Last week, the Huffington Post published an article of Lester Brown (Director of the Earth Policy Institute at Columbia University and founder of the WorldWatch Institute) about the impact on the food market of biofuel production. While I consider myself an environmentalist and I dislike to take a stance against an environmental policy that is extremely popular in Europe and USA I must side with the new “disident” environmentalists as Lester Brown and take a stand against biofuel.

Presently there´s enormous investments being undertaken to build biodiesel plants in Europe and the States. In Europe this is more the case because of the frenzy of trying to meet Kyoto Protocol standards not by truly cutting emissions by increasing public transportation or reducing engine size but by keeping current practices and replacing carbon fuel for biofuel. But I believe that the small benefits to the environment of using biofuel as a means of transportation do not compensate the negative impact that its use has in making it harder to fight malnutrition around the world. Already cows in the European Union receive more income in the form of farm subsidies than what people make earn in Subsaharan Africa. In the case of biofuel you can replace cow for car and the results are the same. Cars are chosen over people while many people still starve.

There is a lot of misinformation about biofuel that has made policy makers make the wrong decisions in Europe and USA. The main argument for the use of biofuel is that as opposed to carbon fuels they are carbon neutral. When we use gasoline we add CO2 to the environment but when we use biofuel what we add when we use the car is offset by what we took out when we made Ethanol. But what this argument is not taking into account is that the world simply does not have enough arable land for both, cars and people to be “well fed”.

Ethanol is made from products rich in saccharine like sugarcane, molasses, and sorghum, following a similar fermentation procedure to the one used to make beer: starch is converted into sugar, sugar fermented into ethanol, and ethanol is then distilled down to its final form. Bio-ethanol can also be created from the rich quantities of starch found in cereals (corn, wheat, and barley) and tubers (cassava, potato). Bottom line is that ethanol is made from food. Now is it ethical to feed food to cars when are about 2 billion people in the planet who would like to get this food and are suffering from malnutrition? While there are ways of making biofuels from non edible biomass including the production of bio-ethanol made from rich prime materials found in cellulose, taken from agricultural and lumber waste, this is not economical. The conversion of cellulose into fermentable sugars is so complex and costly, however, that for now, it is not a feasible means of producing bio-ethanol. It seems that the same challenges faced by humans in getting energy out of these materials is faced by chemists when trying to convert those into biofuel. So what we cannot eat the biofuel industry cannot easily digest either. If they could though I would of course support biofuel made of non edible materials. But this is not where billions of refinery investments are going these days.

As Environmental Action explains it: “Although biofuel can be attained from local products in order to solve energy problems on a local level, the problems intensify as the scale increases. In order to supply the energy needs of the entire global community in an effective enough way to reduce global warming, millions more hectares of land would be needed, thus signifying the destruction of natural ecosystems, and global repercussions on the production of food.

Shell, the huge oil company is also the world´s largest producer of biofuels. Still one of its top managers Eric G Holthusen declared that at Shell

“We think morally it is inappropriate because what we are doing here is using food and turning it into fuel. If you look at Africa, there are still countries that have a lack of food, people are starving, and because we are more wealthy we use food and turn it into fuel. This is not what we would like to see. But sometimes economics force you to do it.”

Lester Brown of the Earth Policy Institute summarizes the problem well: “To fill a car’s 25 gallon gas tank with bio-ethanol, you would be robbing one human being of enough food to last him an entire year. To fill the tank for two weeks, you would be robbing 26 people of a year’s supply of nourishment.”

The complication is that the European Countries, in their furor to fulfill the obligations of the Kyoto Protocol, are dedicated to transforming their fossil fuel energy systems to bio-fuel. Although they cannot keep up with its production, Europeans have seen in biofuel the possibility of maintaining their current lifestyle, without increasing their emission of greenhouse gases. Yet, in all of Europe there is not enough land to produce the quantity of biofuel that would be necessary. So the Europeans would have to rely on importation and this imports come from countries in which malnutrition is still a major problem but a few wealthy landowners control most of the land and are happy to grow the latest cash crops to make biofuels.

The US on the other side has enough land to “feed” its cars, but its energy consumption is so high that it would also be forced to turn to imports. But where would these biofuel imports come from? From Latin America, Asia, and Africa, regions of the world in which many are still malnourished.

The expansion of the use of bio-ethanol would mean that acres of land that are currently being used to produce food in some of the poorest countries in the world, would be dedicated to the more lucrative business of fuel. As Lester Brown described it, “We are confronted with a competition between the 800 million drivers who want to protect their mobility, and the 2 billion poor who want to survive.”

Here´s an article from the Herald Tribune supporting my views.

Follow Martin Varsavsky on Twitter: twitter.com/martinvars

No Comments

euronerd on January 27, 2007  · 

Martin on January 27, 2007  · 

Antoin O Lachtnain on January 27, 2007  · 

killy-the-frog on January 28, 2007  · 

steven on January 28, 2007  · 

David Oliver on January 28, 2007  · 

Martin Varsavsky on January 28, 2007  · 

Antoin O Lachtnain on January 28, 2007  · 

Yffic on January 29, 2007  · 

JNA on January 29, 2007  · 

Aravind on January 31, 2007  · 

Karl-Friedrich Lenz on January 31, 2007  · 

Martin Varsavsky on January 31, 2007  · 

jack hidary on February 1, 2007  · 

ashant chalasani on February 9, 2007  · 

omid ghadiri on November 29, 2007  · 

Andre-John Mas on March 30, 2008  · 

Leave a Comment

Español / English


Subscribe to e-mail bulletin:
Recent Tweets