Are biofuels a hoax or the answer? Three critical views

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Biofuels, BP-Berkeley, and the New Ecological Imperialism

By Hannah Holleman and Rebecca Clausen || Originally at MRZINE, Monthly Review’s blog, and a fraternal organization

British Petroleum, Beyond Petroleum . . . Biofuel Promoter, Biosphere Plunderer. Regardless of what the BP abbreviation actually stands for, one thing is clear: this oil giant knows a good deal when it sees one. For a relatively small financial contribution, BP appropriates academic expertise from a leading public research institution, founded on 200 years of social support, to maximize its return on energy investments.

These investments, in turn, are focused primarily on promoting the market for biofuel, the newest darling of those in power who stimulate change while maintaining “business as usual.” This means working-class people in the core developed countries will subsidize the extraction of even more ecological goods from the developing world to serve elites, who never mind taking food out of the mouths of people to put gold in their pockets. Socializing the costs for private economic gain is not a new phenomenon in the capitalist system. However, this case represents a new twist in the combination of debunked science, ecological imperialism, and the sophistry of “sustainable development.”

New Fuel, Old Barrels

In February 2007, BP announced plans with the University of California (UC) at Berkeley, in partnership with the University of Illinois and the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, to lead the largest academic-industry research alliance in U.S. history. The $50 million-a-year bone that BP will throw to Berkeley will create the Energy Biosciences Institute (EBI), primarily focusing its research on biotechnology to produce biofuels. “In launching this visionary institute, BP is creating a new model for university-industry collaboration,” said Beth Burnside, UC Berkeley Vice Chancellor for Research (quoted in Sanders 2007). In light of the historic record of capitalist accumulation, this “new model” for university-industry collaboration looks like old wine in a new bottle: appropriate a social good (public university), privatize the property (intellectual development), and commodify the output (energy-intensive products). And in this instance, BP has recruited a public institution to be its profit-making subsidiary.

Appropriating Academia

This is not the first time UC Berkeley fed at the corporate trough, and as government expenditures for social goods continue to decline relatively, it is likely that it won’t be the last. Berkeley entered into a research deal with the seed giant Novartis ten years ago, after which an external review of the UCB-Novartis interaction recommended avoiding such partnerships (Altieri and Holt-Gimenez 2007). Nevertheless, on November 15, 2007, BP, the UC Berkeley, the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign announced the signing of a controversial ten-year pact forming the Energy Biosciences Institute. The current deal with BP is ten times larger than the Novartis deal. A brief description of this BP partnership follows:

As part of its continuing drive to find longer term commercial alternatives to oil and gas, BP announced in 2006 that it would invest $500 million over the next 10 years to establish the institute, the first public-private institution of this scale in the world. The institute’s emphasis on new fuels meshes with UC Berkeley’s and Berkeley Lab’s research aims to develop sustainable sources of energy and the University of Illinois’ efforts to develop biofuel feedstocks. The three academic institutions formed a strategic partnership to submit to BP a proposal that was selected in February 2007 from among five international proposals. (Burress 2007)

As details of the final contract came to light, the public learned of how BP will gain profit-making technology and expertise by externalizing much of the cost of research and development. The benefits to BP include access to leading scientists and laboratories, first rights for patent negotiations, and the rubber stamp of academia and science on its new projects. The benefit for the university is purely financial, though at least one third of the money goes to BP’s own private projects on campus. The benefit for the public is hard to find. Politicians, university officials, and pro-market pundits laud this public-private partnership, while those critical of the “prostitution” of the university, including experts on biofuels’ social and environmental impacts, are marginalized. This is not surprising given the undemocratic nature of the process whereby the details of the deal were negotiated without any public input.

Private (Intellectual) Property

Jennifer Washburn, examining the corporate corruption of higher education, explains that the deal with BP will expand the control that private firms wield over university agendas (Washburn 2007). Indeed, as scientists Richard Levins and Richard Lewontin point out in their most recent book, Biology Under the Influence (2007), so-called public-private partnerships are on the rise, and funding, an important factor in guiding research, is increasingly determined by the needs of private industry with the backing of governments. These “partnerships” are ideologically accepted and promoted, as were the earliest land enclosures and contemporary privatization schemes, as a natural and inevitable evolution of society’s institutions.1 Debates concerning the cultural, political, and technological viability of market-based solutions to environmental and social problems are directly influenced by how science interacts with dominant ideology to mold and reinforce decisions that affect the world. The seemingly natural process of the degrading trends of capitalist development must be confronted.

No Free Lunch in Crop-Based Biofuels

Like the Aesopian rhetoric used under capitalism to promote war and imperialism in the name of democracy, the way in which the 10-year plan to “research” (aka promote) biofuels blatantly dismisses potential ecological damage is unsettling. There is no evidence that biofuels can actually satisfy the energy appetite of capitalism — they have so far only helped to destroy both ecological and social relationships. This critique does not only come from those who suffer the immediate consequences of biofuels’ advance, but also from ecologists within UC Berkeley’s ivory walls. Dr. Miguel Altieri, agroecologist, explains:

By promoting large-scale mechanized monocultures which require agrochemical inputs and machinery, and as carbon-capturing forests are felled to make way for biofuel crops, CO2 emissions will increase not decrease. The only way to stop global warming is to promote small-scale organic agriculture and decrease the use of all fuels, which requires major reductions in consumption patterns and development of massive public transportation systems, areas that the University of California should be actively researching and that BP and the other biofuel partners will never invest one penny towards. (Altieri 2007) 2

The damages from biofuel production are growing. For instance, a recent UNEP/UNESCO report projects the loss of 98% of Indonesia’s forests by 2022, due in large part to land cleared for plantations of palm trees to produce biofuel (Nellemann and Virtue 2007: 6). Indonesia is home to one of the largest rain forests in the world and a repository of a great deal of the world’s biodiversity. Along with deforestation, habitat destruction, decreased biodiversity, and increased industrial mono-cropping and agricultural inputs (including fertilizer, herbicide, genetically modified seed, and water), we see the removal of sensitive lands from conservation programs and more water pollution.

So, BP-Berkeley project’s claim of ecological concern raises many questions.3 Not least is BP’s own track record of environmental destruction. And “alternative” fuel represents only the most publicly discussed venture of the new institute. Other research endeavors include: “the conversion of heavy hydrocarbons to clean fuels, improved recovery from existing oil and gas reservoirs and carbon sequestration” (Brenneman 2007). Given this research agenda, it is easy to see why environmentalists, farmers, and other critics around the world understand that the main thing “green” coming out of the EBI will be money.

Who Loses? Naked Ecological Imperialism and Biopiracy

While the U.S. military kicks in the front door of Baghdad and secures Middle Eastern and African oil fields, Western corporations sneak in the back doors of Southeast Asia, Africa, and Latin America to secure land and labor for biofuels. The U.S. is not alone in this endeavor, as much of Europe, Scandinavia, and Canada are also excited by the chance to put a green face on business as usual. The consequences of capitalism’s business as usual are well known. Farmers are proletarianized in the global south by the wealthier and more technically savvy northerners. Genetically modified crops and the private patenting of the materials of life threaten the food and environmental security of millions in the name of technological “progress” and efficiency in agriculture. Nevertheless, cynical racist, sexist, and imperialist justifications for the consequences of biofuels production abound. You can hear them all from supporters of the BP-Berkeley deal.

The removal of indigenous people from rainforests cleared for palm oil (Indonesia) and sugar cane (Brazil) plantations is justified by the new “democratization” of fuel production. The soaring costs of basic food staples worldwide is justified by the need to provide women with energy resources since it is they who suffer most from the struggle to make ends meet without contemporary “clean” energy products. These seemingly “humanitarian” justifications are all coupled with ridiculous claims by some politicians that biofuels may end wars for oil — as if the energy type, rather than the role of energy in capitalist society, causes the global race for resources.

These excuses for the recurrent pillaging of the developing world by the over-developed capitalist countries are nothing more than an update to liberal, imperial rhetoric. Though these obfuscations are now under the banner of “sustainable development,” they are not unlike those used by supporters of the invasion of Afghanistan who wished to “liberate” Muslim women. However, victims of the “civilizing” and more recently, “democratizing,” forces of capitalist imperialism have understood the bloody hypocrisy of the Dutch, the British, French, and now the U.S. In the case of biofuels, people worldwide have come together to protest the outrageous claims made on the human and ecological resources of the globe by the wealthiest countries that can’t quit their addiction to liquid fuels, suburban sprawls, and capital accumulation at all costs.

Conclusion

The case of BP-Berkeley, biofuels and the new ecological imperialism display the “irrationality of a scientifically sophisticated world” (Levins and Lewontin 1985). The absurdity of expecting the cause of social and ecological degradation to solve it is just as confounding as the arguments supporting more liquid fuels and alternative autos over mass transit. It is crucial to question the science used to legitimate the pillaging of people and the planet and give honest evaluations of what it may take to move toward the common good.

Like other sectors of a class society, there are insurgent scientists who use their resources to expose and resist oppression. Still, due to the restricted and unequal access to educational and research facilities, most Western scientists are removed from the harshest of oppressions and often removed from the consequences of policies they support through research. It is not difficult to imagine that the urgency of reducing U.S. fuel demand may be different for the Ogoni in Nigeria or the Bidayuh in Borneo, both losing people and land to fuel (petrol and biodiesel), than for scientists at BP’s new institute at Berkeley. Just as the larger society is increasingly dominated by the imperatives of an oppressive system of private property, “knowledge and ignorance are determined, as in all scientific research, by who owns the research industry, who commands the production of knowledge.” Indeed, “there is class struggle in the debates around what kind of research ought to be done” (Lewontin and Levins 2007: 319).

We are facing increasingly unequal power relations, due to the development of weaponry and toxic industries that are both deadlier to humans and the environment than anything seen before in human society. To confront the organization of capitalists, scientists must join with others in society to refuse our labor to those in power while making it more difficult for collaborators with the current system to undermine our efforts. The insight of Lewontin and Levins (2007: 217) may provide our most effective guidance:

There is…a growing conflict between the urgent need of our species for the integration and democratization of science, and the economics and sociology of commercialized knowledge that impedes such development. We might attempt merely to predict, detect, or tolerate the outcome of that conflict. Or we could join the struggle to affect what happens.

Bibliography

Altieri, Miguel A. and Eric Holt-Gimenez. 2007. “University of California’s Biotech Benefactors.” The Berkeley Daily Planet. Berkeley, CA. February 6.

Altieri, Miguel A. and Eric Holt-Gimenez. 2007. “Biofuel and the BP-UC Berkeley Research Deal: A ‘Win-Win’ Agenda?” California Progress Report. February 7.

Brenneman, Richard. 2007. “UC/BP Pact Worries Critics, Concerns of Land and Legacy.” The Berkeley Daily Planet. Berkeley, California. November 23.

Burress, Charles. 2007. “UC Berkeley and BP Finally Sign Contract for Research Project.” Checkbiotech Biofuels News. November 16.

Drummond, William. 2007. “Message from the Chair.” Chair, Berkeley Division of the Academic Senate. November 16.

IEA-Bioenergy. September 2007. “Potential Contribution of Bioenergy to the World’s Future Energy Demand.” International Energy Agency.

International Energy Agency- Office of Energy Efficiency Technology and R&D. 2004. “Biofuels for Transport: An International Perspective.” OECD.

Levins, Richard and Richard C. Lewontin. 1985. The Dialectical Biologist. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Lewontin, Richard C. and Richard Levins. 2007. Biology under the Influence: Dialectical Essays on Ecology, Agriculture, and Health. New York: Monthly Review Press.

Nellemann, C., Miles, L., Kaltenborn, B. P., and M. Virtue, and Ahlenius, H. (Eds). 2007. “The Last Stand of the Orangutan: State of Emergency: Illegal Logging, Fire and Palm Oil in Indonesia’s National Parks.” UNEP/UNESCO, GRID-Arendal, Norway.

Ollman, Bertell. 2003. Dance of the Dialectic: Steps in Marx’s Method. Urbana, Ill.: University of Illinois Press.

Research and Innovative Technology Administration. November 2006. “Transportation Research, Development and Technology Strategic Plan 2006-2010.” U.S. Department of Transportation.

Sanders, Robert. 2007. “BP Selects UC Berkeley to Lead $500 Million Energy Research Consortium with Partners Lawrence Berkeley National Lab, University of Illinois.” UC Berkeley Press Release. February 1.

United Nations Energy. April 2007. “Sustainable Bioenergy: A Framework for Decision Makers.” United Nations.

Washburn, Jennifer. 2007. “Big Oil Buys Berkeley.” Los Angeles Times. March 24.

World Resources Institute, Britt Childs and Rob Bradley. 2007. “Plants at the Pump: Biofuels, Climate Change and Sustainability.” WRI in conjunction with Goldman Sachs Center for Environmental Markets, Washington, D.C.

York, Richard and Brett Clark. 2006. “Marxism, Positivism, and Scientific Sociology: Social Gravity and Historicity.” The Sociological Quarterly 47:3:425-450.

Notes

1 Quote from the chair of the academic senate at Berkeley on the new deal with BP, in spite of the outcry of university faculty and students: “None of us saw in the EBI any threat to the public nature of the university. In fact, the traditional tripartite mission of land grant institutions– teaching, research, and service –is being served by this project. The research program of EBI is directed toward solving one of the paramount current problems of society, that is what the third leg of our public mission– service or applied research in general — is all about. So, I see the EBI as enhancing our public mission. Cooperation with the private sector is increasingly a part of carrying out this mission, but we need to structure our relationships with the private sector in ways so as to preserve the integrity of the university.” — William Drummond, Chair, Berkeley Division of the Academic Senate, (Drummond 2007)

2 Unfortunately, the Department of Transportation will not be focusing on mass transit either, but will be contributing a pretty sum to the development of biofuel use. (Research and Innovative Technology Administration November 2006)

3 Many supporters of this deal say we must invest in the future of so-called “second-generation” biofuels. However, even in “best-case” scenarios, these biofuels remain an anti-ecological, anti-social solution to our energy problems. A recent UN report finds,

The second generation of liquid biofuel production facilities will create a market for far greater amounts of agricultural biomass, and promises to create higher-value co-products (and thus greater wealth generation). However, it will also require development of more capital intensive, complex production facilities, giving a further edge to large companies. Already, large investments are signaling the emergence of a new “bio-economy” in the coming decades. (United Nations Energy April 2007: 24)

Echoing the many critics of biofuels, this report shows that even the most optimistic predictions regarding biofuels can’t solve the problems of scale and increasing energy demand. See also “Biofuels for Transport: An International Perspective,” “Plants at the Pump: Biofuels, Climate Change and Sustainability,” and “Potential Contribution of Bioenergy to the World’s Future Energy Demand.”
Rebecca Clausen and Hannah Holleman are doctoral students at the University of Oregon.

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When even the Washington Post says it…

The False Hope of Biofuels
For Energy and Environmental Reasons, Ethanol Will Never Replace Gasoline

By James Jordan and James Powell
Sunday, July 2, 2006; B07

Biofuels such as ethanol made from corn, sugar cane, switchgrass and other crops are being touted as a “green” solution for a large part of America’s transportation problem. Auto manufacturers, Midwest corn farmers and politicians are excited about ethanol. Initially, we, too, were excited about biofuels: no net carbon dioxide emissions, reduction of oil imports. Who wouldn’t be enthusiastic?

But as we’ve looked at biofuels more closely, we’ve concluded that they’re not a practical long-term solution to our need for transport fuels. Even if all of the 300 million acres (500,000 square miles) of currently harvested U.S. cropland produced ethanol, it wouldn’t supply all of the gasoline and diesel fuel we now burn for transport, and it would supply only about half of the needs for the year 2025. And the effects on land and agriculture would be devastating.

It’s difficult to understand how advocates of biofuels can believe they are a real solution to kicking our oil addiction. Agriculture Department studies of ethanol production from corn — the present U.S. process for ethanol fuel — find that an acre of corn yields about 139 bushels. At an average of about 2.5 gallons per bushel, the acre then will yield about 350 gallons of ethanol. But the fuel value of ethanol is only about two-thirds that of gasoline — 1.5 gallons of ethanol in the tank equals 1 gallon of gasoline in terms of energy output.

Moreover, it takes a lot of input energy to produce ethanol: for fertilizer, harvesting, transport, corn processing, etc. After subtracting this input, the net positive energy available is less than half of the figure cited above. Some researchers even claim that the net energy of ethanol is actually negative when all inputs are included — it takes more energy to make ethanol than one gets out of it.

But allowing a net positive energy output of 30,000 British thermal units (Btu) per gallon, it would still take four gallons of ethanol from corn to equal one gallon of gasoline. The United States has 73 million acres of corn cropland. At 350 gallons per acre, the entire U.S. corn crop would make 25.5 billion gallons, equivalent to about 6.3 billion gallons of gasoline. The United States consumes 170 billion gallons of gasoline and diesel fuel annually. Thus the entire U.S. corn crop would supply only 3.7 percent of our auto and truck transport demands. Using the entire 300 million acres of U.S. cropland for corn-based ethanol production would meet about 15 percent of the demand.

It is argued that rather than using corn to make ethanol, we can use agricultural wastes. But the amounts are still a drop in the bucket. Using the crop residues (called corn stover) from corn production could provide about 10 billion gallons per year of ethanol, according to a recent study by the U.S. Energy Information Administration. The net energy available would be greater than with ethanol from corn — about 60,000 Btu per gallon, equivalent to a half-gallon of gasoline. Still, all of the U.S. corn wastes would produce only the equivalent of 5 billion gallons of gasoline. Another factor to be considered: Not plowing wastes back into the land hurts soil fertility.

Similar limitations and problems apply to growing any crop for biofuels, whether switchgrass, hybrid willow, hybrid poplar or whatever. Optimistically, assuming that switchgrass or some other crop could produce 1,000 gallons of ethanol per acre, over twice as much as we can get from corn plus stover, and that its net energy was 60,000 Btu per gallon, ethanol from 300 million acres of switchgrass still could not supply our present gasoline and diesel consumption, which is projected to double by 2025. The ethanol would meet less than half of our needs by that date.

Perhaps more important: The agricultural effects of such a large-scale program would be devastating.

Recently, there has been lots of excitement and media coverage about how Brazil produces ethanol for its automobile fuel and talk that America should follow its lead. But Brazil consumes only 10 billion gallons of gasoline and diesel fuel annually, compared with America’s 170 billion. There are almost 4 million miles of paved roads in America — Brazil has 60,000. And Brazil is the leading producer of sugar cane — more than 300 million tons annually — so it has lots of agricultural waste to make ethanol.

Finally, considering projected population growth in the United States and the world, the humanitarian policy would be to maintain cropland for growing food — not fuel. Every day more than 16,000 children die from hunger-related causes — one child every five seconds. The situation will only get worse. It would be morally wrong to divert cropland needed for human food supply to powering automobiles. It would also deplete soil fertility and the long-term capability to maintain food production. We would destroy the farmland that our grandchildren and their grandchildren will need to live.

The writers are research professors in Maglev Research Center at Polytechnic University of New York.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company

 

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The Great Biofuel Hoax

By Eric Holt-Gimenez, Indypendent
Also appearing in ALTERNET http://www.alternet.org/story/54218/

For an alternative viewpoint on corn-based ethanol, read “David Morris’s Give Ethanol a Chance: The Case for Corn-Based Fuel.”

Biofuels invoke 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 fuel from corn, sugarcane, soy and other crops as a replacement for oil that will bring about a smooth transition to a renewablefuel economy.

Myths of abundance divert attention from powerful economic interests that benefit from this biofuels transition, avoiding discussion of the growing price that citizens of the global South are beginning to pay to maintain the consumptive oil-based lifestyle of the North. Biofuel mania obscures the profound consequences of the industrial transformation of our food and fuel systems — the agro-fuels transition.

The Agro-fuels Boom

Industrialized countries have unleashed an “agro-fuels boom” by mandating ambitious renewable fuel targets. Renewable fuels are to provide 5.75 percent of Europe’s transport fuel by 2010, and 10 percent by 2020. The U.S. goal is 35 billion gallons a year. These targets far exceed the agricultural capacities of the industrial North. Europe would need to use 70 percent of its farmland for fuel.

The United States’ entire corn and soy harvest would need to be processed as ethanol and biodiesel. Northern countries expect the global South to meet their fuel needs, and southern governments appear eager to oblige. Indonesia and Malaysia are rapidly cutting down forests to expand oil-palm plantations targeted to supply up to 20 percent of the European Union biodiesel market. In Brazil — where fuel crops already occupy an area the size of the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxemburg and Great Britain combined — the government is planning a fivefold increase in sugar cane acreage with a goal of replacing 10 percent of the world’s gasoline by 2025.

The rapid capitalization and concentration of power within the agro-fuels industry is breathtaking. From 2004 to 2007, venture capital investment in agro-fuels increased eightfold. Private investment is swamping public research institutions, as evidenced by BP’s recent award of half a billion dollars to the University of California. In open defiance of national anti-trust laws, giant oil, grain, auto and genetic engineering corporations are forming powerful partnerships: ADM with Monsanto, Chevron and Volkswagen, BP with DuPont and Toyota. These corporations are consolidating research, production, processing and distribution chains of our food and fuel system under one colossal, industrial roof.

Agro-fuel champions assure us that because fuel crops are renewable, they are environmentally friendly and can reduce global warming, fostering rural development. But the tremendous market power of agro-fuel corporations, coupled with weak political will of governments to regulate their activities, is a recipe for environmental disaster and increasing hunger in the global South. It’s time to examine the myths fueling this biofuel boom — before it’s too late.

Myth #1: Agro-fuels are clean and green

Because photosynthesis from fuel crops removes greenhouse gases from the atmosphere and can reduce fossil fuel consumption, we are told fuel crops are green. But when the full “life cycle” of agro-fuels is considered — from land clearing to automotive consumption — the moderate emission savings are undone by far greater emissions from deforestation, burning, peat drainage, cultivation and soil carbon losses. Every ton of palm oil produced results in 33 tons of carbon dioxide emissions — 10 times more than petroleum. Clearing tropical forests for sugarcane ethanol emits 50 percent more greenhouse gases than the production and use of the same amount of gasoline.

There are other environmental problems as well. Industrial agro-fuels require large applications of petroleum-based fertilizers, whose global use has more than doubled the biologically available nitrogen in the world, contributing heavily to the emission of nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas 300 times more potent than carbon dioxide.

To produce a liter of ethanol takes three to five liters of irrigation water and produces up to 13 liters of waste water. It takes the energy equivalent of 113 liters of natural gas to treat this waste, increasing the likelihood that it will simply be released into the environment. Intensive cultivation of fuel crops also leads to high rates of erosion.

Myth #2: Agro-fuels will not result in deforestation

Proponents of agro-fuels 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 re-classified some 200 million hectares of dry tropical forests, grassland and marshes as “degraded” and apt for cultivation. In reality, these are the bio-diverse ecosystems of the Mata Atlantica, the Cerrado and the Pantanal, occupied by indigenous people, subsistence farmers and extensive cattle ranches.

The introduction of agro-fuel plantations will simply push these communities to the “agricultural frontier” of the Amazon where deforestation will intensify. Soybeans supply 40 percent of Brazil’s biodiesel. NASA has positively correlated their market price with the destruction of the Amazon rainforest — currently at nearly 325,000 hectares a year.

Myth #3: Agro-fuels will bring rural development

In the tropics, 100 hectares dedicated to family farming generates 35 jobs. Oil palm and sugarcane provide 10 jobs, eucalyptus two and soybeans just one half-job per 100 hectares, all poorly paid. Until this boom, agro-fuels primarily supplied local markets, and even in the United States, most ethanol plants were small and farmer-owned. Big Oil, Big Grain and Big Genetic Engineering are rapidly consolidating control over the entire agro-fuel value chain.

The market power of these corporations is staggering: Cargill and ADM control 65 percent of the global grain trade, Monsanto and Syngenta a quarter of the $60 billion gene-tech industry. This market power allows these companies to extract profits from the most lucrative and low-risk segments of the value chain — hundreds of thousands of small farmers have already been displaced by soybean plantations in South America.

Myth #4: Agro-fuels will not cause hunger

Hunger, said Amartya Sen, results not from scarcity, but poverty. According to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, there is enough food in the world to supply everyone with a daily 3,500-calorie diet of grains, fresh fruit, nuts, vegetables, dairy and meat.

Nonetheless, because they are poor, 824 million people continue to go hungry. If current trends continue, some 1.2 billion people could be chronically hungry by 2025 — 600 million more than previously predicted. World food aid will not likely come to the rescue because surpluses will go into our gas tanks. What is urgently needed is massive transfers of food-producing resources to the rural poor, not converting land to fuel production.

Myth #5: Better “second-generation” agrofuels are just around the corner

Proponents of agro-fuels argue that current agro-fuels made from food crops will soon be replaced with environmentally friendly crops like fast-growing trees and switchgrass. This myth, wryly referred to as the “bait and switchgrass” shell game, makes food-based fuels socially acceptable.

The agro-fuel transition transforms land use on a massive scale, pitting food production against fuel production for land, water and resources. The issue of which crops are converted to fuel is irrelevant. Wild plants cultivated as fuel crops won’t have a smaller “environmental footprint.” They will rapidly migrate from hedgerows and woodlots onto arable lands to be intensively cultivated like any other industrial crop, with all the associated environmental externalities.

Agro-fuel: a new industrial revolution?

The International Energy Agency estimates that over the next 23 years, the world could produce as much as 147 million tons of agro-fuel. This will be accompanied by a lot of carbon, nitrous oxide, erosion and more than two billion tons of waste water. Remarkably, this fuel will barely offset the yearly increase in global oil demand, now standing at 136 million tons a year — not offsetting any of the existing demand.

The agro-fuel transition is based on a 200-year relation between agriculture and industry that began with the Industrial Revolution. The invention of the steam engine promised an end to drudgery. As governments privatized common lands, dispossessed peasants supplied cheap farm and factory labor. Cheap oil and petroleum- based fertilizers opened up agriculture itself to industrial capital.

Mechanization intensified production, keeping food prices low and industry booming. The last 100 years have seen a threefold global shift to urban living with as many people now living in cities as in the countryside. The massive transfer of wealth from agriculture to industry, the industrialization of agriculture, and the rural-urban shift are all part of the “agrarian transition,” transforming most of the world’s fuel and food systems and establishing non-renewable petroleum as the foundation of today’s multi-trilliondollar agri-foods industry.

The pillars of this agri-foods industry are the great grain corporations, including ADM, Cargill and Bunge. They are surrounded by an equally formidable consolidation of agro-chemical, seed and machinery companies on the one hand and food processors, distributors and supermarket chains on the other.

Like the original agrarian transition, the present agro-fuels transition will “enclose the commons” by industrializing the remaining forests and prairies of the world. It will drive the planet’s remaining smallholders, family farmers and indigenous peoples to the cities. This government-industry collusion has the potential to funnel rural resources to urban centers in the form of fuel, concentrating industrial wealth. But this time, there is no cheap fuel to drive industrial expansion and there will be no jobs for the masses of people displaced from the countryside. Millions of people may be pushed farther into poverty.

Building Food and Fuel Sovereignty

The agro-fuels transition is not inevitable. There is no inherent reason to sacrifice sustainable, equitable food and fuel systems to industry. Many successful, locally focused, energyefficient and people-centered alternatives are presently producing food and fuel in ways that do not threaten food systems, the environment or livelihoods.

The question is not whether ethanol and biodiesel have a place in our future, but whether or not we allow a handful of global corporations to impoverish the planet and the majority of its people. To avoid this trap we must promote a steady-state agrarian transition built on re-distributive land reform that re-populates and stabilizes the world’s struggling rural communities. This includes rebuilding and strengthening our local food systems and creating conditions for the local re-investment of rural wealth. Putting people and environment — instead of corporate megaprofits — at the center of rural development requires food sovereignty: the right of people to determine their own food systems.

Eric Holt-Giménez is the executive director of Food First/Institute for Food and Development Policy, Foodfirst.org

 

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