The Myth of Biofuels

Following up on yesterday’s post here’s some more biofuels from Brazil.

The Myth of Biofuels

Edivan Pinto – Marluce Melo – Maria Luisa Mendonça*

Recent studies about the impacts caused by fossil fuels contributed in highlighting the theme of bioenergy . The energy matrix is composed of petroleum (35%), coal (23%) and natural gas (21%).On their own, the ten richest countries consume 80% of the energy produced in the world. Amongst these, the USA is responsible for 25% of pollution to the atmosphere. Analysts estimate that within 25 years, the world demand for petroleum, natural gas and coal may have an increase of 80%.

The acceleration of global warming is a fact that places in risk life on the planet. It is necessary, however, to demystify the principal solution presented at the moment and spread through propaganda about the supposed benefits of biofuels. The idea of “renewable” energy must be dismissed from a viewpoint that takes into account the negative effects of these sources.

The propaganda of “green fuel” or “clean energy” has been amply divulged in Brasil. “Used as a substitute to petroleum derivatives, both ethanol and biodiesel become instruments capable of deterring global warming” affirms a text in the magazine `Global Rural´ (November 2006).

On the other hand, there are several studies that contradict this idea. Specialist in genetics and biochemistry, Professor Mae-Wan-Ho of the University of Hong-Kong, explains that ” biofuels have been presented and considered erroneously as `neutral in carbon´, as if they didn´t contribute to the green house effect; when they are burnt, the carbon dioxide that the plants absorb when they develop in the fields, is returned to the atmosphere. Thus the costs of the CO2 emissions are ignored as also is the emission of energy from fertilizers and pesticides used in the harvests, the use of agricultural machinery, the processing and refining, the transport and the infrastructure for distribution.” For the researcher, the extra energy costs and of the carbon emissions are even greater when the biofuels are produced in one country and exported to another.

A study by the Belgian Cabinet for Scientific Affairs shows similar results: “Biodiesel provokes more health and environmental problems because it creates pollution that is more pulverized, frees more polluents that promote the destruction of the ozone layer.”

About ethanol production, Mae-Wan-Ho explains that “it was not taken into consideration the enormous liberation of carbon from the organic soil provoked by the intensive sugar cane culture which substitutes forests and pasture lands that, if they were regenerated, would save more than seven tons of CO2 per hectare per year than what bioethanol saves.” Besides this, each litre of ethanol produced consumes about four litres of water which represents a risk of greater scarcity of natural water sources and aquifers (groundwater).

In the case of soya, the most optimistic estimates indicate that the balance in favour of renewable energy produced for each unit of fossil energy spent in the cultivation is less than two units. This is due to the high consumption of petroleum used in fertilizers and in the agricultural machinery. Besides this, the expansion of soya has caused enormous devastation to forest and cerrado in Brasil.

Even so, soya has been presented by the Brazilian government as the principal culture for biodiesel by the fact of being one of the biggest producers in the world. “The soya culture emerges as the jewel in the crown of the Brazilian agro-business. Soya can be considered the lever which will permit the opening of biofuel markets” state researchers at EMBRAPA – Brazilian Company of Agropecuary Research. (Revista de Política Agricola. Ano XIV, no. 1 – Jan.-Feb.-Mar. 2005).

Brasil´s Role

Even though it does not have sufficient agriculturable lands for the increase of production, the European Union (EU) established that by 2010, its member countries must add 5.75% of biodiesel to its fuel and, by 2015, this mark would reach 8%. Several analysts, however, estimate that besides the practical difficulties of implementation, it would be extremely difficult for this project to reach its objectives. According to Professor Wae-Wan-Ho, “if the 5.6 million hectares stock of land in the EU was cultivated with plants for energy, we would save only from 1.3% to 1.5% of emissions from highway transport, or about 0.3% of total emissions from the fifteen countries.”

The U.S. government offers tax incentives so that industry increase the percentage of biodiesel in ordinary diesel. It would be necessary, however to use 121% (one hundred and 21 per cent) of the total of agriculturable land to substitute the actual demand for fossil fuels in that country.

In this context, the role of Brasil would be to provide cheap energy to rich countries which would represent a new phase of colonization. The present policies for the sector are sustained on the same elements that characterized the colonization of Brasil: appropriation of territory, of natural resources and of labour which represents a greater concentration of land, water, wealth and power.

It is estimated that more than 90 million hectares of Brasil´s land could be used to produce biofuels. Besides this, the “efficiency” of our production is due to the use of cheap labour – even slave labour. These characteristics are divulged by government bodies and by some intellectuals, who create the idea that agro-business production would bring great benefits.

“Our country has the greatest extension of land in the world that can still be incorporated into the productive process” state the EMBRAPA researchers. They state that the production of biomass “could be the most important component of Brazilian agro-business”. With regards to the expansion of ethanol production, they conclude that there is “possibility of sugarcane expansion in almost all of the country´s territory.”

At present, Brazilian sugar mills have the capacity to produce 800 million litres of biodiesel per year, used in a 2% mixture with common (ordinary) diesel. The established aim of companies in the sector is to arrive at one billion litres by 2008 when the prevision is to add 5% to fossil fuel.

Analyses by the BNDES (National Bank for Social and Economic Development) indicate this type of investment as priority and estimate the construction of one hundred sugar mills by 2010. In 2004, the Bank invested R$580 million in the sector and in 2006, this figure rose to R$2.2 billion. Brasil produces at the moment seventeen billion litres of alcohol per year. According to BNDES, it would be necessary to produce eight billion litres more so as to be able attend the internal market. Thus the Bank foresees that Brasil must expand its production to other countries. With the pretension of controlling 50% of the world market, BNDES estimates that Brasil will arrive at the figure of producing 110 billion litres per year.

“Just in the cerrado (bioma in the Brazilian Centre-West region), 20 million hectares of land could be made available for the planting of grain crops” an EMBRAPA report reveals. In the North East, according to the researchers, “just for mamona (castor) oil there is an area of three million hectares able for cultivation.” Furthermore, they state that “the Brazilian Amazonian Region possesses the greatest potential in the world for the plantation of dendê (palm) oil.

This product, however, is known as “diesel of forest destruction”. The massive production of palm oil has already caused the devastation of great extensions of forest in Colombia, Ecuador and Indonesia. In Malaysia, the greatest producer of palm oil in the world, 87% of forests have been devastated.

Besides the destruction of the environment and the use of agricultural lands for the production of biomass, there are other polluting effects in the process, such as the construction of transport infrastructure, warehouses for storage, which demand a great quantity of energy, of in-puts ((fertilizers and agro-toxics) and of irrigation to guarantee the increase of production.

Brasil can also fulfill the mission of legitimizing the foreign policy of the U.S. government. In a visit to Brasil in February 2007, the Sub-secretary of State, Nicholas Burns, affirmed that “the research and the development of biofuels can be the symbolic hub of a new and stronger partnership between Brasil and the U.S.” The two countries control 70% of world production of ethanol. According to Burns, “energy tends to distort the power of some states which we think have a negative balance in the world, such as Venezuela and Iran.” (Folha de São Paulo, 7 Feb. 2007).

The expansion of bioenergy production is of great interest to companies engaged in GMO – genetically modified organism (GMO). They hope to obtain greater acceptance from the public if they present GMO products as sources of “clean” energy.

“All the companies that produce GMOs – Syngenta, Monsanto, Dupont, Dow, Bayer, Basf – have investments in cultures conceived for the production of biofuels, such as ethanol and biodiesel. They have, besides this, agreements with transnational companies such as Cargill, Archer, Daniel Midland, Bunge, which dominate the world market for cereals. In the majority of cases, the investigation is directed at obtaining new types of genetic manipulation of corn, sugar cane, soya, amongst others, converting them into non-eatable cultures which increases dramatically the risks which on their own already imply transgenic contamination” explains Silvia Ribeiro, researcher for the ETC Group, Mexico.

According to Eric Holt-Gimenez, coordinator of Food First, “Three big companies (ADM, Cargill, Monsanto) are forging their empire: genetic engineering, processing and transport – an alliance that will bind production to the sale of ethanol.” And he adds that “other agro-business companies like Bunge, Syngenta, Bayer and Dupont, allied to petroleum transnationals like Shell, TOTAL, and British Petroleum, and also to autobuilders such as VW, Peugeot, Citröen, Renault and SAAB, form an unprecedented partnership with a view to great profits with biofuels”.

The Role of Peasant Agriculture

Edna Carmélio, biofuels coordenator at the Brazilian Agrarian Development Ministry states:” the production of ethanol concentrates wealth. On the other hand, biodiesel, even though is not exclusive to family agriculture, has a strong social component.”

Experiences with the plantation of castor (mamona) by small farmers in the Northeast of Brasil show the risk of dependency on big agricultural companies who control prices, processing and distribution of production. The peasants are used to give legitimacy to agro-business, through the distribution of “socially acceptable fuel” certificates.

The expansion of biofuels production puts at risk food sovereignty and can deeply aggravate the problem of world hunger. In Mexico, for example, the increase of corn exports to sustain the ethanol market in the U.S. caused an increase of 400% in the price of the product, which is the population´s main food source.

This model causes negative impacts in peasant, riverside, Indigenous and rural Afro-Brazilian (quilombo) communities who have their territories threatened by large corporations. Silvia Ribeiro alerts to the fact that “now it is automobiles, not persons, that demand the annual production of cereals. The quantity of grains that is required to fill the tank of a pick-up would be sufficient to feed a person for a year.”

Some company analysts even admit that there are environmental problems and risk to the production of food, but that we must choose the ´lesser evil´. In this case, they defend even the destruction of forests with the objective of expanding their profits with the production of bioenergy – also known as “green gold”.

Realistically, a change in the energy model which would really seek to preserve life on the planet would have to also signify a profound change in the present patterns of consumption, in the concept of development and in the very organization of our societies. It is necessary to invest in alternatives such as wind, solar, photosynthesis, sea and geotermic energy. To discuss new sources of energy, however, implies in the first place to reflect on at whose service this new model will be. The construction of a new energy model must take into account who it is that will benefit or what purpose it will serve.

The agricultural model must be based on agro-ecology and on the diversification of production. It is of urgency that the peasant experiences of agriculture be saved and multiplied, taking the diversity of ecosystems as a starting point. There are multiple technologies and traditional knowledge of production such as agro-forestry, agro-pastoral systems – integrated and time-proven. There are also local ways and means for gathering, holding, managing and using water for consumption and production that preserve natural sources.

These are not simplistic solutions. Neither is it sufficient to change individual “consumer” attitudes, such as buying another type of car or light bulb, etc. The main polluters, responsible for global warming, are precisely the big companies that destroy the forest and pollute the environment – the same companies – petroleum, automobile, agricultural amongst others – that expect to profit from bioenergy.

Edivan Pinto & Marluce Melo are members of the Pastoral Land Commission – CPT.

Maria Luisa Mendonça is a member of Social Network for Justice and Human Rights.