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. http://agrofuelsafrica.com/index.htm