Seven Closing Arguments on Biofuels

There’s a persistent dream that if we just brew enough biofuels we can continue living the way we do – commuting 50 miles to work each day, flying strawberries in from Argentina in January, and driving a warehouse on wheels to lower prices. The dream is getting harder to sustain, especially in regard to the biofuels portion of it.

I’ve argued before that biofuels should be viewed as an energy transport method, not an energy source. The amount of energy you get from it is about the same amount as you put into the process to make it. (This is not counting the Government’s new Fuels from Sunlight initiative.) We should definitely develop biofuels as a niche energy form for energy-intensive applications (we won’t have an aviation industry without it). But as a “green” replacement for gasoline? Not so much.

The case against biofuels just keeps growing. Biofuels have been identified with raising food prices, felling rainforests, boosting greenhouse gases, culling biodiversity, and deepening hunger in food-insecure nations.

  • As Joel Smith reported in the PCC Sound Consumer, the newsletter of Puget Consumers Cooperative in Seattle, WA, that when Congress investigated the upward spiral of food prices in 2007, the International Food Policy Research Institute argued biofuel production may have driven up grain prices as much as 30 percent from 2000-2007.
  • Organizations such as Oxfam International and the United Nations (U.N.) claim prices are up 40 percent, pricing food-relief agencies out of the market and diminishing stocks of surplus food supplies.
  • Jean Ziegler, U.N. independent expert on the Right to Food, called for a five-year moratorium on biofuel production, hoping researchers will develop fuels from agricultural byproducts rather than food itself.
  • According to the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), biofuel production is forcing the conversion of pastureland into crops, redefining global culture and ecology. Roughly 80 percent of global agricultural land was in pasture in 2008, says the FAO — 26 percent of the “ice-free terrestrial surface of the planet” — but biofuel cropland is increasing steadily.
  • Annie Shattuck, a policy analyst at the Institute for Food and Development Policy in Oakland, Calif., says biofuels are concentrating land ownership in developing nations and driving small farmers into landlessness and poverty. She cites as examples the recent “acquisition” of 9,500 hectares of farmland by the Phnom Penh Sugar Company in Cambodia to grow feedstock for ethanol production. The Cambodian government awarded the land — previously held by 12 farmers — to the company, rendering the farmers homeless and landless.
  • In Australia, monoculture eucalyptus plantations, grown for cellulosic ethanol, have supplanted native forests.
  • The Orangutan Conservancy argues that the palm oil industry now outranks poachers in Indonesia as the greatest threat to the orangutan’s survival. The United Nations Environment Programme estimates that due in part to biofuels production, 98 percent of Indonesia’s rainforests will be razed by 2022 at the current rate of deforestation, and the orangutan likely will go with them.

“Biofuels absolutely are a threat to hunger,” Shattuck explains, “but it’s not as direct a relationship as many people have argued. What we’re seeing is a dramatic shift in land ownership from investors buying up enormous tracts of land for biofuel production. We call them green deserts.”

Photo Credit: Flickr

Paul Birkeland lives in Seattle, WA, US, and develops Strategic Energy Management Systems for government, commercial, and industrial organizations through Integrated Renewable Energy.