Biomass and Agriculture: Sustainability, Markets, and Policies. Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). OECD, Paris, 2004. 565 pp. $86.00 (ISBN 9264105549 paper).
Biomass, particularly in the form of plants and animal waste, is expected to play an increasing role as a source of energy, fuels, and chemicals as humans deplete petroleum resources and search for ways to reduce carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere. Whereas economic development and growth in the 20th century were driven by the use of fossil resources as the raw materials for chemicals, fuels, materials, and energy, some believe sustainable economic development in the 21st century requires that biorenewable resources provide a new foundation for the economy. The book Biomass and Agriculture: Sustainability, Markets, and Policies is therefore timely in its examination of two broad themes: first, the impacts on sustainability of agricultural biomass production; and, second, policy approaches for developing production of agricultural biomass and its use in industry. This collection of articles, which covers both bioenergy and biomaterials applications in Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries, grew out of the OECD Workshop on Biomass and Agriculture held in June 2003 in Vienna.
This large volume has a pleasing, logical structure. The first of three main sections contains a set of four overview papers introducing key concepts and issues about the industrial use of biomass. In the second, sustainability is addressed through three sets of papers organized around the economic, environmental, and social dimensions of sustainability. The final major section is dedicated to examining policy approaches, impacts, and options; its articles are organized geographically into three subsections addressing Europe, North America, and other OECD countries, respectively. Given the scope and origin of the book, it is necessarily confined to presenting a series of snapshots that reflect different disciplinary, geographic, and cultural viewpoints, rather than a cohesive look at the viability of the industrial use of biomass.
One of the book's greatest strengths is its collection of perspectives from a broad range of countries and geographical regions. It is often noted that, like politics, all biomass is local. Location-specific climate, soil, and hydrology make for unique biomass production capacity, and factors such as population, industrialization, and resource endowments result in unique possibilities for biomass utilization. The range of perspectives represented by the papers in this volume give one an appreciation of the way systems of biomass production and use may be tailored to local conditions. The book is, however, biased toward descriptions of existing practices rather than analysis of new approaches. The drawback of this is that the reader cannot get a feel for the overall potential of biomass to meet future needs for fuel, power, and chemicals. There is also a bias toward energy production—through combustion, anaerobic digestion, and fuels such as ethanol—rather than toward the emerging field of chemical production. For instance, production of chemicals is mentioned only in a general way, in overview articles. This omission is understandable, however, in a broad-brush text with a focus on agriculture.
The focus of the book is on the production of biomass as the feedstock of a bioeconomy. The promises and pitfalls of a biobased economy rest in large measure on the sustainability of the underlying agricultural production systems. Although this volume has “sustainability” in its subtitle, it never addresses agricultural sustainability in a direct or comprehensive manner. Agriculture has experienced a century of unprecedented intensification in the effort to satisfy growing demands for food and fiber, and new demands for biomass feedstocks for energy and chemicals can only increase the strain created by high-input agriculture. Most of the world's agricultural systems are heavily dependent on petrochemical inputs for mechanization, chemical fertilizers, and pesticides, and the resulting impacts on soil, water, and human and environmental health have raised serious concerns worldwide. Among the vital questions that need to be answered about biomass and agriculture are these: Can agriculture continue to supply needed food and fiber, as well as the industrial feedstocks on which a bioeconomy will depend? And can it do so in a manner that supports rural communities, maintains biodiversity, and provides vital ecosystem services?
As a researcher interested in sustainable agriculture and industrial ecology, I found the first paper in the environmental subsection of part I particularly interesting, as it presents a useful framework for evaluating the environmental impact of bio-fuel use. This framework is intended to facilitate an integrated, holistic assessment of the impacts of increased biomass production, and thus lays out one approach to answering the questions posed above.
Ecologists and biologists are likely to be disappointed by the absence of articles addressing topics such as biodiversity in biomass agroecosystems, the impacts of biomass harvesting on soil fertility, or the agronomics of biomass crops. Engineering, business, and economic viewpoints are well represented in this collection, but there is little contribution evident from the natural sciences. A notable and welcome exception is an interesting article on the effects of bioenergy crops on farmland birds in the United Kingdom (the outlook is not good, particularly if bioenergy crops are grown on land with high wildlife value, such as arable lands left uncultivated under the European Union's set-aside program).
Readers interested in resource issues associated with biomass production for power, fuels, and chemicals will be disappointed that there is little discussion of future needs for biomass and of the potential to increase global agricultural production. However, the ninth chapter does present an insightful discussion of the possibilities and limits of bioenergy crops in Flemish agriculture. It examines conversion technologies, Flemish biomass production capacity, and energy demand, and concludes that from the standpoint of efficiency and bioenergy, crops are not very attractive in such a small, densely populated northern country. The chapter concludes that importing bioresources and products from countries with scale advantages makes sense for a country with so little open space. Energy conservation is also seen as desirable, because it saves the environment and open space—in other words, the greenest energy is that which is not used.
Although the environmental impacts of biomass production are not well understood, it is generally believed that in some dimensions (e.g., soil erosion, fertilizer and pesticide use), biomass crops are preferable to certain high-input commodity crops. What also seems clear is that in today's agricultural markets, the economic attractiveness of biomass products (as opposed to fossil fuel alternatives) depends critically on how the environmental costs and benefits are valued and reflected. Agricultural markets are distorted by government price supports and other agricultural subsidies, which may lead to underproduction of biomass crops. Bioproducts have their roots in agriculture, and so are naturally the subject of much policy interest.
The final section of this volume contains an interesting collection of chapters describing the biomass and bioenergy policies of different countries on several continents. For those who are interested in policy issues, this is a unique, valuable resource. Financial incentives are the most common policy instruments for stimulating biomass markets in OECD countries. Policies tend to focus on closing the gap between biomass and fossil fuels, with the implicit assumption that biofuels are desirable. Instead, greater efficiency gains could be achieved if policies focused on rewarding real environmental and economic benefits, thus creating an incentive for innovation and agricultural and product improvement. As noted in the executive summary, indirect production support for agricultural biomass feedstock also can lead to production, trade, and price distortions with respect to other food and raw material commodity materials.
Biomass and Agriculture: Sustainability, Markets, and Policies is a good introduction to the topic of biomass and agriculture, and could serve as a useful reference for those interested in current production and policy. The book is clearly organized around the topics of sustainability and policy. It provides descriptive information rather than predictive models about future biomass utilization and its impacts, and it may not explore agricultural sustainability issues in as much depth as some readers might hope. Nevertheless, I would recommend the book as a general introduction to biomass use with an international perspective.