News Article

Selecting the Best Crops for Biofuel Production

Wed, 02/19/2014 - 08:51

The awareness and concern about reducing greenhouse emissions has fostered innovative ideas on how to fight environmental degradation. In order to counter the negative effects of fossil fuels and their carbon dioxide emissions, biofuels have become a sought after alternative. Biodiesel is a clean fuel made from renewable sources, such as vegetable oil, animal fat or used cooking oils. Biodiesels can range between being 45 to 90% less toxic than diesel made from petrochemicals. Conventional oils used as raw materials for biofuel production include oilseeds from plants such as sunflowers and rapeseed, widely used in Europe, and soybeans, which are popular in the United States, and coconuts in Southeast Asia. As such, bioethanol is used as a motor fuel and fuel additive, usually made from sugar cane, sorghum, and maize. Biofuels, however, are not yet competitive against hydrocarbons, and their efficiency has not reached its peak. The main issue is that these sources could threaten food security, particularly in the use of food crops, like maize and sugar cane. Environmental concerns include potential deforestation, erosion, and water shortages.

The Mexican government and several industries have stepped up to fight climate change and greenhouse gas emissions and working on the development of a domestic biofuels industry has been a part of this crusade. 2008 saw the creation of the Law for the Promotion and Development of Biofuels, which defines biofuels as fuels obtained from biomass resulting principally from agricultural activities. In order to address some of the aforementioned debates regarding biofuel production, the law also established that official land use cannot be changed to specifically plant crops intended for biofuel production. Many parties promote the use of lands that are not suitable to grow plants for human consumption to grow crops for biofuel production. The Mario Molina Center states that in order to be an effective solution, biofuel production should not compete with food sources, negatively affect biodiversity, cause deforestation, or exhaust resources such as water and fertile soil. Although several plants can be used for biofuel production in Mexico, there are several criticisms aimed at some of the candidates. The International Energy  Agency claims ethanol made from sugar cane and second generation lignocellulosic biofuels are the only biofuels that significantly reduce greenhouse gases. Other studies published by the Mario Molina Center show that ethanol produced from maize is not very effective in reducing greenhouse emissions. In general, the benefits of using biofuels are dwarfed when fertilizers and fossil fuels for production and transportation are used in the production chain. The Food Policy Research Institute is in favor of using sugar cane in Mexico, which should be used to drive biofuel use because it is more effective than maize. In fact, he believes using maize would bring about problems as it is a staple in Mexico. SAGARPA is aware of the importance of maize and only grants permits to use this crop for biofuels when there is a surplus in national production intended for human consumption. Permits are not required if corn is imported.

Given its biodiversity, Mexico has some alternatives for the production of biofuels. There are certain species that are more adapted to regional conditions and thus favor a specific country’s bioenergy sector. This is the case of jatropha, a shrub native to Central America that easily grows in Mexico. This plant is a strong candidate to become a stable biofuel source because its seeds, which grow six months after planting, contain up to 40% oil. Jatropha is resilient to droughts and its toxicity and bitter taste keep pests away. Although jatropha plants are an option for biofuel production, there are several concerns surrounding the crop. This plant has not been properly domesticated therefore the long-term effects of its large-scale use on the soil and the environment are still unknown. In Mexico, farmers have shown concern about jatropha plantations using fertile land and thus competing with edible crops, as happened in Las Choapas, Veracruz.

The biofuel sector in Mexico is a promising one, highlighting the urgency to solve the many problems entailed in the production process. By law, PEMEX requires large amounts of bioethanol and biodiesel to mix with its fuels, but currently Mexico does not produce these quantities, therefore discharging PEMEX from this obligation. It is important to ensure that biofuels really contribute to fighting climate change by making an integral life cycle analysis that quantifies all the emissions associated to their production. In Mexico, regulations promoting biofuels should include monitoring and certification mechanism that guarantee the expected results.