Biofuels: myths of the transition from agro-fuels

Biofuels: myths of the transition from agro-fuels

By Eric Holt-Giménez

Advocates of agrofuels assure us that because crops are renewable, agrofuels are environmentally friendly, can reduce global warming and promote rural development. But the tremendous market power of global agrofuel corporations, coupled with the weak political will of governments to regulate their activities, is the recipe for environmental disaster and increased hunger in the South.

Biofuels evoke 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 fuels produced from corn, sugar cane, soybeans and other crops as a smooth transition from the top of an oil economy to one based on renewable fuels. Myths about abundance divert attention away from the powerful economic interests that benefit from this transition, avoiding discussion about the rising price that citizens of the South are beginning to pay to maintain the consumerist lifestyle of the oil-based North. . The obsession with biofuels obscures the profound consequences of the processing industry for our food and energy systems.

The agro-fuels boom

Industrialized countries have led to an "agrofuel boom" through the proclamation of ambitious goals on renewable fuels. Renewable fuels should provide 5.75% of Europe's transportation fuel until 2010; and 10% by 2020. The United States' goal is to reach 35 billion gallons per year (approximately 132 billion liters per year). These goals significantly exceed the agricultural capacity of the industrialized North. Under this context, Europe would need to allocate 70% of its agricultural land to the production of crops for the production of agro-fuels. The entire corn and soybean crop in the United States would need to be processed into ethanol and biodiesel. Northern countries expect Southern countries to meet their fuel requirements, and their governments seem eager to comply. Indonesia and Malaysia are rapidly deforesting their forests to expand oil palm plantations destined to supply 20% of the European Union bio-diesel market. In Brazil - where crops for the production of agrofuels already occupy an area similar to the combined area of ​​the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg and Great Britain - the government is planning to increase the area dedicated to the production of fuel by five times. sugarcane in order to replace 10% of the world's gasoline by 2025.

The rapid capitalization and concentration of power within the agrofuel industry is staggering. From 2004 to 2007, the capital invested in agro-fuels has increased eight times. Private investment is invading public research institutions, as evidenced by the half billion dollars that the British Petroleum Company (BP) awarded to the University of California. In open defiance of national antitrust laws, giant oil, grain, vehicle, and genetic engineering corporations are forming powerful alliances: ADM with Monsanto; Chevron and Volkswagen; also BP with DuPont and Toyota. These corporations are consolidating the research, production, processing and distribution channels of our food and fuel supply systems under a colossal industrial roof.

Advocates of agrofuels assure us that because crops are renewable, agrofuels are environmentally friendly, can reduce global warming and promote rural development. But the tremendous market power of global agrofuel corporations, coupled with the weak political will of governments to regulate their activities, is the recipe for environmental disaster and increased hunger in the South. It's time to analyze the myths that fuel this agrofuel boom - before it's too late.

Myth # 1: Agrofuels are clean and "green"

Because the photosynthesis of crops for fuel production removes greenhouse gases from the atmosphere and can reduce the consumption of fossil fuels, we have been informed that crops for fuel production are "green". However, when the complete life cycle of agro-fuels is considered - from land adaptation and preparation to vehicle consumption - the moderate savings in greenhouse gas emissions are widely outweighed by a much higher emission originating from deforestation, burning, peat drainage, cultivation, and loss of soil carbon. Every ton of oil palm produced results in 33 tons of carbon dioxide emission - 10 times more than oil. [1] Tropical forests replaced by sugar cane for ethanol production emit 50% more greenhouse gases than the production and use of similar amounts of gasoline. [2] Regarding the global carbon balance, Doug Parr, English scientist at Greenpeace categorically states: "Even if five percent of biofuels are generated from the destruction of existing ancient forests, all the carbon gain is lost."

There are other environmental problems as well. Industrial agro-fuels require extensive applications of petrochemical fertilizers, whose global use - currently at a rate of 45 million tons per year - has more than twice the biological availability of nitrogen in the world, contributing intensely to the emission of oxide nitrous, a greenhouse gas 300 times more powerful than carbon dioxide (CO2). In the tropics - where most of the world's agrofuels will be grown soon - chemical fertilizers have 10 to 100 times the impact on global warming compared to applications in soils in temperate climates. [3] The production of one liter of ethanol requires three to five liters of irrigation water and generates up to 13 liters of wastewater. It requires an energy equivalent to 113 liters of natural gas to treat said waste, increasing its requirements successively in such a way that it will simply be released into the environment and will pollute water currents, rivers and groundwater. [4] The intensive cultivation of crops for agro-fuels will also lead to high levels of erosion, particularly in soybean production - from 6.5 tons per hectare in the United States to 12 tons per hectare in Brazil and Argentina.

Myth # 2: Agrofuels will not result in deforestation

Proponents of agrofuels argue that crops for their production planted on ecologically degraded soils will improve, rather than destroy, the environment. Perhaps the Brazilian government has this in mind to re-classify approximately 200 million hectares of tropical dry forests, grasslands and wetlands as "degraded areas" and suitable for the production of agro-fuels. [5] In reality, these are biodiverse ecosystems of the Mata Atlântica, the Cerrado and the Pantanal, occupied by indigenous populations, subsistence farmers and extensive livestock production farms. The introduction of agro-fuel plantations will simply drive these communities towards the agricultural frontier of the Amazon, where deforestation will be intensified. Soy supplies 40% of Brazil's biodiesel. NASA has positively correlated its market price with the destruction of the Amazon rainforest - currently about 325 thousand hectares per year. The so-called “Diesel from deforestation”, oil palm plantations for bio-diesel is the leading cause of forest loss in Indonesia, a country with one of the highest rates of deforestation in the world. In 2020, Indonesia's oil palm plantations will triple to an area of ​​16.5 million hectares - an area similar to that of England and Wales combined - resulting in a 98% loss of forest cover. [6] Its neighboring country, Malaysia, is the world's leading oil palm producer and has already lost 87% of its tropical forest and continues to deforest at a rate of 7% annually.

Myth # 3: Agrofuels will bring rural development

In the tropics, 100 hectares dedicated to family farming generate 35 jobs. Oil palm and sugar cane generate 10 jobs; the eucalyptus two; and soybeans only half a day's wages per 100 hectares. All of them poorly paid. Before this boom, agro-fuels primarily supplied local markets, even in the United States. Most of the ethanol plants were small and farmer-owned. The oil, grain, and genetic engineering "big boys" are rapidly consolidating their control over the entire agrofuel value chain. These corporations enjoy immense market power. Carril and ADM control 65% of the global grain trade; Monsanto and Syngenta a quarter of the 60 million dollars of the biotech industry. This power enables these companies to extract the most lucrative profits and low-risk segments of the value chain - inputs, processing, and distribution. As a result, growers of agrofuel crops will increasingly depend on the oligopoly of these companies. In the long term, farmers are not candidates for many benefits. [7] Smallholders are destined to be forced to dispose of their land. Hundreds of thousands have already been displaced by soy plantations in the “República de la soy”, an area of ​​more than 50 million hectares that includes territories in southern Brazil, northern Argentina, Paraguay, and eastern Bolivia. [ 8]

Myth # 4: Agrofuels won't cause hunger

Hunger, says Amartya Sen, results not from scarcity, but from poverty. According to the FAO, there is enough food in the world to meet the daily needs of 3,200 calories per person with a diet based on fresh fruits, nuts, vegetables, dairy products and meat. However, due to poverty, 824 million people continue to suffer from hunger. In 1996, world leaders promised to cut world hunger in half by 2015. Very little progress has been made. The poorest populations in the world spend 50-80% of total family income on food. They suffer when high fuel prices also increase food prices. Now, as food and fuel crops compete for the use of land and resources, high food prices will actually drive up the price of fuel. Both will increase the value of land and water. This perverse inflationary spiral puts food and productive resources out of the reach of the poor. The International Food Policy Research Institute warns that the price of staple foods may increase 20 to 33% by 2010, and 26 to 135% by 2020. Caloric intake typically declines as price of food increases in a ratio of 1: 2. With every 1% that the cost of food increases, 16 million people are subjected to food insecurity. If current trends continue, about 1.2 billion people may suffer from chronic hunger by 2025 - 200 million more than previously stated. [9] World food aid is not expected to come to the rescue as the additional production will go inside our gas tanks. What is urgently required is a massive transfer of productive resources to the rural poor; and not the conversion of land into fuel production.

Myth # 5: An improved “second generation” of agrofuels is just around the corner

Proponents of agrofuels argue that current agrofuels are produced by food crops and will soon be replaced by more environmentally friendly crops such as fast-growing trees and pastures. This myth, ironically referred to as another saying, makes food-based fuels socially acceptable.

The transition to agro-fuels transforms land use on a massive scale, plunging food production into a rivalry for land, water and resources with fuel production. The issue of which crop is converted to fuel is irrelevant. Wild plants produced as agro-fuels are not going to have a smaller ecological footprint. They will migrate rapidly from groves and conservation areas into arable land to be cultivated intensively like any other industrial crop, with all associated environmental externalities.

The industry aspires towards genetically modified crops producing cellulose that are easily broken down to release sugar, specifically fast growing trees. Trees are perennials and spread pollen over greater distances than food crops. Candidates for cellulose production are miscantus or eulalia, switchgrass, and canary seed, which are invasive species, virtually ensuring genetic contamination. Agrofuels will be Monsanto / Syngenta's genetic Trojan horses, allowing them to have full control of our energy and food systems.

Cellulosic ethanol, a product that has already shown no carbon savings, is not going to replace agrofuels for the next five to eight years - long enough to avoid the worst impacts of global warming.

Further discoveries in plant physiology are required to identify the breakdown of cellulose, hemi cellulose and lignin in an economically efficient manner. The industry is betting on miracles or counting on the taxpayer's surety. Faith in science is not science. Selective belief in an unlikely and possibly an unattainable second generation biofuel - rather than working on improving solar, wind, or conservation technologies - is a bias in favor of the agrofuel giants.

Corporate agrofuel: A new industrial revolution?

The International Energy Agency estimates that in the next 23 years, the world could produce 147 million tons of agrofuels. This production will be accompanied by the generation of a lot of carbon, nitrous oxide, erosion and the production of more than 2 billion tons of wastewater. Surprisingly, this fuel will hardly be able to reduce the annual increase in global demand for oil, currently estimated at 136 tons per year - and will not reduce any of the existing demand.

The transition to agro-fuels is based on a 200-year relationship between agriculture and industry that began with the Industrial Revolution. The invention of steam power promised an end to heavy lifting. As the governments privatized community lands, they deprived the peasants of the provision of accessible land and wages. Cheap petrochemical fertilizers have opened agriculture to industry. Mechanization has intensified production, keeping prices low and the industry booming. The second century has seen the triple global shift towards urban life with more people living in cities than in rural areas. [10] The massive transfer of wealth from agriculture to industry, the industrialization of agriculture and urban-rural change are part of the “Agrarian Transition”, which transforms most of the fuel and food systems; and establishing non-renewable oil as the foundation of today's multi-trillion dollar agri-food industry.

The mainstays of the agri-food industry are the large grain corporations that include ADM, Cargill and Bunge. Likewise, they are surrounded by a formidable structure of agro-chemical, seed and machinery companies, on the one hand; and food processors, distributors, and supermarket chains, on the other. Together, these industries absorb four out of every five dollars from the food market. However, your profit margin has been stagnant for a while.

Government subsidies and targets set for agrofuels are the reason for reduced agribusiness profits; growing as oil shrinks and concentrating market power in the hands of the most powerful players in the food and fuel industry. Similar to the original Agrarian Transition, the Corporate Transition from agrofuels will “trap the commons” by industrializing what is left of the world's forests and grasslands. This will drive the remaining smallholders, family farmers, and indigenous people to the cities. The complicity between governments and industry has the potential to channel rural resources to urban centers in the form of fuel, concentrating industrial wealth. But this can push millions of people into poverty and increase starvation deaths dramatically.

The agrofuel transition suffers from a fatal flaw - there is no "new" industrial revolution. There is no new expansion of the industrial sector that could receive indigenous communities, small landowners and displaced rural workers. There are no advances in production waiting to flood the world with cheap food. This time, fuels will not subsidize low-cost energy agriculture. Rather, fuels will compete with food for land, water, and resources. Agrofuels are going to collapse the link between food and fuel. The inherent entropy of industrial agriculture has been invisible as long as oil has been plentiful. Now, the food and fuel systems must switch from a savings account to a checking account. Agrofuels are leading us into an over spin. "Renewable" does not mean "unlimited". While crops can be re-planted, land, water, and nutrients are limited. Pretending otherwise serves the interests of those who monopolize those resources.

The agro-fuels proposal is based on their potential to prolong an industrial system based on oil. With an estimated one trillion barrels of oil reserves remaining on the planet, the price of $ 100 per barrel is not far off. [11] The higher the price of oil, the cost of ethanol can increase as long as it remains competitive. As oil becomes more expensive, the first generation of agro-fuels will be more profitable, discouraging the development of the second generation of biofuels. If oil reaches a value of $ 80 per barrel, ethanol producers will have the ability to pay $ 5 for approximately 127 kg (or 32 L) of corn, making it competitive with sugar cane. The planet's energy crisis means a $ 80 to 100 trillion dollar bonanza for food and fuel corporations.

The constraints - not the incentives - must be applied in the corporate agrofuel industry. If agro-fuels are to be forest and food friendly, the grain, sugarcane and oil palm industries require strict global management, regulation and compliance. Strong and enforceable standards based on limiting the areas planted with agro-fuels are an urgent need, as well as sufficient antitrust laws to prevent corporate concentration. Long-term benefits for the rural area will be built only if agro-fuels complement sustainable rural development plans at the local, regional and national levels.

Building food and energy sovereignty

The Corporate Transition of Agro-Fuels is not inevitable. There is no inherent reason to sacrifice food and fuel systems and equity for industry. Many of the successful alternatives focused on local provisioning, energy efficiency, and human well-being are currently producing food and energy in ways that do not threaten food systems, the environment, or survival. The question is not whether ethanol or bio-diesel have a place in our future; Rather, whether or not we are going to allow a handful of global corporations to transform our food and energy systems, destroying the planet's biodiversity and impoverishing most of its inhabitants. To avoid this trap, we must promote a stable agrarian transition state, based on the redistribution of land in such a way that it re-populates and stabilizes depressed rural communities. This includes rebuilding and strengthening our local food systems and creating the conditions for the re-investment of rural wealth. Putting people and the environment - rather than corporate mega-profits - at the center of rural development requires food sovereignty: The right of people to establish their own food systems.

In both areas, the industrialized North and the South, hundreds of thousands of producers and consumers are actively organized for the defense of their rights in health and culturally appropriate food produced in an ecological way and by sustainable methods. They, too, are rebuilding a local food system so that most of the income and profits from these systems are kept at the local level - not in the corporate coffers of vast and distant agro-industries. They are holding agribusiness corporations responsible for the externalities their industries impose on people in the form of hunger, environmental destruction and health weakened by cheap processed foods. Social movements for land reform, indigenous rights, sustainable peasant-to-peasant agriculture, ethical trade, peasant markets, community-supported agriculture, urban agriculture, and neighborhood food systems development are just a few examples of the broad and multifaceted efforts for food sovereignty. Organizations such as Via Campesina, the Landless Movement (MST) of Brazil, the Federation of Southern Cooperatives of Afro-American Farmers, and the Community Coalition for Food and Justice (United States) are transforming the social will from these rural and urban movements in political wills - creating a change in their views.

The movements in defense of food sovereignty are already demanding justice from the boom in agro-fuels. When US President George Bush visited Brazil to establish an ethanol alliance with President Lula, 700 women from Via Campesina protested occupying Cargill's cane mill in Sao Paulo. But the dismantling of the perversity of agro-fuels implies changing the Corporate Transition of agro-fuels for an agrarian transition that benefits rural communities - a transition that does not drain the well-being of the rural area; but that puts resources in the hands of rural people. This is a long-impact project. A good next step would be a global moratorium on the expansion of corporate agrofuels. Time and public debate are needed to assess the potential impact of agrofuels and develop regulatory structures, programs and incentives for conservation and development alternatives for food and fuels. We need time to forge a better transition - an agrarian transition, food and energy sovereignty.

* Eric Holt-Giménez, Ph.D., Executive Director, Food First / Institute for Food and Development Policy, Oakland, CA, United States. Translated by Georgina Catacora V., Tierra Viva, Cochabamba, Bolivia


[1] Delft Hydraulics in George Monbiot, “If we want to save the planet, we need a five-year freeze on biofuels” The Guardian, 3/27/2007

[2] David Tilman and Jason Hill, Washington Post, 3/25/07

[3] Miguel Altieri and Elizabeth Bravo, “The ecological and social tragedy of biofuels,” 5/1/07,

[4] The Ecologist, May, 2007

[5] National Plan of Agroenergia 2006-2011, In Camila Moreno, "Agroenergia X Food Sovereignty: a Questão Agrária do Século XXI", 2006

[6] The Ecologist, Ibid

[7] Annie Dufey, “International trade in biofuels: Good for development? And good for environment? " International Institute for Environment and Development, 2006.

[8] Bravo, E. 2006, Biofuels, energy crops and food sovereignty: Igniting the debate on biofuels. Ecological Action, Quito, Ecuador.

[9] C. Ford Runge and Benjamin Senauer, “How Biofuels Could Starve the Poor”, Foreign Affairs, May / June 2007

[10] “The World Goes to Town,” The Economist, 11/5/07

[11] Caroline Lucas Mep, et al "Fueling a Food Crisis: The impact of peak oil on food security", The Greens / European Free Alliance, European Parliament, 06/12

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