The Great Biofuel Hoax


Richard Moore

Original source URL:

The Great Biofuel Hoax
By Eric Holt-Gimenez, Indypendent
Posted on June 25, 2007, Printed on June 25, 2007

For an alternative viewpoint on corn-based ethanol, read "David Morris's Give 
Ethanol a Chance: The Case for Corn-Based Fuel."

Biofuels invoke an image of renewable abundance that allows industry, 
politicians, the World Bank, the United Nations and even the Intergovernmental 
Panel on Climate Change to present fuel from corn, sugarcane, soy and other 
crops as a replacement for oil that will bring about a smooth transition to a 
renewablefuel economy.

Myths of abundance divert attention from powerful economic interests that 
benefit from this biofuels transition, avoiding discussion of the growing price 
that citizens of the global South are beginning to pay to maintain the 
consumptive oil-based lifestyle of the North. Biofuel mania obscures the 
profound consequences of the industrial transformation of our food and fuel 
systems -- the agro-fuels transition.

The Agro-fuels Boom

Industrialized countries have unleashed an "agro-fuels boom" by mandating 
ambitious renewable fuel targets. Renewable fuels are to provide 5.75 percent of
Europe's transport fuel by 2010, and 10 percent by 2020. The U.S. goal is 35 
billion gallons a year. These targets far exceed the agricultural capacities of 
the industrial North. Europe would need to use 70 percent of its farmland for 

The United States' entire corn and soy harvest would need to be processed as 
ethanol and biodiesel. Northern countries expect the global South to meet their 
fuel needs, and southern governments appear eager to oblige. Indonesia and 
Malaysia are rapidly cutting down forests to expand oil-palm plantations 
targeted to supply up to 20 percent of the European Union biodiesel market. In 
Brazil -- where fuel crops already occupy an area the size of the Netherlands, 
Belgium, Luxemburg and Great Britain combined -- the government is planning a 
fivefold increase in sugar cane acreage with a goal of replacing 10 percent of 
the world's gasoline by 2025.

The rapid capitalization and concentration of power within the agro-fuels 
industry is breathtaking. From 2004 to 2007, venture capital investment in 
agro-fuels increased eightfold. Private investment is swamping public research 
institutions, as evidenced by BP's recent award of half a billion dollars to the
University of California. In open defiance of national anti-trust laws, giant 
oil, grain, auto and genetic engineering corporations are forming powerful 
partnerships: ADM with Monsanto, Chevron and Volkswagen, BP with DuPont and 
Toyota. These corporations are consolidating research, production, processing 
and distribution chains of our food and fuel system under one colossal, 
industrial roof.

Agro-fuel champions assure us that because fuel crops are renewable, they are 
environmentally friendly and can reduce global warming, fostering rural 
development. But the tremendous market power of agro-fuel corporations, coupled 
with weak political will of governments to regulate their activities, is a 
recipe for environmental disaster and increasing hunger in the global South. 
It's time to examine the myths fueling this biofuel boom -- before it's too 

Myth #1: Agro-fuels are clean and green

Because photosynthesis from fuel crops removes greenhouse gases from the 
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. Clearing tropical 
forests for sugarcane ethanol emits 50 percent more greenhouse gases than the 
production and use of the same amount of gasoline.

There are other environmental problems as well. Industrial agro-fuels require 
large applications of petroleum-based fertilizers, whose global use 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 carbon dioxide.

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, increasing the likelihood that it 
will simply be released into the environment. Intensive cultivation of fuel 
crops also leads to high rates of erosion.

Myth #2: Agro-fuels will not result in deforestation

Proponents of agro-fuels 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 re-classified some 200 million hectares of 
dry tropical forests, grassland and marshes as "degraded" and apt for 
cultivation. In reality, these are the bio-diverse ecosystems of the Mata 
Atlantica, the Cerrado and the Pantanal, occupied by indigenous people, 
subsistence farmers and extensive cattle ranches.

The introduction of agro-fuel plantations will simply push these communities to 
the "agricultural frontier" of the Amazon where deforestation will intensify. 
Soybeans supply 40 percent of Brazil's biodiesel. NASA has positively correlated
their market price with the destruction of the Amazon rainforest -- currently at
nearly 325,000 hectares a year.

Myth #3: Agro-fuels 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 just one 
half-job per 100 hectares, all poorly paid. Until this boom, agro-fuels 
primarily supplied local markets, and even in the United States, most ethanol 
plants were small and farmer-owned. Big Oil, Big Grain and Big Genetic 
Engineering are rapidly consolidating control over the entire agro-fuel value 

The market power of these corporations is staggering: Cargill and ADM control 65
percent of the global grain trade, Monsanto and Syngenta a quarter of the $60 
billion gene-tech industry. This market power allows these companies to extract 
profits from the most lucrative and low-risk segments of the value chain -- 
hundreds of thousands of small farmers have already been displaced by soybean 
plantations in South America.

Myth #4: Agro-fuels will not cause hunger

Hunger, said Amartya Sen, results not from scarcity, but poverty. According to 
the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, there is enough food in the world to
supply everyone with a daily 3,500-calorie diet of grains, fresh fruit, nuts, 
vegetables, dairy and meat.

Nonetheless, because they are poor, 824 million people continue to go hungry. If
current trends continue, some 1.2 billion people could be chronically hungry by 
2025 -- 600 million more than previously predicted. World food aid will not 
likely come to the rescue because surpluses will go into our gas tanks. What is 
urgently needed is massive transfers of food-producing resources to the rural 
poor, not converting land to fuel production.

Myth #5: Better "second-generation" agrofuels are just around the corner

Proponents of agro-fuels argue that current agro-fuels made from food crops will
soon be replaced with environmentally friendly crops like fast-growing trees and
switchgrass. This myth, wryly referred to as the "bait and switchgrass" shell 
game, makes food-based fuels socially acceptable.

The agro-fuel transition transforms land use on a massive scale, 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." 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.

Agro-fuel: a new industrial revolution?

The International Energy Agency estimates that over the next 23 years, the world
could produce as much as 147 million tons of agro-fuel. This will be accompanied
by a lot of carbon, nitrous oxide, erosion and more than two billion tons of 
waste water. Remarkably, this fuel will barely offset the yearly increase in 
global oil demand, now standing at 136 million tons a year -- not offsetting any
of the existing demand.

The agro-fuel transition is based on a 200-year relation between agriculture and
industry that began with the Industrial Revolution. The invention of the steam 
engine promised an end to drudgery. As governments privatized common lands, 
dispossessed peasants supplied cheap farm and factory labor. Cheap oil and 
petroleum- based fertilizers opened up agriculture itself to industrial capital.

Mechanization intensified production, keeping food prices low and industry 
booming. The last 100 years have seen a threefold global shift to urban living 
with as many people now living in cities as in the countryside. 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," transforming most of the world's fuel and food systems and 
establishing non-renewable petroleum as the foundation of today's 
multi-trilliondollar agri-foods industry.

The pillars of this agri-foods industry are the great grain corporations, 
including ADM, Cargill and Bunge. They are surrounded by an equally formidable 
consolidation of agro-chemical, seed and machinery companies on the one hand and
food processors, distributors and supermarket chains on the other.

Like the original agrarian transition, the present agro-fuels transition will 
"enclose the commons" by industrializing the remaining forests and prairies of 
the world. It will drive the planet's remaining smallholders, family farmers and
indigenous peoples to the cities. This government-industry collusion has the 
potential to funnel rural resources to urban centers in the form of fuel, 
concentrating industrial wealth. But this time, there is no cheap fuel to drive 
industrial expansion and there will be no jobs for the masses of people 
displaced from the countryside. Millions of people may be pushed farther into 

Building Food and Fuel Sovereignty

The agro-fuels transition is not inevitable. There is no inherent reason to 
sacrifice sustainable, equitable food and fuel systems to industry. Many 
successful, locally focused, energyefficient and people-centered alternatives 
are presently producing food and fuel in ways that do not threaten food systems,
the environment or livelihoods.

The question is not whether ethanol and biodiesel have a place in our future, 
but whether or not we allow a handful of global corporations to impoverish the 
planet and the majority of its people. To avoid this trap we must promote a 
steady-state agrarian transition built on re-distributive land reform that 
re-populates and stabilizes the world's struggling rural communities. This 
includes rebuilding and strengthening our local food systems and creating 
conditions for the local re-investment of rural wealth. Putting people and 
environment -- instead of corporate megaprofits -- at the center of rural 
development requires food sovereignty: the right of people to determine their 
own food systems.

Eric Holt-Giménez is the executive director of Food First/Institute for Food and
Development Policy,

© 2007 Independent Media Institute. All rights reserved.

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