Bloom Fades for Agrofuels
February 17, 2009
Although Brazil’s development of sugar-based ethanol and biodiesel from soy beans, as fuels for export as well as domestic consumption, has been hailed as a success by many, it is clearly not the solution to peak oil or, on the other hand, the path to energy independence or reduced carbon emissions. It is also proving to be an environmental, economic and human rights nightmare.
Stimulus and Ethanol
Thanks to election year politics, however, the United States decided
last year to subsidize the production of corn, already the country’s most subsidized crop, as well as the production of ethanol from corn, a much less efficient fuel than that produced from sugar cane, as in Brazil. As the federal government promoted increased corn cultivation, however, the switch to corn contributed to the doubling of prices for corn as well as other grains, causing an increase in food prices in the United States and food riots in Mexico, where corn is the basic food staple.
In the first weeks of the Obama administration, which pledged to create a greener economy while providing economic relief for American workers and businesses, simultaneously reducing our dependence on fossil fuels, there is little talk in Washington this year about increasing ethanol production. While the depressed ethanol industry is lobbying to receive some of the economic stimulus funds, environmentalists oppose any additional funds for ethanol. However, Tom Vilsack, Obama’s Agricultural Secretary, has predicted that the stimulus bill will include funds for alternative fuels and promises expanded loan guarantees for the ethanol industry. He also indicates that there will be more relief in a future energy bill and declared that the USDA will be a “leader in the climate change debate.”
In fact, this brief experience with ethanol subsidies has already demonstrated how focusing on a single solution or crop can be shortsighted and counterproductive. Meanwhile, Congress is about to approve a stimulus package which may contain pet projects which do little to stimulate the economy or move us effectively towards a more sustainable future. Even if the national electric grid is upgraded and energy efficiency improves, it may have little effect on the environment if it uses the same old dirty sources of power, especially coal.
Agrofuels in Brazil, Africa and Asia
In spite of its success in reducing its dependence on imported fossil fuels and increasing its efforts to export ethanol as well as ethanol technology to tropical countries, Brazil is already discovering the limits of its success and the drawbacks of expanding sugar cane and soy bean cultivation. Unfortunately, other developing countries, especially in Africa, have emulated Brazil in order to reduce the cost of imported fuels, converting fertile fields into sugar cane production which could be used to feed the local populations.
In order to relieve its debt burden from high oil prices, Ethiopia approved agrofuel projects which have forced subsistence farmers off their fields and converted them into biofuel production, instead of growing food crops for local consumption. As a result, organizations in several African countries are calling for a moratorium on agrofuel projects in order to protect forests, water, land rights and food production. Their proposals, therefore, emphasize reducing energy consumption by encouraging local food production, not agrofuels.
In Indonesia, Malaysia, India and Papua New Guinea, as well as in Colombia and Ecuador, the expansion of palm oil production for biodiesel has also deforested large areas and displaced millions of indigenous people.
Brazil Expands Agrofuel Production
Ignoring warnings that the expansion of agrofuels not only means a decline in food production and rising food prices for those least able to afford it, and that carbon dioxide is released into the atmosphere when forest or grasslands are converted to sugar cane or soy beans, Brazil is expanding the areas for the production of these crops for agrofuels.
President Lula de Silva’s government is also touting the “sustainability” of ethanol and promoting its use worldwide through ethanol salesmen. Already a major producer of soy beans, Brazil plans to expand the area of soy bean cultivation for biodiesel. While other crops are also being considered, they all have the defect of stripping existing vegetation, planting non-food crops and raising the price of domestic or imported foods. Any switch in crops involves tradeoffs which affect the local environment and population. Even the conversion of agricultural waste to produce fuels would divert materials which protect or replenish the soil, or are currently used for fodder.
Brazil is the world’s fourth largest emitters of carbon gas into the atmosphere, 80% of which comes from deforestation in the Amazon. As Brazil expands the production of agrofuels, that process threatens the Cerrado, a large area of open pasture or savanna and a natural reservoir of water. Since it takes 12 liters of water to produce one liter of ethanol, not only are native plants and trees being replaced by sugar cane, ethanol or palm oil plantations, but rivers are being diverted for use by sugar cane plantations and mills, while chemicals and residue are dumped in local streams. Sugar cane fields are also burnt in preparation for harvest, and the leftover from processing, bagasse, is often burnt as well, affecting air quality and causing air alerts in producing regions (Sao Paulo).
Although President de Silva has stated that ethanol is not produced in the Amazon, ethanol is being produced there and other areas of Brazil are being affected by the conversion to sugar cane or soy beans. In the process, forests and grasslands are stripped and burned while local farmers are forced to convert to agrofuels or sell their land, undermining local food production and leading to shortages and higher prices. Resistance by small farmers is often repressed by force and protests by local residents or workers have been met with violence. (Maria Luisa Mendonça, “Brazil: Sugar cane plantations devastate Brazil’s vital Cerrado region,” Pacific Ecologist 17, Summer, 2009)
Working Conditions and Human Rights Abuses
Besides poisoning the land, water and people through the use of pesticides, the stripping of natural vegetation and disposal of waste, human rights organizations have charged the mills with human rights abuses. Since the harvesting of sugar cane requires a large labor force for a period of intensive labor, working conditions in the sugar fields are hot, dangerous and poorly paid. Given the monopoly of land ownership by the sugar-ethanol producers, and the desperate economic conditions in many parts of Brazil, however, there are plenty of desperate workers who need the jobs, which are temporary. Since the workers are paid by piece work, that is, the tons of cane they harvest, the emphasis is on speed, not safety, and injuries are common.
Many of the workers are migrants from the Northeast and lack housing, sanitation, or water in the fields and there has been a high incidence of deaths among field and mill workers, struggling to harvest enough cane to support themselves and their families. Since the workers also have to pay for their food, housing and tools, there is not much left over to send to their families. Based on interviews with workers, working conditions amount to slave labor. (“Human Rights in Brazil 2007, A Report by the Network for Social Justice and Human Rights” São Paulo, Brazil, at www.social.org.br)
The investment in, or encouragement of agrofuel production in developing countries, therefore, is another form of colonialism. While agrofuel producers in these countries may earn income or governments may be able to service their foreign debts through the export of fuel produced from crops, their land, resources and labor are being exploited purely for the benefit of first world consumers who refuse to give up their cars or SUVs. As in the past, the raw materials supplied by former colonies and developing countries not only made the first world rich, but also enabled them to maintain an unsustainable lifestyle at the expense of third world countries. In the rush to produce agrofuels in Latin America, Africa and Asia, is history repeating itself?
Since the poorest people in the poorest countries will be the most affected by climate change, encouraging them to convert fertile land to agrofuel production and bear the negative effects of that production, is unconscionable, especially since they are not responsible for the bulk of the greenhouse gasses produced over the last century and a half. Given the undeniable fact that there is not enough arable land in the world to produce enough agrofuel to replace our dependency on petroleum, it is only a short term solution at best, but with long term devastating effects on rural residents in poor countries.
While national leaders struggle to deal with the economic crisis facing global markets and seek alternatives to fossil fuels, it behooves them to consider all the potential side effects of proposed measures, especially the people or families who live and work in the producing regions. While some theories or proposals may seem feasible on paper, and require little sacrifice in the short run, they may have unintended, but dire consequences for current and future generations.
First World Denial
Perhaps the search for alternative fuels is in itself a form a denial, since relying on the private automobile not only perpetuates a reliance on the same distribution network owned and operated by the oil companies, and slightly modified vehicles produced by the same manufacturers, but it also encourages urban sprawl, long commutes and traffic congestion, energy inefficiency, high transportation costs and income inequality. The recent behavior of CEOs from Detroit and Wall Street, however, suggests that they do not get the message and expect others to make the sacrifices that will revive the economy and reduce energy consumption and carbon emissions. But American consumers must also bear the burden and demonstrate that they are willing to make the changes to make us less dependent on fossil fuels, reduce greenhouse gasses, while offering equal opportunities and decent employment for all Americans.
Through their cultivation and processing, agrofuels will still produce carbon emissions and even if they burn cleaner than gasoline and reduce our dependency on imported fossil fuels, there are many negative tradeoffs which adversely affect those working or living in affected areas. When the development of clean public transit, powered by electric power from renewable resources, offers a positive long term solution, along with many other side benefits, why continue our obsession with the single-occupant vehicle, with all its liabilities? Or, given the advancing technology in electricity-powered trucks and cars, charged from clean power sources, why continue to rely on internal combustion engines burning problematic fuels? Through careful planning and the wise investment of our resources, we have the opportunity to improve the quality of life for all Americans and global residents.
- Tony White