Save The Planet? Just Eat Cars, Drink Fuel!

01.07.2011 - El Cairo - Baher Kamal

One day, experts came and said that the climate is changing; that the winter will become summer; that typical Victorian style English houses and marvellous holiday resorts in remote tropical paradise-islands, will all sink under the sea, and that tourists will not enjoy anymore ‘exotic’ flamenco shows, paella and ‘corrida’ (bullfight) because Spain will be a desert!

The experts said much more: they talked about the Third World literally dying of hunger and thirst. But who in the First World would give a dam about that — after all, First World TV sets and documentaries show how Africans, Asians and Latin Americans are dying anyway!

The experts really did their job and explained why all this, and much more, will happen: because of greenhouse effect caused by gas emissions coming from the excessive use of fossil fuels — above all oil, among others.

But instead of thinking of reducing oil consumption through so many practical and feasible ways, politicians, fuelled by big business, started feeling excited with the idea of saving the planet Earth by rushing to replace oil with what they call renewable sources of energy.

In anticipation, the First World ‘Bigs’, above all giant corporations, thought it would be good to be on the safe side. Therefore, while calculating how commercially profitable would such renewable sources of energy be, they rushed to invade and occupy — of course in the name of democracy — whoever was still around from among oil producers. The others had been already politically invaded and occupied.

**Few Ideas, But Well Confused**

In their anxious hurry, they had only a few but well confused ideas: at first they claimed that nuclear energy was good and later argued that it was bad; then they talked about solar energy, but they decided that it is too expensive. Then they had second thoughts and planned to take the sun from the Third World and consume it at home.

The wind energy also excited them, but they concluded it would not be enough. What about sea waves? Volcanos? Hydrogen?

And then, as if by a magic wand, they discovered that agrofuel, which they euphemistically call biofuel, is the best energy to have.

It may be good to remind here that the prefix ‘bio’ comes from the ancient Greek ‘bios’, which means life. The term ‘biofuel’ may be appealing but it is utterly misleading. You don’t create a source of life by burning fuel.

**Burning Food To Fill Cars**

‘Bio’ fuel is produced from maize, rice, sugarcane, soybeans, wheat, sugar beet, peanuts, sweet sorghum, cassava, palm oil, that is, agricultural harvests feeding human beings. More accurate is then to call it after what it really is: agrofuel.

**All Kinds Of Harm**

But producing agrofuels raises all kinds of substantial problems: heavy use of fertilisers and pesticides, which seriously harm soil; cultivation of ‘biofuel’ consumes enormous quantities of water; the final product requires heavy water-intensive industrial processing, and its transportation is made mostly by trucks.

Moreover; it leads to a huge concentration of lands; small farmers, who represent up to 80% of the agricultural sector in many Third World countries, and an average of 65% of food production in many others, do not benefit at all from the heavy industrial processes of producing agrofuels.

Then, food prices will rise and food availability will be dramatically reduced (232 kilos of maize are needed to produce 50 litres of ethanol — nearly enough to fill an average car tank, or to provide the amount of calories a child needs in a year). And it seriously damages livestock due to the dilapidation of grasslands.

In addition, biodiversity will be more quickly lost; the need for more lands to produce fuels will further push deforestation; the wetlands will quickly shrink until total disappearance and the entire process will increase carbon footprints on the whole — let alone that agrofuels will represent a very small percentage of the world’s energy needs and consumption. So far agrofuels account for only 1% of all fuel needed for road transport.

**All Worried… Except Big Business!**

These and related consequences have been generating angry reactions among major civil society and ecologists’ organisations, such as the Friends of the Earth and Oxfam as well as religious entities like the Catholic Committee against Hunger and for Development. They have been campaigning to explain that “biofuels won’t feed the planet”.

In fact, the experts found that agrofuel may be as bad as oil, if not worse.

An exhaustive and well documented study entitled ‘The Right to Food and the Impact of Liquid Biofuels (Agrofuels)’ published by the leading world organisation in charge of food and agricultural issues, the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO), details the effects of producing agrofuel.

**Less Food… And More Expensive**

The FAO study says that agrofuels have had an adverse impact — and will in the near future make things worse, further bloc the access to adequate food or to the resources by which vulnerable sections of the people can feed themselves in diverse ways.

1. Less and more expensive food will contribute significantly to the increase in food prices.

2. Land concentration and marginalisation of the poor: FAO explains that agrofuel production causes land concentration for plantation-type production, due to considerations of economy of scale, which have led and are likely to continue to cause evictions or marginalisation of vulnerable groups and individuals.

3. Women severely affected: FAO warns that many women in the developing countries, especially in Africa, are likely to be particularly severely affected, should extensive biofuel production spread to their parts of the world.

4. Indigenous peoples: FAO study also warns that indigenous peoples and other groups with insecure title to the land from which they make their living have also been harmed and the damage done to them is likely to be on the rise.

5. Environment: Biofuel production, says the study, causes a number of environmental problems, reduces biodiversity, and leads to competition for water.

In the light of this, the study continues, the question is whether there are sufficient ethical justifications for biofuel production to override the negative consequences.

**Not Tenable And Insufficient**

Following are some of the key conclusions of the FAO study. Its complete version is available at

(1) The most widely used justification, that replacing fossil fuel (gasoline, diesel) by biofuel can reduce greenhouse gas emissions and thereby reduce global warming is mostly not tenable.

Most liquid biofuel production, distribution and use leads to as much and sometimes more greenhouse gas emissions than the use of executive summary fossil fuel, when both the direct and indirect consequences are taken into account, including the unavoidable land shifts that will be required by any expansion of such production; and

(2) Biofuel production cannot in any significant degree improve the energy security of developed countries – to do so would require so vast allocation of land that it would be impossible for a multitude of reasons.

The FAO report recognises that the use of liquid biofuel reduces urban pollution to some extent “but not much since blending will still be necessary for a long time to come, and there are other ways to reduce pollution, which have less negative consequences”. The study deals in detail with those aspects.

The study is authored by Asbjørn Eide, Professor Emeritus and now Senior Fellow at the Norwegian Centre for Human Rights, University of Oslo. Eide is also a former Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food as a Human Right of the UN Sub-Commission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities, and the Chairman of the FAO Panel of Eminent Experts on Ethics in Food and Agriculture

**Too Much Harm**

“There are well-documented claims that there are serious harmful consequences of biofuel production which have been grossly underestimated, and that the alleged benefits have been considerably exaggerated,” says FAO.

And explains that the growing concerns are strikingly reflected in the title of a recent working paper for the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), which groups rich countries: ‘Is the cure worse than the disease?’

The paper argues that government policies around the world to replace oil with ethanol and other liquid biofuels could draw the world into a “food-versus-fuel” battle.

The world is now facing a deep crisis caused by a steep increase in food prices without a corresponding increase in income for the food insecure. Biofuel production is one of its causes, FAO affirms.

**More Problems And More Risks**

And continues: biofuel production has also given rise to a number of other problems and risks causing a far-reaching concentration of land ownership in developing countries with harmful effects on the livelihoods of vulnerable groups.

The most recent addition is the production of biodiesel from Jatropha, a plant producing non-edible oily seed, found and now cultivated for biofuel in Asia and Africa.

Anyway, says FAO, the use of liquid biofuel constitutes only a very limited part of the total use of energy derived from biomass, and biomass used for energy is a very small part of total energy consumption, and yet the extent of agricultural land used to produce these small components of total energy demand is large and substantially affects food production.

**‘Intolerable Impact’**

“If biofuel production were to double many times over, which is what present quota and targets would require, the impact would probably be intolerably high…”

In 2007, liquid biofuel contributed only 0.36% of the total energy consumption in the world. To achieve this modest fraction of the total energy use, 23% of U.S. coarse grain production was used to produce ethanol and in the European Union (EU) about 47% of all vegetable oil production was used to produce biodiesel.

It is estimated that in 2008 the ethanol share of the gasoline fuel market in the U.S. would be about 4.5%, with a quarter of the coarse grain production in the country devoted to biofuel.

“The U.S. National Academies of Sciences made a calculation, using the year of 2005 as an example, showing that even if all the corn and soybeans produced in the U.S in 2005 had been used for bioethanol production, this would only replace 12% of the country’s gasoline demand and 6% of its diesel demand”, the study notes.

“Taken as a whole, liquid biofuel meets today around 1% of the world road transport needs, and yet the share of the total agricultural plant production is huge. According to the World Energy Outlook, should current trends and expectations continue, this is likely to rise to around 2.3% in 2015 and 3.2% in 2030.”

An Alternative Policy Scenario has been presented according to which the production might rise to 3.4% in 2015 and 5.9% in 2030. It therefore appears that very large parts of agriculture would have to be harnessed to biofuel and still only a very modest share of transport energy consumption could be met.

**‘Don’t Let Invasive Biofuel Crops Attack Your Country’**

According to the FAO study, recently attention has also been given to another serious risk, that the plant species envisaged for the “second generation production” may turn out to be invasive when alien to the territories where they are planted, which may cause a multitude of problems including for food production.

‘Don’t let invasive biofuel crops attack your country; warn top scientists’ is the title of a press release this May by the Global Invasive Species Programme.

**The Water Factor**

The Minnesota, U.S.-based Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP) has issued a report (, in which it says that with increasing population, growing food requirements, industrialisation and urbanisation, “the world is on the brink of an unprecedented water crisis.”

“Over 1.2 billion people do not have access to safe drinking water, and almost 40% of humanity does not have access to water to meet their daily sanitation needs”, says the report.

While the water crisis can partially be attributed to the uneven geographic distribution of water, the situation has been exacerbated by the absence of appropriate national and international policies that ensure sustainable use of water, the report explains.

The IATP emphasise: “Water is likely to be the most important strategic resource by the end of next decade and key to achieving economic development.”

And adds: “Yet, in the context of biofuel development, there has been very limited awareness and discussion of the water crisis. The current biofuel development strategy may aggravate the water crisis, and access to water could become a primary factor in the development of biofuel feedstock production.”

IATP then reports that in regions already under water stress, biofuel production may further decrease the freshwater availability for other development options and may limit the “right to water” both for ecosystem sustenance and for meeting peoples’ basic needs.

“The indiscriminate promotion of biofuel development as a “cheap and green” energy option may interfere with optimal water allocation, and/or the pursuit of appropriate public water policies that will help address the water crisis.”

**The report cautions:**

“Currently, biofuels are neither a sufficient replacement of petroleum, nor are they a dominant agricultural land use.”

IATP report continues: “In 2006, the world produced enough ethanol — accounting for almost 87.65% of total biofuels — to displace just over 1% of total petroleum based liquid fuel consumption.” Further: “Biofuel feedstocks account for only about 1% of the total area under crop and a similar percent of crop water use.”


But the production and use of biofuels is growing rapidly.

There has been exponential growth in the biofuel sector since 2000, tells IATP. Between 2004 and 2005 alone, global ethanol production went up nearly 13% from 10.77 billion gallons to 12.15 billion gallons; between 2005 and 2006 there was a further increase of 11% to 13.49 billion gallons (one gallon is equivalent to 3.7854118 litres).

Biodiesel production, accounting for a mere 5% of biofuel production in 2004, has also been expanding. In the United States, biodiesel production tripled from 25 million gallons in 2004 to 75 million gallons in to 2005.

In 2006, the U.S produced 250 million gallons of biodiesel, a ten-fold in-crease from 2004. By 2006, biodiesel accounted for 12.35% of the global biofuel production, 15.39 billion gallons.

While the U.S., Brazil and EU accounted for 75% of global biofuel production in 2006, it is spreading rapidly to other parts of the world.

**The End Of It**

According to international water policy experts, unless drastic changes are made in how we use and manage our water, there will not be enough water to meet the food, fodder and fibre needs of humanity in the coming 50 years.

IATP gives some available estimates for cumulative crop water requirement for corn (maize) and sugarcane, the two feedstock which together account for about 83.6% of world ethanol production in 2006.

“For Iowa, in the heart of corn production in the U.S., the water use (associated with crop water requirement) for producing a gallon of ethanol has been calculated to be between 1081 and 1121 gallons of water.”

With this scenario in view, and unless humanity changes its lifestyle, which is quite improbable, a small portion of 800 millions cars around the world, especially in the First World, will be well fed with agrofuel. Food will be more expensive than fuel. And there will not be enough freshwater.

What do you think would happen then? Will people go to the supermarket, buy parts of car engines, body and wheels to prepare meals, and take home litres of fuel to quench their thirst?

Ah! … almost forgot to say that one billion hungry people — and many more to come — will this time really literally die of hunger and thirst.

Copyright © 2011 Human Wrongs Watch

Also published by IDN-InDepthNews

Categories: Ecology and Environment, International, Middle East, Opinions


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