Biofuels: simple, neat and wrong

ARCHIVE NEWS - JULY 2008. Please note - links may not be working)

Why are we finding ourselves short of oil, short of affordable food and pulled every-which-way by a shifting debate on biofuels and GM food? We have, after all, had plenty of time to prepare. Our dependence on oil for food must have been self-evident to all the agricultural supplies industries and governments for generations. The time-scale on which easily-accessed oil would dwindle was worked out years ago. The short history of biofuels is tightly bound to that of GM crops, and both seem to consist of warning after warning.

In 2004 and 2005, two American universities published reports on the proposed introduction of biofuels to replace oil. Even without factoring in environmental damage, they concluded that such a course of action would put a serious strain on food supplies and prices, and that the inherent costs of agriculture, processing and transport would yield a net energy deficit.

Starting in 2005 with grains, internationally traded food prices have been increasing year on year, and especially sharply since late 2006. This has focused attention on the number of highly vulnerable people on all continents living below the poverty line.

By, 2006, the chemical industries were beginning to concentrate on using petroleum ingredients more efficiently. The more alert companies were moving into plant-based, 'infinitely' replaceable source materials. DuPont was already selling corn-based carpets and pouring R&D resources into 'bio-based' materials to manufacture hair-dyes, nail polishes and textile fibers, it's aim being to achieve 25% of its products from such sources by 2010.
A year later saw the biofuel industry aiming to provide as much as 25% of the world's energy within 20 years. America, the world's largest polluter was planning a seven-fold increase in biofuel production by 2022. The EU set itself a target of 10% of vehicles to run on biofuels.
And then, the first doubts about the biofuel bubble hit the headlines. A UN report questioned the global effects of large-scale biofuel crop production: it highlighted the inevitable forest clearance and ensuing climate, environmental and social damage, plus the loss of precious farm-land and implications for water supplies. Friends of the Earth pointed out that there are 'good' and 'bad' biofuels, and the need to block the latter before any targets were set. (The story of 'bad' biofuels is that of GM crops, see BIOFUELS: THE SUMS DON'T ADD UP)

The new drive to pour our staple food and feed crops into cars became revealed as a recipe for disaster. Finally, the UN recommended a five-year moratorium on biofuel production, to allow time for appropriate technologies to be devised and protective regulatory structures to be put in place. It was pointed out that the 232 kilograms of corn needed to make 50 litres of bio-ethanol would feed a child for a year (if our calculations are correct, this equates to feeding three children a year for every person who shares transport or walks or cycles instead of driving their own car, one Stock and Options Analyst calculated that every time you fill up your SUV, you starve a poor person for six months.).

Rocketing food-prices in 2008, and mounting evidence that the drive for biofuels will only push food prices higher, are opening our eyes to the true implications of this 'infinitely' replaceable source of energy. Although America continues, predictably, to claim that the contribution of biofuels to food price inflation has been a minimal 3%, this has been widely derided: the International Monetary Fund estimates their impact as 20-30%, while a leading World Bank economist tried to conceal his estimate of a whopping 75% in a bid to avoid confrontation with the US. In the UK, a panel of government experts, chaired by the head of the Renewable Fuels Agency, Ed Gallagher, has said that far more research is needed into the indirect impact of biofuels on land use and food production before the government sets targets for their use in transport. Both the Gallagher report and the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation now agree that neither a moratorium nor 'business as usual' are advisable policies, but are calling for a set of international standards to ensure plant-derived biofuels do not harm the food supply.

MEP, Caroline Lucas, recently commented on the G8 deal on climate change:
“Unless governments close the gap between their overblown rhetoric on the importance of tackling climate change and the pathetic degree of political will they are willing to muster when it comes to serious action, any kind of deal on climate change will be meaningless.”

The history of biofuels is a lesson to remind us to beware of the quick fix. As the oft-quoted political commentator, H. L. Mencken, observed “for every complex problem, there is a solution that is simple, neat and wrong”. 

Faced with the corner we've got ourselves into, there are three possible courses of action: 
  1. Cross our fingers and pretend that technical quick fixes such as genetically engineered, high-yielding miracle crops can sustainably deliver us both energy and food.
  2. Eat less, or, if you're already on the bread-line, starve
  3. Pour money, expertise and political will into developing a meaningful infrastructure of diverse, sustainable alternatives for our food and energy needs.

So far, we seem to be blindly engaged in option 1, and if we continue to use our food to paint our nails, colour our hair and cover our floors (besides running our cars), option 2 will soon be forced upon us. Option 3 is still in its infancy. As the Center for Food Safety tells us:
“Through the lens of this crisis, we also see the sense in buying abundant, locally grown foods. Since they travel less and now cost less than processed food or produce flown from across the globe, local crops are looking more and more attractive. They're also fresher, more healthful and more beneficial to consumers. And, in buying them, we support local farmers.”

It is within your power to promote the necessary political will and to support the local agricultural resources to get us out of this corner. 

  • Susan S. Lang, Cornell ecologist's study finds that producing ethanol and biodies3el from corn and other crops is not worth the energy, Cornell University News Service, 5.07.05
  • Claudia H. Deutsch, DuPont bets big on biotechnology, International Herald Tribune, 28.02.06
  • Ian MacKinnon, Palm oil: the biofuel of the future driving an ecological disaster now, Guardian 4.04.07
  • John Vidal, Global rush to energy crops threatens to bring food shortages and increase poverty, says UN, Guardian 9.05.07
  • Oliver Stallwood, Biofuels 'a threat not our saviour', Metro, 9.05.07
  • John Vidal, The looming food crisis, Guardian g2, 29.08.07
  • Mae-Wan Ho, UN 'Right to Food' Rapporteur Urges 7 Year Moratorium on Biofuel, Institute of Science in Society Press Release, 8.11.07,
  • Julian Borger and John Vidal, New study to force ministers to review climate change plan, Guardian 19.06.08
  • Andy Kimbrell, Corn as fuel has hurt world food supply,, 20.06.08
  • Torcuil Crichton, Biofuels 'have pushed food prices up 75%, Glasgow Herald 5.07.08
  • Biofuels and hunger: the report they didn't want you to see, Guardian, 11.07.08,
  • Caroline Lucas, Climate policy on a wing and a prayer, Guardian Letters 11.07.08
  • Leaked Report, A Note on Rising Food Prices, prepared by a senior economist at the World Bank, April 2008,
  • Aditya Chakrabortty, Secret report: biofuel caused food crisis, Guardian 4.07.08
  • H. L. Mencken (1880-1950), newspaperman, book reviewer and political commentator
  • Kevin Kersten, World food shortage and the ethanol bubble,, 7.07.08

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