Under the pressure of soaring oil prices and growing environmental constraints, momentum is gathering for a major international switch from fossil fuels to renewable bioenergy, according to FAO, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization.

“The gradual move away from oil has begun. Over the next 15 to 20 years we may see biofuels providing a full 25 percent of the world’s energy needs,” Alexander Müller, the new Assistant Director-General for the Sustainable Development Department of FAO said here.

Factors pushing for such a momentous change in the world energy market include environmental constraints – increased global warming and the Kyoto Protocol’s curbs on emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gasses – and a growing perception by governments of the risks of dependence on oil.

“Oil at more than 70 dollars a barrel makes bioenergy potentially more competitive”, Müller said.

“Also, in the last decade global environmental concerns and energy consumption patterns have built up pressure to introduce more renewable energy into national energy plans and to reduce reliance on fossil fuels.”

His view is shared by a growing number of investors, including Bill Gates, who recently decided to finance a US ethanol company to the tune of US$84 million. Other new entries in the field are a French company hitherto better known for making Foie Gras, and Hungary, which plans to turn one million ha of farmland over to biofuel crops in the next few years. FAO’s interest in bioenergy stems from the positive impact which energy crops are expected to have on rural economies and from the opportunity offered countries to diversify their energy sources.

“At the very least it could mean a new lease of life for commodities such as sugar whose international prices have plummeted,” noted Gustavo Best, FAO’s Senior Energy Coordinator.