UCL Institute for Sustainable Resources


Food versus Fuel: beyond biofuels

Lead: Dr Julia Tomei, Research Associate, UCL Energy Institute Main Collaborator: Dr Pablo Prado, University of San Carlos, Guatemala

In less than a decade, biofuels transitioned from being a socially and politically acceptable alternative to conventional transport fuels to a deeply contested solution.  Claims of land grabs, forest loss and food riots emerged to undermine the sustainability rationale that originally motivated their adoption.  However, biofuels are a complex phenomenon, one that has revealed the multifaceted and global linkages between the stewardship of land, the food sector and global energy policies. This project will use the debate on "food vs. fuel" as a lens to examine the interdependencies between the multiple end-uses of biofuel feedstocks and the stewardship of land.  It will interrogate the way in which food vs. fuel has been framed, in order to open up the debate on the use of land for food, fuel and beyond. The research will consist of three interlinked tasks, which will:

  • Interrogate the framing and content of the food vs. fuel debate, specifically focused on which issues are included and which are not;
  • Use the case of sugarcane in Guatemala to ground the debate, including the implications of different conceptualisations of land; and,
  • Examine the implications of a broader understanding of food vs. fuel for the governance of future EU energy and climate policy and existing certification schemes.

The project team, comprised of researchers within UCL ISR and the University of San Carlos in Guatemala, will also strengthen the working relationship between these two institutions.  The proposed research therefore also speaks to the UCL Grand Challenge of Intercultural Interaction by developing cultural understandings and strengthening collaboration between the UK and Guatemala.  

The debate on Food vs. Fuel calls into question the ethics of diverting land from food to energy production. It also draws attention to the impacts of consumption in the Global North on marginalised people, particularly those in the developing world. While the debate provides a useful hook on which to hang criticisms of increased demand for biofuels, it also masks a more complex reality.  In particular, the multifaceted and global linkages between the stewardship of land, the food sector, and global energy markets.  This research project used the debate on Food vs. Fuel as a lens to examine the interdependencies between the multiple end-uses of feedstocks and the multifunctionality of land.  In particular, it examined the outcomes in two countries, the UK and Guatemala.

Outcomes and future opportunities
  • Attendance at a British Council workshop on ‘food/ fuel interfaces’ in Kruger National Park, South Africa in September 2014. The aim of the workshop was to bring together early-career researchers from UK and South African universities to generate scenarios for the design implementation of bioenergy systems that deliver multiple benefits (food, energy and ecosystem services) for southern Africa. Potential research projects were identified at the workshop, and funding will be sought to develop these ideas.
  • Poster presentation at the UCL-ISR Symposium in November 2014
  • Paper submitted to Land Use Policy (December 2014), which unpacks the Food vs. Fuel debate.
  • Abstract submitted to a conference on ‘Biofuels and (ir)responsible innovation: tensions between policy, practice and sustainable development’, which will take place in April 2015.

In addition to these outcomes, the project has also led to a highly successful collaboration with the University of San Carlos (USAC) in Guatemala and the Institute of Science and Society (ISS) at the University of Nottingham.  Working collaboratively with Pablo Prado (USAC) and Richard Helliwell (ISS), I am currently writing a second peer-reviewed publication, which will focus on how European Union biofuels policy has shaped biofuel industries in the UK and Guatemala and the implications for sustainable land stewardship.  Once we have finished these publications, we will also write a blog post in both English and Spanish for dissemination by the project partners.

While progress on the project has been slower than anticipated, it has delivered against the original objectives and has extended the analysis to also incorporate a UK case study. This focus on countries that are peripheral in biofuel debates is crucial for extending our understanding of the unintended consequences of energy policies in both the Global North and Global South. I will continue to seek further funding opportunities in order to build on the project findings and outputs, particularly as this topic remains highly policy relevant.

food security sustainability