Anyone who has opened a newspaper or magazine this year will have read a great deal of hype about biofuels. America is determined to reduce its petrol consumption by 20 percent within a decade by producing 35 billion gallons of biofuel a year. the EU Biofuels Directive requires that all member states have a blend of 5.7 percent biofuel in their road transport fuels by 2010. Biofuels are the clean, green, sustainable, oil-saving, pollution-free, climate-friendly saviours of mankind especially in the Developing Worlds.
The immediate response to these decisions has been a massive 60 percent rise in the global price of biofuel crops. The media quotes excited Mexican farmers who are able to generate real cash from their land for the first time in living memory as their government finds the will to hand out contracts which guarantee prices and markets, discounts on fertiliser and seed, and use of farm machinery.
If you are puzzled about the term 'biofuel' this could be because it refers to several technologies which produce alternative fuels from a variety of sources.
First generation biofuels are available now:
- BIOETHANOL is an alcohol-based fuel produced from fermented sugar or starch. Sugar-cane and maize are the most prominent crops used, but sugar beet, wheat and barley are current options. Bioethanol can be blended with petrol.
- BIODIESEL is manufactured from vegetable, animal, or waste oil. The most prominent source is palm oil. Biodiesel is usually blended with conventional diesel.
- BIOGAS is derived from bacterial digestion of waste or other organic material.
- LIGNO-CELLULOSIC ETHANOL is produced by digestion and fermentation of grass-crops or wood pulp.
- COAL-BASED DIESEL is what it sounds like, diesel produced from coal.
Our current dilemma, which has suddenly put biofuels in the spotlight, is that we have developed a global infrastructure based on oil, which has allowed us to live in the most luxurious civilisation ever known. Virtually everything we do needs oil : 95 percent of transportation; 95 percent of goods in our shops; 95 percent of our food products. Oil allows us to maintain an available food supply of barely more than two days by just-in-time deliveries from all over the world. To farm a single cow and deliver it to market requires six barrels of oil.
Our oil consumption has been rising steadily for decades. The International Energy Agency forecasts that our oil use will rise from its present 84 million barrels a day to 116 million barrels by 2030.
Oil companies and governments are happy to believe we have enough untapped reserves of oil to continue in this way. Geologists, mainly working in the heart of the oil industry, tell us our oil is running out. The latter camp sees oil supplies diminishing at 3 percent every year, with a cumulative impact adding up to a 50 percent reduction by 2030 (the same year as our consumption is forecast to have risen by 38 percent).
The apparent incentive to start paying heed to the geologists, seems to be industry's realisation that there is a multi-billion dollar a year biofuel industry out there in the fields which could allow it to provide as much as 25 percent of the world's energy within 20 years. And of course, if the fuel-crops are genetically modified, they can be patented.
America has been quick to work out that it isn't big enough (!) to grow all the GM crops it needs to fuel its life-style. Projects are already underway to persuade the whole of Latin America to embrace GM maize monoculture to keep its northern neighbour in the style to which it has become accustomed and similar moves are afoot in Africa.
There are dire warnings already of the inefficiency of biofuels for energy (see BIOFUELS: THE SUMS DON'T ADD UP). As these article were being written, even the UN has acknowledged the impossibility of using agricultural land and water for fuel without risking mass starvation. Add to this the inevitable genetic pollution of whole continents and global food supplies with genes, gene-products and unknown by-products never designed by nature nor man to be part of us.
The National Farmers Union of Canada sums up biofuel production as “publicly subsidized vaporization of food stocks” which are (temporarily) good for farmers, but “bad physics, bad biology and bad policy”.
Our oil-based infrastructure and dependency on global commodities have to be rationalised.
Want to take action?
Let your representatives in government and the media know what you think of using GM crops as an unworkable excuse to avoid putting our oil-hungry house in order.
Check out http://www.biofuelwatch.org.uk/ for lots of information and suggested actions, such as a helpful standard letter for you to participate in the UK's own biofuel directive consultation.
- Union farmer Monthly January 2007
- UN Framework Convention on Climate Change Press Release 16.11.06
- Friends of the Earth New Zealand 28.03.07
- Scotsman 20.02.07
- Guardian 26.01.07 and 09.05.07
- Metro 9.05.07; Scientists for Global Responsibility Newsletter 33 Winter 2006
- Soil Association One Planet Agriculture 2007