Friday, July 4, 2008

Said it before and will say it again: Don't be biofooled

So-called "biofuel" has pushed food prices up 75% (h/t Ten Percent). Here's just a taste:
Biofuels have forced global food prices up by 75% - far more than previously estimated - according to a confidential World Bank report obtained by the Guardian.
The damning unpublished assessment is based on the most detailed analysis of the crisis so far, carried out by an internationally-respected economist at global financial body.
The figure emphatically contradicts the US government's claims that plant-derived fuels contribute less than 3% to food-price rises. It will add to pressure on governments in Washington and across Europe, which have turned to plant-derived fuels to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases and reduce their dependence on imported oil.
Senior development sources believe the report, completed in April, has not been published to avoid embarrassing President George Bush.
"It would put the World Bank in a political hot-spot with the White House," said one yesterday.
[snip]
"Political leaders seem intent on suppressing and ignoring the strong evidence that biofuels are a major factor in recent food price rises," said Robert Bailey, policy adviser at Oxfam. "It is imperative that we have the full picture. While politicians concentrate on keeping industry lobbies happy, people in poor countries cannot afford enough to eat."
Rising food prices have pushed 100m people worldwide below the poverty line, estimates the World Bank, and have sparked riots from Bangladesh to Egypt. Government ministers here have described higher food and fuel prices as "the first real economic crisis of globalisation".
President Bush has linked higher food prices to higher demand from India and China, but the leaked World Bank study disputes that: "Rapid income growth in developing countries has not led to large increases in global grain consumption and was not a major factor responsible for the large price increases."
Even successive droughts in Australia, calculates the report, have had a marginal impact. Instead, it argues that the EU and US drive for biofuels has had by far the biggest impact on food supply and prices.
Since April, all petrol and diesel in Britain has had to include 2.5% from biofuels. The EU has been considering raising that target to 10% by 2020, but is faced with mounting evidence that that will only push food prices higher.
"Without the increase in biofuels, global wheat and maize stocks would not have declined appreciably and price increases due to other factors would have been moderate," says the report. The basket of food prices examined in the study rose by 140% between 2002 and this February. The report estimates that higher energy and fertiliser prices accounted for an increase of only 15%, while biofuels have been responsible for a 75% jump over that period.
It argues that production of biofuels has distorted food markets in three main ways. First, it has diverted grain away from food for fuel, with over a third of US corn now used to produce ethanol and about half of vegetable oils in the EU going towards the production of biodiesel. Second, farmers have been encouraged to set land aside for biofuel production. Third, it has sparked financial speculation in grains, driving prices up higher.
The warning signs were there for a while. I tried to help sound the alarm in the spring of 2007:

Some words of warning on the ethanol boom:
But there is a darker side to this green revolution, which argues for a cautious assessment of how big a role ethanol can play in filling the developed world's fuel tank. The prospect of a sudden surge in demand for ethanol is causing serious concerns even in Brazil.
The ethanol industry has been linked with air and water pollution on an epic scale, along with deforestation in both the Amazon and Atlantic rainforests, as well as the wholesale destruction of Brazil's unique savannah land.
Fabio Feldman, a leading Brazilian environmentalist and former member of Congress who helped to pass the law mandating a 23 per cent mix of ethanol to be added to all petroleum supplies in the country, believes that Brazil's trailblazing switch has had serious side effects.
"Some of the cane plantations are the size of European states, these vast monocultures have replaced important eco-systems," he said. "If you see the size of the plantations in the state of Sao Paolo they are oceans of sugar cane. In order to harvest you must burn the plantations which creates a serious air pollution problem in the city."
Despite its leading role in biofuels, Brazil remains the fourth largest producer of carbon emissions in the world due to deforestation. Dr Nastarti rejects any linkage between deforestation and ethanol and argues that cane production accounts for little more than 10 per cent of Brazil's farmland.
However, Dr Nastari is calling for new legislation in Brazil to ensure that mushrooming sugar plantations do not directly or indirectly contribute to the destruction of vital forest preserves.
Sceptics, however, point out that existing legislation is unenforceable and agri-business from banned GM cotton to soy beans has been able to ignore legislation.
"In large areas of Brazil there is a total absence of the state and no respect for environmental legislation," said Mr Feldman.
"Ethanol can be a good alternative in the fight against global warming but at the same time we must make sure we are not creating a worse problem than the one we are trying to solve."
The conditions for a true nightmare scenario are being created not in Brazil, despite its environment concerns, but in the US's own domestic ethanol industry.
While Brazil's tropical climate allows it to source alcohol from its sugar crop, the US has turned to its industrialised corn belt for the raw material to substitute oil. The American economist Lester R Brown, from the Earth Policy Institute, is leading the warning voices: "The competition for grain between the world's 800 million motorists who want to maintain their mobility and its two billion poorest people who are simply trying to stay alive is emerging as an epic issue."
Speaking in Sao Paolo, where the ethanol boom is expected to take off with a US-Brazil trade deal this Thursday, Fabio Feldman, said: "We must stop and take a breath and consider the consequences."
Biofuel costs
When Rudolph Diesel unveiled his new engine at the 1900 World's Fair, he made a point of demonstrating that it could be run on peanut oil. "Such oils may become, in the course of time, as important as petroleum and the coal tar products of the present time," he said.
And so it has come to pass that US President George Bush has decreed that America must wean itself off oil with the help of biofuels made from corn, sugar cane and other suitable crops.
At its simplest, the argument for biofuels is this: By growing crops to produce organic compounds that can be burnt in an engine, you are not adding to the overall levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.
The amount of CO2 that the fuel produces when burnt should balance the amount absorbed during the growth of the plants.
However, many biofuel crops, such as corn, are grown with the help of fossil fuels in the form of fertilisers, pesticides and the petrol for farm equipment.
One estimate is that corn needs 30 per cent more energy than the finished fuel it produces.
Another problem is the land required to produce it. One estimate is that the grain needed to fill the petrol tank of a 4X4 with ethanol is sufficient to feed a person for a year.
Now I hate to be the turd in the punchbowl, but the fact of the matter is that we're going to have a serious lifestyle readjustment ahead of us in the coming years and decades as petroleum gets harder to find and refine. The days of having at least one car per adult are numbered, and these desperate efforts to hang on to that lifestyle are likely doomed. When we get to a point where we're seriously thinking of trading a year's food for a human being for a tank of ethanol, we've crossed some twisted ethical line.
And a month later:

Earthside has also highlighted a couple articles that further suggest that biofuel is not the panacea it is made out to be. Bottom line is that the effects of this much hyped "green" revolution are already being felt in the form of higher prices for grains (primarily corn and wheat), leading to strained budgets for the world's middle classes and desperation for those in poverty. Not only are those loaves of bread and tortillas going up in price (I do the grocery shopping for our family - trust me: I've noticed), but the prices of milk are going up significantly. Milk? Yup. Turns out that dairy cattle are primarily put on a corn diet. Corn costs go up, so do costs for milk or any product using milk as one of its ingredients.

Not only that, but as Monbiot's article points out, the rate of deforestation is increasing with negative effects not only for any living creature relying on those specific habitats (think extinction of species such as orangutans) but also will lead to a more rapid release of greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere. Aside from those sufficiently well-to-do who might squeeze out a few more years of happy motoring in their SUVs, the rest of the planet loses.
And last August:
There is certainly enough bleakness to go around, what with wars that are currently costing far too many precious lives, and many millions of others being starved out and enslaved as a consequence of neoliberal economic policies and short-sighted endeavors to maintain unsustainably lavish lifestyles in the Global North (e.g., US, EU). I've occasionally highlighted the nightmare that the push toward replacing oil with so-called biofuel or ethanol is creating - for the time being a nightmare suffered primarily by those most residing in the Global South (aka the Third and Fourth Worlds). In Bio-Fooled? I highlighted an article that made it clear that the ethanol boom was already having devastating environmental effects - including rapid deforestation and increased carbon emissions - as well as putting the well-off in the Global North with the choice between feeding human beings with harvested grain and feeding SUV fuel tanks. In Don't Be Biofooled, I made largely the same point - this time by presenting a graphic I found via the internet and summarizing what I'd read thus far.

Once more I feel the need to highlight the dire effects that the ethanol boom are having. This time, I am recommending one read Raul Zibechi's article, The Dark Side of Agrofuels. The setting this time is in the sugar cane fields in Brazil, which are both leading to further damage to the Amazon rain forest and are fostering slave-labor conditions for those unlucky enough to work in those sugar cane fields. The expansion of this industry is also threatening indigenous agriculture. Zibechi offers no words of hope. Those encouraging the biofuel boom are quite wealthy and politically well-connected, whereas those most immediately victimized are not, and are largely voiceless outside of alternative media sources. As Zibechi notes, the effects on the environment and workers' lives are furthest from these elites' minds (I'll add also the furthest from the minds of an American public more concerned with Britney Spears' latest meltdowns than with the nightmarish world being left in the wake of a neoliberal typhoon). Even among those who try to tune out the bombardment of "reality" shows and entertainment "news" are going to be fed a very sanitized version of the impact of biofuels in the coming decades - I'm sure that we've already been treated multiple times to Anderson Cooper covering the Brazil "miracle" and driving past pristine sugar cane plantations, making the whole thing seem like a wonderful alternative for those desiring a supposedly "greener" form of happy motoring.
In that last essay, I try to highlight some pockets of resistance to the worsening nightmare. This is class warfare - albeit certainly not framed as such. Essentially, it's the fourth world war that Marcos and the EZLN talk about between neoliberalism's oligarchs and the rest of us. Recognize it for what it is.

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