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Food or Fuel?

Message Siv O'Neall
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The scientific community now finally seems to agree on the fact that global warming is happening and that it's urgent to find remedies against the imminent hazards that threaten the planet. The big question that confronts the world community now is how do we go about countering this imminent global disaster.

During a short tour to a few cooperative countries in Latin America in March 2007 by our opportunist president, an ethanol alliance was proclaimed in Brazil (Sao Paolo March 8) between George W. Bush and Brazil's President Luiz Inacio "Lula" da Silva. "[It was] hailed by apologists for both governments as an advance in the development of alternative sources of energy and a gain for both countries' economies." (WSWS – 'Brazil: Bush-Lula biofuel plans based on conditions worse than slavery')

The relative costs and benefits of ethanol biofuels, however, are very much subject to doubt and even to open criticism by much of the community that is fighting for alternative sources for fuel.

An article in Le Monde Diplomatique of June 2007 ('Les cinq mythes de la transition vers les agrocarburants' – 'The five myths of the transition towards biofuels'[1]) makes an impressive case against the cultivating of corn, sugar cane, wheat and soy beans for the development of ethanol to replace dwindling currently existing energy sources.

There is an insufficient supply of natural gas and oil-based energy which simply has to be replaced until the masses of energy-consuming people are forced to decrease their dependence on gas and oil and all the various forms of petrochemicals that we are addicted to.

However, what is the case for or against the imagined ethanol panacea? How thoroughly were the research and the arithmetic done before this huge enterprise was launched?

The case against ethanol biofuel is written in huge and clear script, so clear it is surprising that even the corporate industry that pushes for ethanol, for obvious reasons, is unable to read the writing on the wall. The cultivation of ethanol-producing crops is clearly just another way of making more profit. Instant profit is the god of the day and the mega cultures of corn, sugar cane, wheat and soy beans will add huge profits to transnational corporations. If one day the supply of oil and gas is going to give diminishing returns, which still seems to be a somewhat distant way off in the future, the way the price of gasoline and natural gas are skyrocketing, the big corporations will certainly make sure that they are protected against any possible future economic downturn.

The United States, Brazil, India and China are already busy cultivating these crops. The industry is already under way and has been for five years as far as the U.S. is concerned.

There are two major arguments to be made in this context.

First: Is the production of ethanol really going to amount to a real gain which can be added to already existing sources of energy? It turns out that, in order to produce ethanol fuel it would take so much energy for transportation and other production costs that using ethanol fuel would not even amount to a net gain in the use of traditional energy sources or a lowering of the output of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

Second: Besides this obvious drawback, there is the even more frightening fact that the culture of these fuel producing crops would take away such huge amounts of land from food-producing agro business that it would lead to increasing mass starvation on the planet. Already over half a billion people on the planet are starving. [2] Is it really the moment to convert huge arable lands from food production to ethanol-producing corn, sugar cane, soy beans and wheat?

What will follow if the world ignores the need for equitable distribution of the food that is presently available (more than enough to feed the world population) and sets out on a course of depriving the people of what is their due?[3] There is already an urgent need for improved policies for feeding the world's population, and it seems insane instead to take away the food from the people who are already exposed to the risk of starving.

Food prices (corn, cane sugar, soy beans, wheat) are increasing already because of the competition for the production of ethanol made from what could have been food crops. When families pay 50 – 80 % of their income for food, even a relatively modest increase in the price of corn, etc. will have disastrous consequences. There is an obvious likelihood that food prices will soar because of the vast inflation in these commodity prices. The price of tortilla, the staple food of all Mexicans, went up so drastically during the last few months of 2006 that President Felipe Calderon had to intervene after powerful street protests and set a more reasonable limit for the increased price of corn. [4] Even so, the rise in this basic staple was severely felt by poor Mexicans.


I am not even going into the deadly serious effects that would follow from the increased cultivation of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO), but there is already ample proof that biotech giants Monsanto, Cargill, Syngenta et al. have not passed up an opportunity like this one to make enormous profits. Monsanto, the huge and socially irresponsible biotech corporation, is already the world's leading profiteer from the ethanol craze.


Besides taking arable lands away from food crops, there is also very serious deforestation going on, among other places in Amazonia and Indonesia, where the situation is highly precarious.

From 'The five myths of the transition towards biofuels' (Le Monde Diplomatique, June, 2007):

"The introduction of cultures destined for biofuels will simply have the effect of pushing back these communities (indigenous populations) towards the agricultural frontier of Amazonia, where the devastating ways of land clearing are all too well known. Soya already supplies 40 % of biofuels in Brazil. According to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the more the price of soya increases, the more the destruction of the humid rain forest in Amazonia will accelerate – 325 hectares a year, at the present rate.

In Indonesia, oil palms destined for the production of biodiesel – called the "diesel of deforestation" are the principal cause of the retreat of the forest. In 2020, those surfaces will have tripled and will reach 16,5 million hectares – England and Wales taken together, – with as a result a loss of 98 % of the land covered by forest. Neighboring Malaysia, the prime producer of palm oil in the world, has already lost 87 % of its tropical forests and continues to clear land at the rate of 7 % a year."

On top of all these disastrous effects of ethanol production, there is also the fact that poor farmers are losing their livelihood and their land because they are squeezed out when giant plantations of sugar cane and soy beans take over their land.

One of the foremost arguments against ethanol is however the fact that the 147 million tons of biofuel that the world can produce in the next twenty-three years will in no way replace the need for oil. It will just compensate for the annual increase of global demand for oil.

"Actually, the attraction of these biofuels resides in the fact that they might prolong the oil-based economy. ... The higher the price of oil, the more the price of ethanol can increase and still remain competitive. ... The world energy crisis is potentially a gold mine of 80,000 to 100,000 billion dollars for the food and oil corporations. It's not surprising that we are not encouraged to scale back on our habits of "over-consumption". ('The five myths of the transition towards biofuels' – Le Monde Diplomatique, June, 2007)

The final word on this enormous life-threatening problem is the fact that nobody even seems to touch on the basic problem which is of course over-consumption. There is no way any politicians or any member of Big Business is ever going to dare tell the world openly that we have to change our life styles, give up on privileges that we have been taking for granted, tighten our belts and live our lives in a low energy consumption way that is so far from the buy-use-and-throw-away, globe-trotting , fast-moving, energy-splurging life style we have gotten used to.

It is going to be a hard day for the politicians when one day they realize that they have to speak out and be very serious about saving energy. A hard day for the oil corporations when they realize that production and consumption will have to diminish. A hard day for the biotech and cereal corporations when it becomes obvious that ethanol is not the answer to our current dilemma.

Cross posted from Axis of Logic

[1] Summary in English of article from Le Monde Diplomatique: 'Les cinq mythes de la transition vers les agrocarburants'

[2] (Circle of Rights) Estimates indicate that more than 840 million people throughout the world are chronically undernourished-in spite of a record availability of food per capita in most countries and globally. Nearly 40,000 children die due to malnutrition and its diseases every day. It is the poor (both in the North and in the South) who are the victims.

[3] The World Food Summit in November 1996 reaffirmed the right of everyone to have access to safe and nutritious food, consistent with the right to adequate food and the fundamental right of everyone to be free from hunger, and gave a specific mandate to the High Commissioner for Human Rights to better define the rights related to food and propose ways to implement and realize them.

[4] MEXICO CITY (AP), Jan 31 - Tens of thousands of trade unionists, farmers and leftists marched through downtown Mexico City on Wednesday to protest price increases for basic foods like tortillas-the staple of Mexico's poor-and to demand a change in economic policy.

[5] The international price of corn rose dramatically throughout 2006, leading to the inflation of tortilla prices in the first month of Calderón's term. Because tortilla is the main food product consumed by the country's poorest, national concern over the rising prices immediately generated political pressures for Calderón's administration.

The President (Felipe Calderón) opted for using price ceilings for tortillas that protect local producers of corn. This price control came in the form of a Tortilla Price Stabilization Pact between the government and many of the main tortilla producing companies, including Grupo Maseca and Bimbo, to put a price ceiling at $8.50 pesos per kilogram of tortilla. The idea of the agreement is that having these producers ceiling their prices would incentive the market to lower the prices nationally.

[6] Corn seed sales surged 47 percent to $1.19 billion (euro890 million), from $811 million, amid a boom in production of ethanol, which in this country is made largely from corn. (Monsanto 2nd Quarter Profit Fueled by Robust Demand for Corn Seeds, Technology)

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Siv O'Neall was born and raised in Sweden where she graduated from Lund University. She has lived in Paris, France and New Rochelle, N.Y. and traveled extensively throughout the U.S, Europe, and other continents, including several trips to (more...)

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