ESSAY- Food fleece: Biofuels are eco-bad and people-bad

Sigh. Another day, another inane strategy to fight global warming.

The bee in my bonnet this time is biofuels. They're nothing new, but governments and corporations are pushing biofuels with a renewed ferocity as the panacea for what ails our ailing planet. But just as biofuels are working their way into our climate-cures lexicon, organizations, environmentalists and even the United Nations are blowing a very loud whistle. They warn that the United States and the European Union's renewable energy plans, which rely on biofuels, will have devastating impacts for the global South, turn our gaze away from investing in truly carbon-free technologies, and even add a flame to the fire igniting climate change.

In October, Jean Ziegler, a U.N. expert, called for a five-year moratorium on biofuel production, telling the Associated Press, "The effect of transforming hundreds and hundreds of thousands of tons of maize, of wheat, of beans, of palm oil, into agricultural fuel is absolutely catastrophic for hungry people."

The humanitarian organization Oxfam International just denounced the EU's proposal for 10 percent of transport fuels to come from biofuels by 2020, saying it could "spell disaster for some of the world's poorest people." The target for renewable-fuel use in the United States is 35 billion gallons a year.

We're being battered left and right with ominous news about climate change, so the idea of filling our tanks and heating our homes with biofuels is naturally comforting. Biofuels sound green. They're made from things that once were green– corn, palm oil, sugar cane and other agricultural products. And they're being touted as green. A Department of Energy's resource page for biofuels says, "Hey students! Biofuels such as bioethanol and biodiesel can make a big difference in improving our environment."

But don't judge a climate cure by its color. Give it a rub, and you'll find that the term "biofuels" is actually obscuring an insidious reality. For that reason, many people, especially in the global South, have taken to calling them "agrofuels."

Consider this statement from the Landless Worker's Movement in Brazil in March, where biofuel production is skyrocketing: "We can't call this a ‘bio-fuels program.' We certainly can't call it a ‘bio-diesel program.' Such phrases use the prefix ‘bio' to subtly imply that the energy in question comes from ‘life' in general. This is illegitimate and manipulative. We need to find a term in every language that describes the situation more accurately, a term like agro-fuel. This term refers specifically to energy created from plant products grown through agriculture."

And it's this agricultural production that has so many people worried. Biofuels need land, which means traditional food crops are being elbowed off the field for fuel crops. Biofuel production is literally taking the food out of people's mouths and putting into our gas tanks. Already, increased food costs sparked by increased demand are leaving populations hungry. The price of wheat has stretched to a 10-year high, while the price of maize has doubled.

Need more land? Clear-cut some forest. Is there a word beyond irony to describe a plan to mitigate climate change that relies on cutting down the very trees that naturally remove carbon from the atmosphere? "Stupidity," perhaps? The logic is like harvesting a sick patient's lungs to save her heart. Huge tracks of Amazon rainforest are being raised to the biofuels altar like a sacrificial lamb, and the UN suggests that 98 percent of Indonesia's rainforest will disappear by 2022, where heavy biofuel production is under way.

Still need land? Just take it. The human rights group Madre, which is backing the five-year moratorium, says agrofuel plantations in Brazil and Southeast Asia are displacing indigenous people. In an editorial published on CommonDreams last week, Madre Communication Director Yifat Susskind wrote, "People are being forced to give up their land, way of life, and food self-sufficiency to grow fuel crops for export."

If this climate cure had a prescription bottle, the side effects would read: "Biofuels may cause drowsiness, headaches, human rights abuses, land deforestation, water depletion, worldwide hunger, and climate change." 

Wait, climate change? That's right; this cure is actually a cause. Biofuels themselves may have a small carbon footprint, but the energy used to grow and process the fuel make for one large bear paw in the mud. Biofuels depend on the manufacturing of fertilizers, fuel used to power equipment, and fuel used to transport crops and fuels, which can offset any gains made in using biofuels. An October study by the Nobel Laureate Paul Crutzen determined that use of nitrogen fertilizers causes biofuels to contribute more to global warming than petrol.

The Department of Energy (DOE) says biomass products, of which biofuels are derived, are "often more environmentally benign than their petroleum-derived counterparts." If the DOE was a betting man, how much would it wager on "often?"

The movement against biofuels has grown from a groundswell to a tidal wave. In January, more than 220 organizations worldwide appealed to the European Parliament to abandon their mandatory biofuels target. Even the International Monetary Fund is feeling nervous. In October, an IMF research team posted an article on the IMF's website that noted, "Until new technologies are developed, using food to produce biofuels might further strain already tight supplies of arable land and water all over the world, thereby pushing food prices up even further."

It's new, carbon-free and sustainable technologies that we need to be investing in, rather than a plan that has as much stock as Bush's missile defense scheme. Madre said that the moratorium on biofuels should be accompanied by technologies that don't compromise global food security.

Susskind wrote, "We need sustainable solutions to climate change, not corporate solutions that seek to simply shift our energy addiction from one resource to another. Creative and practical solutions for meeting our energy requirements— including some local, sustainable biofuel programs— are being developed around the world."

In theory, biofuel production could reduce poverty by increasing jobs for small farmers around the world. But Oxfam warns that the "huge plantations emerging to supply the EU pose more threats than opportunities for poor people." If we're going to pull the current form of biofuels production out from under places like debt-riddled Brazil, we need to replace it with another plan that offers sustainable economic development for poor communities.

Oxfam suggests the EU implement safeguards in biofuel production that protect land rights, livelihoods, workers rights and food security. "The EU set its biofuel target without checking the impact on people and the environment," Oxfam spokesperson Robert Bailey said in a press release. "The EU must include safeguards to ensure that the rights and livelihoods of people in producing countries are protected. Without these, the 10 percent target should be scrapped and the EU should go back to the drawing board."

Until then, the U.S Department of Energy is exactly right. Biofuels will make a big difference in improving our environment— "our" being the United States and the EU, and nobody else.

 This essay originally appeared in In These Times, a research-heavy journal created by some of America's most thoughtful lefties/progressives.