Ethanol production increases not reduces green house gas emissions, according to scientists. US corn ethanol, touted as cutting fuel GHG by 20%, will almost double them in 30 years and the effect will last for 167 years (1). Worldwide, crop biofuels will release 17 to 420 times more CO2 than the fossil fuel they replace (2). The only alternative, next generation biofuel from perennial grasses, depends on still unproven technology.
Impacts on ecosystems and human security are severe, lack hard statistics, and lag years behind futures markets hype. "Green deserts" were created by megaprojects in Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay -- where rich landowners and investors clearcut rainforest, drove out native people and small farmers, often with violence, and imposed GMO / chemical monocultures. There is now evidence from Argentina and Brazil that their bonanza profits lasted only a few years, soil fertility fell, while chemical use doubled (3); people have been poisoned by reckless pesticide spraying (4); nitrate fertilizers pollute wells and rivers (5). Fertilizers and farm mechanization, both based on fossil fuel, increase emissions. Alarmingly, many of these projects were financed by "carbon offsets" and the misnamed "Clean Development Mechanism" of Kyoto (6).
Madhu Khanna, a University of Illinois professor of agricultural and consumer economics, was one of the experts in a Feb 2008 roundtable on Sustainable Biofuels, Gender Equity and Human Security. In a UI News interview she says:
The food vs. fuel debate is real and can only be expected to intensify in the near future...Given the questionable environmental benefits of corn-based ethanol, the large diversion of corn from food/feed that it requires and the limited potential to rely on it to achieve meaningful independence from foreign oil there is a need to rethink our current policy.
Since Congress subsidies in 2005, corn prices doubled despite a huge expanse in acreage. Soy and wheat prices also rose. 90% percent of ethanol distilleries popping up across the United States are corn-based. Diverting half of US corn from food to fuel only meets 10% of of our current gas-guzzling, she points out:
The recent Energy Bill sets ambitious mandates for renewable fuel production of 36 billion gallons annually by 2022. Of this, 15 billion gallons is expected to be corn-based ethanol; this would represent less than ten percent of our annual gasoline consumption in the US and require using 50 percent of our current corn production for fuel production... World prices of food and feed are likely to rise even further with potentially adverse impacts on net food importing developing countries as well as on the poor in urban populations.
It is already happening: in early 2008 there were food riots in a number of countries.(7)
Next-generation alternatives to corn ethanol include dedicated energy crops, such as Miscanthus x giganteus and Switchgrass, crop residues like corn stover and wheat straw and municipal wastes. These feedstocks can be used to produce ligno-cellulosic biofuels. Miscanthus and switchgrass are high yielding perennial grasses with low input requirements that can be grown under a wide range of growing conditions in the midwest and southern regions of the US. They have the potential to more than double the gallons of ethanol that can be obtained per acre and are expected to have a significantly lower greenhouse gas intensity than corn ethanol. These grasses also reduce soil erosion and nitrogen run-off. However, the commercial viability of converting these next generation feedstocks into biofuels is highly dependent on technological breakthroughs that are still in the pipeline.
(1) T. Searchinger, et al "Use of U.S. Croplands" in AAAS Science Feb 2008
(2) Joseph Fargione, et al. "Land Clearing" in AAAS Science Feb 2008; W Laurance, "US corn subsidies promote Amazon deforestation¨ in Science Dec 2007, reported by Enviro.org.au.
(3) "Soyabean in Argentina" in Wikipedia Monsanto; on Brazil, Institute of Science in Society UK, Climate Ark.
(4) pesticide poisoning in LaSoyaMata; "fumigation" in Independent Science Panel, Indymedia and GRR.
(5) green deserts: see Guardian 2004. For those caused by eucalyptus monoculture for paper see WRM, Chris Lang's blog, police violence against dispossessed natives, protests led by MST, Via Campesina, FoE in 2007-08, video of Brazil women's leader Arlete Pinheiro.
(6) carbon financing: Red Pepper Sep 2006, Guardian Feb 2007, Environment New Net on dubious certifications (for CDM).
(7) "Food Crisis," BiofuelWatch Feb 2008.
---------See Wikipedia on biofuel, second and third generation; updates in Science; our previous postings peak everything and biofuel debate. Brazil cropdusting videos one, two.
Videos of small farmer-campesino-peasant activists around the world: All Raised Voices.
En español: Grupo de Reflexión Rural con audios, Via Campesina, La Soja Mata. Videos contra las papeleras.