The role of agrofuels in the rush for land

International projects promoting biofuels are now on the retreat. While they do play a role in competition for land, they are failing for a large number of reasons. According to the analysis of the latest GIGA paper, the biofuel hype is over.

Between 2007 and 2011, world-wide production of biofuels rose from 1.1 million to 1.9 million barrels a day. Consumption grew even more strongly with governments regarding the use of biofuels as a contribution to reducing greenhouse gases.

Over the last few years, the spread of numerous plants for biofuels production has resulted in a considerable amount of bad press centring on large-scale farming, land grabbing, competing with the cultivation of food plants and promises of CO2 reductions that have been turned into the opposite by intensive cultivation.

Kerstin Nolte of the German Institute of Global and Area Studies (GIGA) in Hamburg has used data from the Land Matrix Global Observatory for an evaluation of the land deals and assessed the current situation with her team. The biofuels really have attained an important status in this context, Nolte explains, but adds that the cultivation hype is over. 

Growing plants for biofuels plays a role in 23 per cent of all international land use contracts. Most of them are entered by Europeans, and they are applied in sub-Saharan Africa. Often, however, the projects already fail in their early stages. Cultivation takes place in remote areas without a working infrastructure. Projects also founder because the use of technology and the farming practices are obsolescent and insufficient. Often, all that remains for cultivation is low-yield locations. 

Nolte believes that the days of “cowboy investors” are over. But because demand has remained at a high level, she is reckoning with a new wave of biofuels projects. She says that it is as yet unclear in which direction they will go because cultivation is now also critically viewed in the countries of the investors and there is still no final evidence of the efficiency of cultivation.


Kerstin Nolte et al: Food or Fuel – The Role of Agrofuels in the Rush for Land; GIGA Focus 5/2014 ISSN 2196-3940

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Roland Krieg
, Journalist, Berlin