanlly ahead of commercial fossil derived diesel fuel.

Never rely on journalistic headlines as the basis of a case

7 May 3:03pm


Do you know how many people in Europe and Usa is using RSO, believing that’s a “natural” fuel? Lots of uninformed people!

About RME, it’s true that’s less carcinogenic than RSO, but it’s also true that’s not innocuous as precedently stated.

Imho the only clean way to use bioethanol, is for hydrogen production in fuel cells.

Mark Forskitt
8 May 7:44am


You might be right in perhaps 20 years time , after the research is done, the process proven, the manufacturing facility set up and the price of units has become affordable. By them you might just be competing with booming heavy horse population as discussed above. In the mean time farmers want to use their exisitng equipment to produce food to feed the population today. I can’t see a short term transitional solution other than bio-diesel, unless it is total economic collapse and reversion to hand labour.

Ken Wesst
17 May 2:11pm

I live in the midwest (Illinois) where a lot of corn is grown for feed stock for cattle and pigs. When the corn is porcessed to make ethanol there is a by product that is 34% to 40% higher in protein then when first started with raw corn. Many of the farmers feel that this by product helps their live stock grow faster and are stronger and the driving public gets a much better and cleaner fuel. Also the farmers have a chance to earn a much better yield due to ethanol production. Currently plans are on the board to build a new ethanol plant in Litchfield, Ill. This will help boost the local economy as well.

Any questions you may have about this can be directed to the Illinois Farm bureau, Montgomery County office in Hillsboro, Illinois..

Thank you

Kenny West

19 May 6:15pm

Let me recommend the documentary “King Corn” which is for sale in the US, and is available for rent in many locations. I don’t know what its availability in the UK is.

The film explores the role of corn in the US food chain– entertaining and enlightening!