The Limits of Growing Biofuel Crops on a Desert Island

Quick, name the scarcest natural resources in Israel. I’m sure that “land” and “water” would feature prominently in most people’s answers.

Israel is, to all intents and purposes, a “desert island’, with finite – very finite – natural resources. Not your romantic desert island, and not an island geographically, but rather politically. Not a desert entirely, but dominated by arid lands, and with much of the rest what might be considered recovering or rehabilitated. Some of that is again under threat from various forces, mainly driven by economic and political factors, population growth and lifestyle.

So, while there have been few serious proposals for converting Israeli agricultural production to bio-fuel crop production, would it in theory make sense to ever do so?

Not if one applies the understandings shared by noted German economist Hans Werner Sinn in this Jerusalem Post article. The president of the Ifo Institute for Economic Research was visiting Israel last week to give the D.B. Doran Lecture on Population, Resources and Development at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem lecturing about the problems of land use for biofuel.

According to Sinn:

In much of the world, bio-fuels are produced from food crops using vast amounts of land, Sinn explained, which means that energy and food are now competing for the same space and resources. That hasn’t happened since the Middle Ages, when energy meant horses to ride or pull things, and they needed hay to eat.

The Industrial Revolution introduced coal as an energy source and freed up land to be planted for food. The major population boom that occurred in the years since can be traced to that shift. At the dawn of the industrial age, there were approximately 600 million people in the world, he said.

“And now there are seven billion, which means that linking the cost of energy and the cost of food is much more problematic. Food riots in 2007 and 2008 can be attributed to the rapid increase in bio-fuel production, particularly in America,” he told the Post.


“If one would replace just the energy needed for transportation, which is one fifth of the energy man uses, we would need the total acreage of the world planted as bio-fuel crops,” he pointed out.

Referring specifically to Israel, the article concluded:

Israeli scientists are working on energy crops that are not food crops and that can thrive on marginal land. While Israel still lacks the great swaths of land needed to grow energy crops, the technology will be marketed worldwide.

Given the momentum behind the conversion to bio-fuels, perhaps it’s time for Israel to draw up a set of “acceptable use” guidelines for production, e.g.:

  • Prime agricultural land not to be used for bio-fuel production, which should instead be limited to marginal lands
  • Crops should not be water intensive, i.e. require irrigation (no field crops)
  • Make use of agricultural waste, where this cannot be returned to the land
  • Focus on innovative technologies. Think algae rather than fibre or bulk.

At a more philosophical level, we need to get away from the mindset (driven by the oil or energy industry) that energy consumption will continue at existing or higher levels, and that this insatiable demand needs to be met somehow. Instead, we should focus on energy conservation (both active and passive, e.g. green building technologies), truly renewable energy sources and a massive shift away from private to public transport. In a nutshell, shifting to simply living in a more sustainable way; supporting the changes that millions of individuals, companies and (especially) the lower tiers of government worldwide have begun making in their lives and day-to-day operations.

The “desert island” need not and should not become a factory farm for producing bio-fuel.

:: Top economist: Bio-fuels may lead to land shortages

Read more on biofuel:

Kaiima Doubles Chromosomes To Make More Plant Power
Biofuels Spark Regional Cooperation Between Israel, Palestinians and Germany
Algae Into Biofuel a Greener Story In $10 Million Joint Israeli and Chinese Project
German Firm to Invest in Green Israeli Jet Fuel From Algae

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