Since the 1990s, governments in both the North and the South have been heavily promoting biofuels and enacting ‘industry-forging’ policies as a result of concerns related to climate change mitigation (especially in the EU), energy security (especially in the US) and farmer support and rural development (in Brazil, but also in the US and EU). Policy discourses provided by lobbies have been based on the framing of lack of energy as an impediment to development and growth. The allure of biofuels is linked to addressing climate change, energy security and rural development at once without fundamentally altering energy consumption practices. Some industries consider most kinds of biofuels attractive also because they can provide ‘drop-in’ solutions – they can be distributed through existing infrastructure (pipelines, storage facilities, fuel distribution networks) and existing end-user technology (internal combustion engines).

From the turn of the century to around 2006/07, the main biofuel producer countries/regions (Brazil, the United States and the EU) enacted policies that effectively forged the various regional foundations of an emerging ‘global industry’. The EU and US set minimum mandates on the use of biofuels and provided a range of subsidies, research funding and investment facilities to farmers, processors, blenders, biotech companies and universities. Early Brazilian government support of the 1970s and 1980s had waned by the end of the century, but was revitalized in the 2000s. Agricultural lobbies (US corn, German rapeseed farmer unions), climate change activists seeking non-fossil fuel alternatives, and government departments concerned with energy and security provided a unique combination of interests that pushed biofuel-friendly policies in a generally favourable political environment.

This led to a boost of investments in farming and processing in Brazil, the United States and the EU, but also to interest in large-scale investments in land for biofuel production – especially in Africa but also in Southeast Asia. Following decades of neglect in agricultural and rural development, governments in the South saw large-scale investment in land by domestic and international actors as a welcome boost in infrastructure provision and foreign exchange generation.

Increasing food prices and the related food riots starting in 2006/07 dramatically altered this picture. Biofuel production has been pointed out as a major cause of increasing food prices because it takes land and water away from food production – although estimates of the actual impact of biofuel production on total food price increases vary from 3 to 75 per cent. Many studies have highlighted deeply problematic aspects of land investments, including shady deals, little benefit for local communities, lack of participation in decision-making at the local level, and environmental degradation. Doubts have also started to be cast on the impact of biofuel production on GHG emission reductions. Some feedstock-location combinations are deemed to be especially problematic in terms of GHG balance and/or in terms of deforestation. A wider methodological debate is also raging on how to take into account of crop residues and indirect land use change in the calculation of energy balance sheets and GHG emissions. To these arguments, pro-biofuel analysts respond that marginal land is indeed available for biofuel production and that with modern farm management and improved technology it is possible to produce a meaningful proportion of fuels for transport from biological resources without affecting food supply. Counter-arguments to these highlight that land is often not actually ‘available’ even when labelled as such, that in marginal lands yields are much lower, and that faith in technology is misplaced.

As criticism mounted on biofuels, the EU enacted demands for sustainability standards for the production, trade and use of biofuels in member countries. The US also fine-tuned its subsidies and regulation to increase support of ‘next generation’ biofuels relative to first generation biofuels. And Brazil increased its public relations effort aimed at showing that sugarcane-based ethanol production in the country has indeed a positive impact on GHG emission reductions. A number of legal issues are also being raised on whether biofuel domestic support and trade measures comply with WTO rules.

At the same time, the biotech industry saw these developments as a window of opportunity to gain public support (and research funding, investment, financing) for ‘cleaner’, more value-added and less land-dependent versions of biofuel production, based on improved and new transformation processes of cellulosic material and other waste and on the development of algae feed stocks.

A considerable amount of attention has been paid so far in the academic literature – from a variety of disciplinary grounds – on projections of how biofuel industries will operate in the future, on technology development and its potential, and on processes of land acquisition and impact on livelihoods. However, many questions still remain unanswered.

This conference will focus on three areas that merit further research and debate:

  1. The role of standards and sustainability certifications in shaping the biofuel industry in the context of larger processes of governance and regulation (at national, regional and international levels, including the WTO).
  2. The impact of actually existing investments on trade flows on the structure of regional and global biofuel industries, and on food security, land use, water resources and rural livelihoods.
  3. How discourses and imaginaries on biofuel innovation, technology development and scaling-up impact strategic choices, policies and practices – in relation to both first- and next-generation biofuels.