Biofuels. The term invokes a life-giving image of renewability and abundance—a clean, green, sustainable assurance in technology and the power of progress. This image allows industry, politicians, the World Bank, the United Nations, and even the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to present fuels made from corn, sugarcane, soy and other crops as the next step in a smooth transition from peak oil to a yet-to-be-defined renewable fuel economy. Drawing its power from a cluster of simple cornucopian myths, “biofuels” directs our attention away from the powerful economic interests that benefit from this transition. It avoids discussion of the growing North-South food and energy imbalance. More fundamentally, it obscures the political-economic relationships between land, people, resources and food. By showing us only one side, “biofuels” fails to help us understand the profound consequences of the industrial transformation of our food and fuel systems—The Agro-fuels Transition.

Because photosynthesis from fuel crops removes green house gases from atmosphere and can reduce fossil fuel consumption, we are told fuel crops are green. But when the full “life cycle” of agro-fuels is considered—from land clearing to automotive consumption—the moderate emission savings are undone by far greater emissions from deforestation, burning, peat drainage, cultivation, and soil carbon losses. Every ton of palm oil produced results in 33 tons of carbon dioxide emissions—10 times more than petroleum. Tropical forests cleared for sugar cane ethanol emit 50 percent more greenhouse gasses than the production and use of the same amount of gasoline. Commenting on the global carbon balance, Doug Parr, chief UK scientist at Greenpeace states flatly, “If even five percent of biofuels are sourced from wiping out existing ancient forests, you’ve lost all your carbon gain.”

Fertilizers are another problem. We now use globally over 45 million tons per year through agro-fuel industry. They’re petroleum based and has more than doubled the biologically available nitrogen in the world, contributing heavily to the emission of nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas 300 times more potent than CO². In the tropics, where more and more of our food being grown, fertilizer has 10-100 times the impact on global warming compared to temperate soil applications. To produce a liter of ethanol takes three to five liters of irrigation water and produces up to 13 liters of waste water. It takes the energy equivalent of 113 liters of natural gas to treat this waste and increases the likelihood that it will simply be released into the environment to pollute streams, rivers and groundwater. Intensive cultivation of fuel crops also leads to high rates of erosion, particularly in soy production—from 6.5 tons/hectare in the U.S. to up to 12 tons/hectare in Brazil and Argentina.

According to the FAO, there is enough food in the world to supply everyone with a daily 3,200-calorie diet of fresh fruit, nuts, vegetables, dairy and meat.

And actually, something else that I learned, although it’s not completely related to biofuels is that industrialized and developing countries actually waste about the same amount of food which around 670 and 630 million tons. The difference is at what level in the food supply chain the waste occurs. For industrialized countries, a lot of waste is at the retail and consumer level. Translation: people and stores throwing it away because it’s not pretty enough. It’s still perfectly edible, but not perfect enough.  In developing countries it’s mostly at the postharvest and processing level. Translation: Stores and people are tossing perfectly edible food, versus food spoiling before it even gets to the store due to limitations in transit/storage/processing.

Nonetheless, because they are poor, 824 million people continue to go hungry because food and fuel crops are competing over land and resources, high food prices may actually push up fuel prices. Both increase the prices of land and water.

They’re discussing replacing present agro-fuels made from food crops with ‘environmentally-friendly’ crops like fast-growing trees and switchgrass.

The agro-fuel transition transforms land use on massive scales, pitting food production against fuel production for land, water and resources. The issue of which crops are converted to fuel is irrelevant. Wild plants cultivated as fuel crops won’t have a smaller “environmental footprint” because commercialization will transform their ecology. They will rapidly migrate from hedgerows and woodlots onto arable lands to be intensively cultivated like any other industrial crop—with all the associated environmental externalities.

By genetically engineering plants with less lignin and cellulose, the industry aims to produce cellulosic agro-fuel crops that break down easily to liberate sugars, especially fast-growing trees. Trees are perennial and spread pollen father than food crops. Cellulosic candidates miscanthus, switch grass, and canary grass, are invasive species. Given the demonstrated promiscuity of genetically-engineered crops, we can expect massive genetic contamination. Monsanto and Syngenta will be quite pleased. Agro-fuels will serve as their genetic Trojan horse, allowing them to fully colonize both our fuel and food systems.

The relation between agriculture and industry that began with the Industrial Revolution. The industry’s take-off lagged until governments privatized common lands, driving the poorest peasants out of agriculture and into urban factories. Peasant agriculture effectively subsidized industry with both cheap food and cheap labor. Over the next 100 years, as industry grew, so did the urban percentage of the world’s population: from 3% to 13%. Cheap oil and petroleum-based fertilizers opened up agriculture itself to industrial capital which lead to mechanization intensified production, keeping food prices low and industry booming. The next hundred years saw a three-fold global shift to urban living. The massive transfer of wealth from agriculture to industry, the industrialization of agriculture, and the rural-urban shift are all part of the “Agrarian Transition,” the lesser-known twin of the Industrial Revolution. The Agrarian/Industrial twins transformed most of the world’s fuel and food systems and established non-renewable petroleum as the foundation of today’s multi-trillion dollar agri-foods complex.

Agro-fuels lead us to overdraw. “Renewable” does not mean “limitless.” Even if crops can be replanted, land, water, and nutrients are limiting. Pretending otherwise serves the interests of those monopolizing those resources.

At first glance, like many alternative fuels, it may seem like a pretty reasonable answer for instance that it is an alternative for an insecure and exhaustible supply of fossil fuel. This may be true, but it replaces and insecure and exhaustible source for another.

Agrofuel production can reduce the dependency of developing countries on expensive import of fossil fuels, and improve their trade balance. This may be true, but at what cost. Most of these are raised in what used to be forests. Trees are much better for the land and the environment than just regular plants.

The feedstock used to make agrofuels is renewable – fresh supplies can be produced as needed. In theory, therefore, there is an unlimited and secure supply. In theory, yes, but eventually the nutrients will be gone, the water will harder to get, so on and so forth.

I could go on and on, but I think we’re getting the picture.

Back in 2008, Africa started a ‘sustainable’ biofuel crop growing program. “Agrofuels Africa ensures that its production of biofuel will have a positive effect on the greenhouse gas reduction, that the production will not affect protected or vulnerable areas, that no excessive use of water resources will be made, that the quality of soil, surface, ground water, and air will be retained, and that the food security situation of the local communities will improve.” This site is pretty simple. It doesn’t have any records or ways that they’re making sure nothing damaging happens.

Palm Oil 2

Yesterday I said today that I would be giving solutions, but it turns out that I have solutions and some more problems. So sorry about.

I found a company called GreenPalm. It says this on their website:

GreenPalm is a company set up to promote the production of sustainable palm oil. It operates a certificate trading system. Palm oil producers who have invested in sustainable practices can earn extra revenue by selling GreenPalm certificates. By buying the certificates, retailers, food companies and other end users are actively supporting and encouraging sustainable palm oil production.

How does GreenPalm work to protect the environment?

GreenPalm is a completely new approach to tackling the problems caused by a complex international industry. A straightforward, flexible and easily implemented system, it will start driving improvements immediately.

Supported by RSPO, GreenPalm guarantees a financial premium to producers who can prove they are environmentally and socially responsible, who are not destroying primary forest, and who develop plans to continually improve their operations. And because it works through the existing supply chain, it safeguards millions of palm oil jobs in some of the world’s poorer regions.

GreenPalm’s ultimate aim is to put itself out of business by ensuring all the world’s palm oil supplies are sustainable. But in the future this innovative and simple system could be adapted to help other global businesses towards sustainability.” This link will also take you to their certified organizations. This association is based in the UK, so I’m not sure is any of their products are sold in the U.S. I didn’t recognize any of the names.

GreenPalm is endorsed by RSPO(Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil). It’s a not-for-profit association that unites stakeholders from seven sectors of the palm oil industry – oil palm producers, palm oil processors or traders, consumer goods manufacturers, retailers, banks and investors, environmental or nature conservation NGOs and social or developmental NGOs – to develop and implement global standards for sustainable palm oil.

There is a difference between a membership and being certified or registered.

“Step 1 is membership of the RSPO. By becoming a member, a company pledges to work towards producing or using only certified sustainable palm oil, which takes time. Many companies have said they will get there by 2015, but all of those pledges together require far more certified sustainable palm oil than what can now be supplied. So today, only part of their palm oil is certified as sustainable.

Step 2 is the final step: certification of (all) palm oil production or processes in the palm oil supply chain. Certification involves visits by third-party auditors who check units of the company against all the RSPO criteria. Only companies that pass this test can sell RSPO-certified palm oil or other palm products.”

Approximately 60% of the palm oil we consume has been further processed into a palm oil ‘derivative’ ‘split’ or fractionated into palm oil derivatives; before it is incorporated into the products we buy from the supermarket.

Another 20% is processed for the second time.

The problem isn’t with the palm oil itself. It’s how and where it’s produced. In order to make enough, thousands of miles of rainforests need to be cleared out. It destroys habitats and the biodiversity that forests are known for. According to (which promotes palm oil and is not an environmental advocate)

“60% of Malaysia’s land mass consists of forests, including some of the world’s oldest virgin forests. Only 20% of Malaysia’s land mass is under agricultural cultivation, with less than 2/3 of that dedicated to oil palm plantations. Moreover, the expansion of plantations has only utilized lands formerly used to grow rubber, cocoa or coconut, rather than forest land.”

Now, the reason I pointed out that this organization isn’t an environmental advocate is because I think it makes a difference in how you see those numbers. Two-thirds is HUGE to me. All those habitats lost, all those unique diversity we are lost when we will NEVER get it back, that is a big deal to me. And although, I don’t quite understand why it isn’t to everybody else, I guess when all you’re thinking about is how you’re going to cut down all those trees, so that you can sell something and make a lot of money. But I see it as when it’s gone, it’s gone.

The next problem is soil erosion. Not only does erosion occur during forest clearing and plantation establishment when the soil is left uncovered.

Erosion is also emphasized by planting trees in rows up and down hillsides rather than on contours around them, by not properly siting or constructing infrastructure such as roads, and by establishing plantations and infrastructure on slopes of more than 15 degrees.

Erosion causes increased flooding because erosion usually wears down the subsurface drainage systems.

Soil quality, structure, stability and texture can be affected by the loss of soil. The breakdown of aggregates and the removal of smaller particles or entire layers of soil or organic matter can weaken the structure and even change the texture. Textural changes can in turn affect the water-holding capacity of the soil, making it more susceptible to extreme condition such a drought.

Smoke Pollution from fire is another problem. This is pretty straightforward. The haze produced by the fires posed serious health problems to plantations workers and people throughout Southeast Asia.
Such haze can also reduce the productivity of oil palm trees and reduce the activity of pollinating weevils. In addition to air pollution, burning of forests releases CO2 to the atmosphere and so contributes to climate change.

For every metric ton of palm oil produced, 2.5 metric ton of effluent are generated from processing the palm oil in mills. Direct release of this effluent can cause freshwater pollution, which can affect downstream biodiversity and people.

If you google palm oil, there is no doubt that articles will be popping up about the health benefits of palm oil. There are both good and bad arguments from both conservationists and health nuts. Do your research and believe what you want, just believe it sustainably. Here is a nice U.S. list of companies who are members of the RSPO Company and different food and non-food products.

There is always more you can do to help.

Write a letter to various companies and congress people to try and convince them to do the right thing. The link above provides sample letters and various places to send the letters.

If you decide that palm-oil isn’t for you then there is a way to do that too. Vegetable oils are mostly in processed foods. Stick with mostly fruits and vegetables, a little meat and dairy if you must and you should be good. It’s a little harder to know about non-food items. Here is a nice list to help you with that. It talks about different names that palm oil is labeled under and what products don’t have it. It’s very informative.

Palm Oil 1

Palm oil is something I’ve read about recently. Apparently it’s in everything. Food products, cosmetics, soaps and detergents. Everything. It’s one of the main ingredients in biofuel. When people are talking about problems with biofuel, it’s really the problem with palm oil. Why is it bad? Well, rainforests are hotspots of biodiversity. They house thousands of different kinds of species. When the trees are cut down those species lose their homes. The loss of shelter often causes those species to go extinct. Not only do we have the animals to worry about, but we have our health to take into account. The trees filter huge amounts of carbon from the atmosphere.

Agribusiness companies are rapidly expanding fuel crop plantations into the Amazon Rainforest and other diverse tropical ecosystems throughout South America, Southeast Asia, the Pacific and Africa. Palm oil expansion is the primary cause of deforestation in Indonesia, where forests are disappearing at a rate of more than 2.8 million hectares a year.

Industrial agrofuel production requires dedicating huge swaths of land to fuel production and drives up the price of basic food crops as food production competes against fuel production for land, water, and market resources. This land that people claim we don’t have enough room for grass-fed beef, windmill farms, or actual fruits and vegetables that aren’t corn or soy.

  • Even if all cropland in the U.S. were used to grow corn and all the corn were used to make ethanol, we would not produce enough ethanol to replace our over-consumption of gasoline.
  • Every ton of palm oil produced results in 33 tons of carbon dioxide emissions—10 times more per ton than petroleum.
  • The corn required to make enough ethanol to fill a 25-gallon SUV tank could feed one person for a year.

A new U.S. government regulation requires that, by January 1, 2006, food labels list a product’s content of trans fat, which comes from partially hydrogenated vegetable oil and is a major cause of heart disease. Many food processors are seeking to eliminate trans fat by switching to other oils. Palm oil is one such alternative.

Palm oil is used around the world in such foods as margarine, shortening, baked goods, and candies. Biomedical research indicates that palm oil, which is high in saturated fat and low in polyunsaturated fat, promotes heart disease. Though less harmful than partially hydrogenated vegetable oil, it is far more conducive to heart disease than such heart-protective liquid oils as olive and canola. The National

Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, World Health Organization, and other health authorities have urged reduced consumption of oils like palm oil.

Malaysia and Indonesia account for 83 percent of production and 89 percent of global exports. Oil palm is grown as an industrial plantation crop, often (especially in Indonesia) on newly cleared rainforest or peat-swamp forests rather than on already degraded land or disused agricultural land. Since the 1970s, the area planted with oil palm in Indonesia has grown over 30-fold to almost 12,000 square miles. In Malaysia, the area devoted to oil palm has increased 12-fold to 13,500 square miles.

Of the more than 400 land mammal species of Indonesia, 15 are critically endangered and another

125 threatened. Of Malaysia’s nearly 300 land mammal species, 6 are critically endangered and 41 threatened. The numbers of threatened species climb higher when terrestrial reptiles, amphibians, and birds are included.

Plantations also pollute the soil and water with pesticides and untreated palm oil-mill effluent, cause soil erosion and increased sedimentation in rivers, and cause air pollution due to forest fires.

Solutions coming tomorrow.

Deforestation: Part 3

Part one was about the causes, Part two was about the consequences and three is about the solutions.

The quickest solution to deforestation would be to simply stop cutting down trees. Though deforestation rates have slowed a bit in recent years, financial realities make this unlikely to occur.

A more workable solution is to carefully manage forest resources by eliminating clear-cutting to make sure that forest environments remain intact. The cutting that does occur should be balanced by the planting of enough young trees to replace the older ones felled in any given forest. The number of new tree plantations is growing each year, but their total still equals a tiny fraction of the Earth’s forested land.

Like I said earlier, two of the largest exporters of their forests are working with the U.S. to come up with a plan, but is that really enough? If the demand is still going to be then there will still be a problem. Some other country is just going to step in and fill those shoes.

So, what are we to do about it?

Recycle for one. There are limitations for recycling paper, but some is better than none.

Limiting your use of paper is the best thing you can do. Here are some tips.

  1. Plant a tree- Pretty straight forward right.
  2. Go paperless.
  3. Recycle and buy recycled products.
  4. Look for Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certification on wood and wood products.
  5. Eat vegetarian meals as often as possible- meat takes of space and if we eat factory farm meat then they take up twice as much space because instead of eating the grass, we feed them corn and wheat, so we need the additional space for that. If nothing else, eat locally as much as possible.
  6. Think before you print. If there is any way that you can reduce the amount of paper that it takes to make your copies than do it. Use both sides, ask if you could split the paper and print the information on the bottom half and top half.
  7. Just try to reduce your involvement by not participating in anything that is on the cause of deforestation list.
  8. Reduce your use of palm oil. I’ve just recently heard about this, so I can tell you just a little, but I plan to write about it soon. Palm oil comes from the fruits of the palm oil trees. The problem isn’t the oil itself, but the plantations that are needed to process it. They’re located near the Palm oil trees which are in numerous forests and require a great amout of deforestation in order to be located there. When farmers illegally clear land to make way for palm oil plantations, they often end up destroying natural peat-lands that have been storing carbon dioxide for centuries. When disturbed, the peat releases the carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, which along with factors such as global transportation, means that the palm oil trade is responsible for up to 10% of the world’s total greenhouse gas emissions. This palm oil is supposedly in one out of ten products located on the supermarket’s shelves. It is also commonly reported as ‘vegetable oil.’ Here is a link to a list of products that use palm oil- and

Deforestation: Part 1

First, this will be a subject divided up into three posts. Today is the subject itself and the causes, tomorrow the problem and tomorrow’s tomorrow will be the solutions.

And second, I was filled up to my eyeballs with information on this subject. The only easy part of this research was that all the sources seem to agree that deforestation is a problem.

Deforestation is defined as clearing Earth’s forests on a massive scale, often resulting in damage to the quality of the land.

Far too little attention has been paid to the role tropical deforestation has in warming the planet. It accounts for 17% of global emissions – more than all the world’s cars, trucks, planes, trains and ships combined.

Forests still cover about 30 percent of the world’s land area, but the world’s rain forests could completely vanish in a hundred years at the current rate of deforestation.

Who do we have to thank for this disaster? Ourselves of course.

The biggest driver of deforestation is agriculture. Farmers cut forests to provide more room for planting crops or grazing livestock. Forests are also cut as a result of growing urban sprawl.

Logging operations, which provide the world’s wood and paper products, also cut countless trees each year. Loggers, some of them acting illegally, also build roads to access more and more remote forests—which lead to further deforestation. Some is caused by a combination of human and natural factors like wildfires and subsequent overgrazing, which may prevent the growth of young trees.

Droughts and forest fires are expected to increase due to climate change. Forest fires can be a normal part of forests – they clear dense brush and are part of some species’ lifecycle. However, forests over stressed by human activity and drought can also devastate them. There are already indications that the Amazon is drying out, which could lead to a dangerous feedback of fires and desertification.

Invasive insect species may also damage forest health. Insects play a role in boreal ecology – they decompose litter, supply food for birds and small animals, and eliminate diseased trees. But insect attacks are likely to increase in frequency and intensity as established forests succumb to the physiological stress associated with warmer, drier conditions. As the Arctic warms, some invasive insect species, which the colder climate normally helps hold in check, are already increasing in population.

Hydroelectric dams are quite controversial because while they help to power communities, they also contribute to deforestation. To build a hydroelectric dam, acres of land must be flooded, which causes decomposition and release of greenhouse gases. Local people can also be displaced by dam projects, causing further deforestation when these people resettle elsewhere.

Mining also results in deforestation. Digging a coal, diamond or gold mine requires the removal of all forest cover, not just for the mines but also for trucks and equipment. Recently, Venezuela denied a corporation called Crystallex permission to dig a mine because of environmental concerns. Way to Venezuela!

Palm oil is potential candidate to be used as a biofuel and is used in many packaged foods and beauty products. But palm oil is another cause of deforestation. Its rising prices make it more valuable, and, in response, Indonesian and Malaysian farmers destroy acres of trees to harvest it. For this reason, several countries are currently debating a ban on palm oil as a biofuel.

According to the World Resources Institute, more than 80 percent of the Earth’s natural forests already have been destroyed. Up to 90 percent of West Africa’s coastal rain forests have disappeared since 1900. Brazil and Indonesia, which contain the world’s two largest surviving regions of rain forest, are being stripped at an alarming rate by logging, fires, and land-clearing for agriculture and cattle-grazing. Brazil has established a goal of reducing emissions from the Amazon by 80% by 2020 and is already making impressive progress in that direction, including robust monitoring and verification systems. Indonesia is moving in a similar direction. These efforts could be focused, honed and replicated globally.