Biofuel is not a magical elixir

There are more and more biofueled cars appearing on Bay Area roads, trailing behind them a bizarre, french fry smell.  I already knew that the demand for biofuel has the potential to drive up food costs at home and create food shortages abroad.  An Op-Ed at the International Herald Tribune indicates that, aside from taking food out of people’s mouths, biofuel may also not be as clean as the greenies dream:

Industrialized countries started the biofuels boom by demanding ambitious renewable-fuel targets. These fuels are to provide 5.75 percent of Europe’s transport power by 2010 and 10 percent by 2020. The United States wants 35 billion gallons a year.

These targets far exceed the agricultural capacities of the industrial North. Europe would need to plant 70 percent of its farmland with fuel crops. The entire corn and soy harvest of the United States would need to be processed as ethanol and biodiesel. Converting most arable land to fuel crops would destroy the food systems of the North, so the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development countries are looking to the South to meet demand.

***

Biofuel champions assure us that because fuel crops are renewable, they are environment-friendly, can reduce global warming and will foster rural development. But the tremendous market power of biofuel corporations, coupled with the poor political will of governments to regulate their activities, make this unlikely. We need a public enquiry into the myths:

Biofuels are clean and green.

Because photosynthesis performed by fuel crops removes greenhouse gases from the atmosphere and can reduce fossil fuel consumption, we are told they are green. But when the full lifecycle of biofuels is considered, from land clearing to consumption, the moderate emission savings are outweighed by far greater emissions from deforestation, burning, peat drainage, cultivation and soil-carbon losses.

Every ton of palm oil generates 33 tons of carbon dioxide emissions – 10 times more than petroleum. Tropical forests cleared for sugar cane ethanol emit 50 percent more greenhouse gases than the production and use of the same amount of gasoline.

Biofuels will not result in deforestation.

Proponents of biofuels argue that fuel crops planted on ecologically degraded lands will improve rather than destroy the environment. Perhaps the government of Brazil had this in mind when it reclassified some 200 million hectares of dry-tropical forests, grassland and marshes as degraded and apt for cultivation.

In reality, these are the biodiverse ecosystems of the Atlantic Forest, the Cerrado and the Pantanal, occupied by indigenous people, subsistence farmers and extensive cattle ranches. The introduction of agrofuel plantations will push these communities to the agricultural frontier of the Amazon where the devastating patterns of deforestation are well known.

Soybeans supply 40 percent of Brazil’s biofuels. NASA has correlated their market price with the destruction of the Amazon rainforest – currently at nearly 325,000 hectares a year.

Biofuels will bring rural development.

In the tropics, 100 hectares dedicated to family farming generates 35 jobs. Oil-palm and sugarcane provide 10 jobs, eucalyptus two, and soybeans a scant half-job per 100 hectares, all poorly paid.

Until recently, biofuels supplied primarily local and subregional markets. Even in the United States, most ethanol plants were small and farmer-owned. With the boom, big industry is moving in, centralizing operations and creating gargantuan economies of scale.

Biofuels producers will be dependent on a cabal of companies for their seed, inputs, services, processing and sale. They are not likely to receive many benefits. Small holders will be forced out of the market and off the land. Hundreds of thousands have already been displaced by the soybean plantations in the “Republic of Soy,” a 50-million hectare area in southern Brazil, northern Argentina, Paraguay and eastern Bolivia.

Read the rest of the problems with biofuels here.

One Response

  1. Ground was broken and construction has begun on what the newspapers here call the largest bio diesel plant in the country. The plant is about 30 miles from me. The exit on I80 has already been rebuilt to handle the heavy truck traffic that the plant will generate. This is about 60 miles from Chicago. Next to a customer my company services, an ethanol plant is being constructed. This is about 100 miles from Chicago. Also on I80 about 35 miles from the Quad Cities ( on the Iowa – Illinois border ) another ethanol plant is being constructed. The sign in front states that this plant will produce 100 million gallons annually. Right now there appears to be huge money in construction in the anticipation of huge returns. I do believe converting food crops into fuels will eventually cause a greater harm, specifically in greater food costs. Stay tuned. Women and children to be hardest hit.

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