Biofuel Surge Could Have Severe Downside, Warn Experts
by Haider Rizvi
NEW YORK - The Bush administration's plans to increase biofuel imports
could add to the suffering of millions of impoverished peasants in
Brazil and other developing countries, food rights and environmental
groups say."The benefits of biofuels cannot be achieved at the expense
of food shortages and environmental degradation," says Celso Marcatto,
an activist associated with the U.S.-based anti-poverty organization,
ActionAid, in Brazil.
ActionAid, like many other groups, fears that the growing U.S. demand
for ethanol fuel could force agribusiness in Brazil to indulge in
unhealthy competition for profits that might end up causing monopolies
over farmlands and damage to the environment.
Last month, during his visit to Brazil, U.S. President George W. Bush
signed an agreement with his counterpart Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva to
cooperate in the development of biofuels like ethanol.
Their talks on the subject continued as Lula made a trip to the United
States last weekend.
Bush has described biofuels as a tool to reduce the United States'
dependence on foreign oil, but critics warn the shift in energy
strategy will divert food crops from the world's hungry and promote
single-crop agriculture and the unsustainable consumption of natural
Proponents of sustainable development models say they do not dispute
the fact that ethanol is a viable alternative energy source, but its
production also promotes single-crop agriculture, which can lead to
the loss of biodiversity and create economic disparities. They are
concerned as well that the surge in production of ethanol, which, in
Brazil, is largely derived from sugarcane, is driving villagers off
their native lands and destroying endangered rainforests, which are
considered vital for the biological diversity of the planet.
"The U.S. government should be thinking through a careful approach to
biofuels based on diverse production of a mix of crops, including
native grasses," said ActionAid's Karen Hansen-Kuhn in the United
Emphasizing that local ownership and sustainable agriculture must be
considered as "crucial" elements of the United States' biofuel policy,
Hansen-Kuhn described Bush's approach as a "headlong rush."
Some researchers claim as well that investments in ethanol to fuel
automobiles are driving price hikes in food products around the world.
U.S. investment in fuel ethanol, which in this country is largely
derived from corn, has soared since late 2005, according to the Earth
Policy Institute (EPI), an independent think-tank.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture projected in early 2006 that fuel
ethanol distilleries will require 60 million tons of corn from the
2008 harvest. But EPI research conducted a year later — once the
ethanol boom was apparent — shows that distilleries will need
approximately 139 million tons next year.
This unprecedented diversion of the world's leading grain crop to the
production of fuel will affect food prices every year, according to
EPI. As the world corn price rises, so too do those of rice and wheat
as consumers substitute one for the other and the crops compete for
The U.S. corn crop accounts for about 40 percent of the global harvest
and 70 percent of the world's corn exports. On average, every year,
the United States exports 55 million tons of corn, which is fully 25
percent of the world's total grain exports.
"Substantially reducing this grain export flow would send shock waves
throughout the world economy," says EPI's Lester Brown in a recent
article on the impact of the demand for grain to fuel automobiles.
Describing the automotive demand for fuel as "insatiable," Brown
estimates that the same amount of grain needed to fill a 25-gallon
tank with ethanol one time can feed one person for a whole year.
"The competition for grain between the world's 800 million motorists
who want to maintain their mobility and its 2 billion poorest people
who are simply trying to survive is emerging as an epic issue," he
says, in reflecting that soaring food prices could lead to urban food
riots in many countries.
In order to avoid such an eventuality, EPI points to the need for a
moratorium on the licensing of new ethanol distilleries, with a policy
goal that supports corn prices and farm incomes.
"The world desperately needs a strategy to deal with the emerging
food-fuel battle," says Brown. "We need to make sure that In trying to
solve one problem — our dependence on imported oil — we do not create
a far more serious one."
Copyright � 2007 OneWorld.net.
Published on Wednesday, April 4, 2007 by Guardian / UK
Palm Oil: The Biofuel of the Future Driving an Ecological Disaster Now
by Ian MacKinnon
KALIMANTAN, Indonesia - The numbers are damning. Within 15 years 98%
of the rainforests of Indonesia and Malaysia will be gone, little more
than a footnote in history. With them will disappear some of the
world's most important wildlife species, victims of the rapacious
destruction of their habitat in what conservationists see as a lost
cause. 0404 07Yet this gloomy script was supposed to have included a
small but significant glimmer of hope. Oil palm for biofuel was to
have been one of the best solutions in saving the planet from
greenhouse gases and global warming. Instead the forests are being
torn down in the headlong rush to boost palm oil production.
More startling is that conservationists believe the move to clear land
for this "green fuel" is often little more than a conspiracy,
providing cover to strip out the last stands of timber not already
lost to illegal loggers. In one corner of Kalimantan, the Indonesian
part of Borneo, a mere 250,000 hectares or 1,000 sq miles - almost
twice the size of Greater London - of the 6m hectares of forest
allocated for palm oil by the government have actually been planted.
"When you look closely the areas where companies are getting
permission for oil palm plantations are those of high-conservation
forest," said Willie Smits, who set up SarVision, a satellite mapping
service that charts the rainforest's decline. "What they're really
doing is stealing the timber because they get to clear it before they
plant. But the timber's all they want; hit and run with no intention
of ever planting. It's a conspiracy."
The fear is that Indonesia's aim of almost doubling the 6.5m hectares
under oil palm plantation in the next five to eight years - tripling
it by 2020 - to meet rocketing worldwide demand will afford
ever-greater opportunities for the timber thieves. An estimated 2.8m
hectares of forest is already lost every year.
Until now palm oil - of which 83% is produced in Indonesia and
Malaysia - was produced for food. But the European Union's aim of
cutting greenhouse gas emissions by 20% by 2020, partly by demanding
that 10% of vehicles be fueled by biofuels, will see a fresh surge in
palm oil demand that could doom the rainforests.
That is likely to kill off the "flagship species" of wildlife such as
the Asian elephant, the Sumatran tiger and the orangutan of Borneo
which are already under enormous pressure from habitat loss.
Plantation owners regard the orangutan as pests because it eats the
young palm oil plants and hunt them down ruthlessly.
"In reality it's over for the tiger, the elephant and the orangutan,"
said Mr Smits, who founded the Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation.
"Their entire lowland forest habitat is essentially gone already. We
find orangutan burned, or their heads cut off. Hunters are paid
150,000 rupiah [�8.30] for the right hand of an orangutan to prove
they've killed them."
Two orangutan rehabilitation centers run by the foundation on
Indonesian Borneo are overflowing with more than 800 of the primates,
most rescued from oil palm plantations. But the east Kalimantan
center, where rescued babies are reared by hand, has been unable to
release any rescued orangutan into the wild for four years because
suitable habitat has proved impossible to find. In central Kalimantan
the picture is worse: it has never staged a release in almost a
A new UN report The Last Stand of the Orangutan: State of Emergency
found that forests in Indonesia and Malaysia are being felled so
quickly that 98% could be gone by 2022. Yet the orangutan's lowland
forest could disappear much sooner.
"We're looking at the virtual extinction of the orang-utan in 15
years, or less," said Raffaella Commitante, primatologist at the
foundation's east Kalimantan center. "There are between 50,000 and
60,000 on Borneo and 7,000 on Sumatra. But 5,000 -10,000 are killed
Yet palm oil, mixed with diesel to produce biofuel, was hailed as a
potential savior for the environment. Put simply, the argument runs
that the palm oil plants produce organic compounds that when burned in
engines do not add to overall carbon dioxide levels. The CO2 absorbed
by the plant in its life-cycle should balance the amount it gives out
However, the more the ecological fairytale is scrutinized the more it
begins to look like a bad dream. Researchers from the Dutch pressure
group Wetlands International found that as much as half the space
created for new palm oil plantations was cleared by draining and
burning peat-land, sending huge amounts of carbon dioxide into the
The sodden peat of central Kalimantan acts as a vast organic sponge
that stores huge amounts of carbon. But as it dries while being
drained for plantation, or by roads being cut through to remove
timber, it releases the stored carbon. In Indonesia alone, the peat
releases 600m tons of carbon a year. Worse, it is often set alight to
speed clearing, adding to the CO2 from the huge forest fires that
blanket much of south-east Asia in haze. Estimates say Indonesia's
fires generate 1,400 tonnes of carbon dioxide each year, pushing it to
the world's third-largest producer of CO2 from 26th, if both factors
Conservationists also fear that placing all eggs in one basket could
prompt an ecological disaster. A palm oil monoculture would be unable
to support the rich diversity of wildlife and leave the environment
vulnerable to catastrophic disease, while local people dependent on
the crop could be left high and dry if it fell out of favor.
"There are bad biofuels in the world and palm oil is often the very
'baddest'," said Ed Matthew, biofuel specialist at Friends of the
Earth. "Europe shouldn't be setting targets until it's put a mechanism
in place to block bad biofuels. Palm oil is one of the cheapest
biofuels in the field, but by setting targets it sends the wrong
signal for businessmen."
As the risks become more obvious there has been a growing clamor for
eco-labeling of "sustainable" palm oil. A "round table" of buyers,
producers and environmentalists has established several key criteria
that would prevent conversion of high-conservation rainforest to palm
oil plantations, cut the use of fires to clear land, and mitigate the
conflict of plantations with wildlife and rural communities, though it
has yet to be ratified. "It's vital we find financial backing for this
now," said Fitrian Ardiansyah, a Worldwide Fund for Nature-Indonesia
Jakarta is increasingly aware of the dangers, highlighted by its
inability to prevent continuing illegal logging. But it is keen to
grab the chance and is pledging to put in place regulations to seize
allocated palm oil land not planted within a time limit.
Yet as a developing country it also believes Europe must help out
financially if it wants the safeguards against the downside of palm
oil production that will assist in cutting greenhouse gas.
"The Indonesian government simply doesn't have the capability or the
capacity to do this alone without the support of the Europeans, the
US, Japanese, or whoever," said Alhilal Hamdi, chief executive of
Indonesia's biofuels development board. "It's no good other countries
looking to us to help cut their CO2 emissions without helping to
support us in that effort."
� Guardian News and Media Limited 2007