The term “biofuels” suggests renewable abundance: clean, green, sustainable assurance about technology and progress. This pure image allows industry, politicians, the World Bank, the United Nations and even the International Panel on Climate Change to present fuels made from corn, sugar cane, soy and other crops as the next step in a smooth transition from peak oil to a yet-to-be-defined renewable fuel economy.
But in reality, biofuel draws its power from cornucopian myths and directs attention away from economic interests that would benefit from the transition, while avoiding discussion of the growing North-South food and energy imbalance.
They obscure the political-economic relationships between land, people, resources and food, and fail to help us understand the profound consequences of the industrial transformation of our food and fuel systems. “Agro-fuels” better describes the industrial interests behind the transformation.
Industrialized nations started the biofuels boom by demanding ambitious renewable-fuel targets. These targets far exceed the agricultural capacities of the industrial North. Europe would need to plant 70% of its farmland with fuel crops. The entire corn and soy harvest of the US 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 (OECD) countries are looking to the South to meet demand.
The rapid capitalization and concentration of power within the biofuels industry is extreme. Over the past three years, venture capital investment in biofuels has increased by 800%. Private investment is swamping public research institutions.
Behind the scenes, under the noses of most national antitrust laws, giant oil, grain, auto and genetic engineering corporations are forming partnerships, and they are consolidating the research, production, processing and distribution chains of food and fuel systems under one industrial roof.
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:
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 life cycle 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 tonne of palm oil generates 33 tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions—10 times more than petroleum. Tropical forests cleared for sugar cane ethanol emit 50% more greenhouse gases than the production and use of the same amount of petrol.
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 agro-fuel plantations will push these communities to the agricultural frontier of the Amazon where the devastating patterns of deforestation are well known.
In the tropics, 100 hectares dedicated to family farming generates 35 jobs. Oil-palm and sugar cane provide 10 jobs, eucalyptus two, and soybeans a scant half job per 100 hectares, all poorly paid. Until recently, biofuels supplied primarily local and sub-regional markets. Now big industry is moving in, centralizing operations and creating huge 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.
Hunger results not from scarcity, but poverty. The world’s poorest already spend 50-80% of household income on food. They suffer when high fuel prices push up food prices. Now, because food and fuel crops compete for land and resources, both increase the price of land and water. The International Food Policy Research Institute has estimated that the price of basic staples will increase 20-33% by 2010 and 26-135% by 2020. Caloric consumption declines as price rises by a ratio of 1:2.
Limits must be placed on the biofuels industry. The North cannot shift the burden of overconsumption to the South because the tropics have more sunlight, rain and arable land. If biofuels are to be forest- and food-friendly, the industry need to be regulated, and not piecemeal.
Strong, enforceable standards based on limiting land planted for biofuels are urgently needed, as are antitrust laws powerful enough to prevent the corporate concentration of market power in the industry. Sustainable benefits to the countryside will only accrue if biofuels are a complement to plans for sustainable rural development, not the centrepiece.
A global moratorium on the expansion of biofuels is needed to develop regulatory structures and foster conservation and development alternatives to the transition. We need the time to make a better transition to food and fuel sovereignty.