Tuesday, November 13, 2007

The Human Cost of Bio-Fuels

What is so terrible about bio-fuels? Why should I be opposed to them? Bio-fuel advocates, after all, tell us they are a green solution to the global warming crisis brought on by our profligate use of fossil fuels by reducing our greenhouse gas emissions. Honest research using full energy accounting has proven that to be blatantly untrue. An article entitled The Hidden Agenda behind the Bush Administration's Bio-Fuel Plan by F. William Engdahl says, in fact, "This year the Massachusetts Institute of Technology issued a report concluding that using corn-based ethanol instead of gasoline will have no impact on greenhouse gas emissions, and would even expand fossil fuel use due to increased demand for fertilizer and irrigation to expand acreage of ethanol crops."[15] And in an article titled Biofuels: The Five Myths of the Agro-fuels Transition, Eric Holt-Giménez, a Traveling Professor with the International Honors Program (IHP) at Boston University, writes, "Every ton of palm oil produced results in 33 tons of carbon dioxide emissions—10 times more than petroleum. Tropical forests cleared for sugar cane ethanol emit 50 percent more greenhouse gasses than the production and use of the same amount of gasoline." And in response to the constant assurances that bio-fuels will not take land suitable for food production out of service, and that bio-fuels will not cause harm to the environment, Holt-Giménez adds, "Proponents of agro-fuels argue that fuel crops planted on ecologically degraded lands will improve rather than destroy the environment. Perhaps the government of Brazil had this in mind when it re-classified some 200 million hectares of dry-tropical forests, grassland, and marshes as “degraded” and apt for cultivation."[16]

On the simplest level, in our overpopulated world, the generation of bio/agro-fuels is turning the food needed by the poor of the third world into fuel for the cars and SUVs and Hummers of the industrialized world's wealthy. Even if it is being produced from crops not consumed by humans, "It is a crime against humanity to convert agricultural productive soil into soil which produces food stuff that will be turned into biofuel," says Jean Ziegler, the U.N. special rapporteur on the "Right to Food". Ziegler argues, "[UN] member states should ensure that biofuels are produced from non-food plants, agricultural wastes and crop residues."[2] But in a method of organic, sustainable agriculture, which the world will soon have to revert to as the fossil fuels used to produce pesticides and fertilizers go into serious decline, is there really such a thing as "agricultural waste and crop residues?" They are part of the post-carbon fertilizer on which farming will rely. But Eric Holt-Giménez makes the point in Biofuels: The Five Myths of the Agro-fuels Transition that "The issue of which crops are converted to fuel is irrelevant. Wild plants cultivated as fuel crops won’t have a smaller “environmental footprint” because commercialization will transform their ecology. They will rapidly migrate from hedgerows and woodlots onto arable lands to be intensively cultivated like any other industrial crop—with all the associated environmental externalities."[16]

The amount of food grain it takes (I.E. 450 pounds of corn for ethanol) to produce the fuel for just one bio-fuel fill-up of that 25-gallon SUV tank is enough to feed one person for a year[1]. Even in these early days of the bio-fuel transition, over the past several years the global emergency food grain reserves have shrunk from a marginal 120-day supply to a critical 57-day buffer. It is estimated that, with the diversion of food grains to bio-fuels, even without a significant Northern Hemisphere grain crop failure (an increasing potential due to global warming), those reserves will have completely disappeared by the end of this decade.

For the first time in modern, hydrocarbon history we are able to measure precisely how many lives it costs to fill the tank of the SUV week after week after week. The deaths in the oil wars in the middle east and Africa and from the environmental destruction wrought by the oil companies in third-world countries cannot be quantifiably linked to an individual's personal fuel usage. Bio-fuels, like crude oil, arrive at our shores and gas stations at a tremendous cost in blood and human lives. Unlike with oil, that cost can be quantified. With a weekly bio-fuel fill-up, each year of driving just one SUV (requiring 11.7 tons of corn) would cost the lives of fifty-two people in the third world from starvation, assuming it takes a full year of starvation to kill. I'm certain modern science could nail that down precisely as well.

President Bush has called on his country to produce 35 billion gallons of renewable fuel a year by 2017.[1] That would require, each year, the food grain sufficient to feed 1.4 billion people (every gallon requires 18 pounds of corn). And that would only satisfy 10% of America's liquid fuel needs. Even in 2005, global ethanol production was 9.66 billion gallons (enough to feed 386,400 people), of which Brazil produced 45.2 percent (from sugar cane) and the United States 44.5 percent (approximately 4.3 billion gallons) (from corn). But six billion gallons of ethanol are needed every year in the U.S. just to replace the fuel additive known as MTBE (which itself is made from the food grains rapeseed (canola) and sunflower seeds), which is being phased out due to its polluting effects on ground water aquifers.[1]

For those naysayers who have been sitting back demanding evidence, it is difficult to imagine what more evidence they should need. We can quantify the cost in human lives of our efforts to keep the oil-depletion wolf from the door by substituting bio-fuels to get a few extra years of happy motoring. On the back of the sales receipt printed out at the gas station there should be required to be a picture of the emaciated person who has just died in order to pay for that fill-up, like the graphic health-warning pictures now printed on cigarette packs. Sooner or later we must personally face the consequences of the lifestyle choices we make, especially when those consequences can be so clearly measured in the loss of human lives.

Even now while there is still some meagre emergency food grain reserve left, the poor in the third world are, according to UN FAO and WHO statistics, dying at the rate of up to 40,000 each day from starvation, malnourishment and other nutrition related diseases. With the mad rush to bio-fuels the poor are getting priced out of the market for the very food they need to survive. "Hunger," said Amartya Sen, Harvard Economics professor, "results not from scarcity, but poverty."[16] But poverty is relative. It is written in the wealth and income disparity between the industrialized world and the third world. And it is a disparity that grows at a rampant pace with the wholesale wealth and resource transfer from the already deeply impoverished third world to the increasingly rich nations of the industrialized world. The World Bank has estimated that in 2001, 2.7 billion people in the world were living on the equivalent of less than $2 a day.[1] That number has now risen to over 3 billion. Those studies also suggest that caloric consumption among the world's poor declines by about half of one percent whenever the average prices of all major food staples increase by one percent. Those poor are already struggling to survive at a nutrition level at or below the minimums established by the WHO.

Much of the current acceleration in that disparity, and the increasing third world hunger that results from it, is a direct bi-product of the ill-advised and misleadingly-promoted bio-fuel revolution in the industrialized world. Several studies by economists at the World Bank and elsewhere suggest that the number of food-insecure people in the world rises by over 16 million for every percentage increase in the real prices of staple foods. That means, they suggest, that 1.2 billion people could be chronically hungry by 2025.[1] But those numbers are extremely conservative.

Agro/bio-fuels have become profitable because of rising oil prices and massive government subsidies and a lot of distorted pricing for different forms of energy. It is estimated that, even with the subsidies, bio-fuels could not be competitive at oil prices below $30.00/bbl. But, says the article How Biofuels Could Starve the Poor by C. Ford Runge and Benjamin Senauer, "If oil prices remain high -- which is likely -- the people most vulnerable to the price hikes brought on by the biofuel boom will be those in countries that both suffer food deficits and import petroleum. The risk extends to a large part of the developing world: in 2005, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, most of the 82 low-income countries with food deficits were also net oil importers. ..... In late 2006, the price of tortilla flour in Mexico, which gets 80 percent of its corn imports from the United States, doubled thanks partly to a rise in U.S. corn prices from $2.80 to $4.20 a bushel."[1] Much of the impact on the poorest countries will be more than just price but also the availability of food aid. As Thalif Deen points out in his article Food to Biofuels a "Recipe for Disaster", "Since Washington donates the majority of its food aid in-kind (direct transfers of food commodities), increased biofuel production on American farmland will invariably affect levels of U.S. food aid contributions," Mittal added. Already, the amount of corn contributed as food aid has been steadily sinking and as more farmland is devoted to biofuels, U.S. food aid contributions are predicted to drop further, she warned."[2]

World grain prices (grain is the most basic of those basic foods) rose 100% over this past 12 months alone.[15] Looking very conservatively at a broader basket of grains and seeds, and minimizing the impact of bio-fuels, global corn prices will increase by a further 20 percent by 2010 and 41 percent by 2020. The prices of oilseeds, including soybeans, rapeseeds (canola), and sunflower seeds, are projected to rise by 26 percent by 2010 and 76 percent by 2020, and wheat prices by 11 percent by 2010 and 30 percent by 2020. In the poorest parts of sub-Saharan Africa, Asia, and Latin America, where cassava (also known as manioc) is, most importantly, a staple of last resort for 200-million of the poorest of the poor, if it is used to produce bio-fuels (it is "of interest" because it has a high sugar/starch content) its price is expected to increase by 33 percent by 2010 and 135 percent by 2020.[1] The International Food Policy Research Institute has estimated that the price of basic food staples will increase in real terms by 20-33 percent by the year 2010 and 26-135 percent by the year 2020. That will have a tremendous impact on the caloric intake of the poorest in the third world. They estimate that even now 824 million people continue to go hungry.[16] If basic food prices increase by 135% by 2020 that would place 2-3 billion additional people in the food-insecure category, most of the underdeveloped and developing world. At the same time it will have a significant ramp-up effect on that statistic of 40,000 nutrition related deaths per day.

There were 110 ethanol refineries in operation in the United States at the end of 2006, according to the Renewable Fuels Association. Many were being expanded, and another 73 were under construction.[1] But America is not alone in the frantic pursuit of bio-fuels. It seems to be being seized on by every government and trading block in the world. In 2005, the European Union produced 890 million gallons of biodiesel, over 80 percent of the world's total. The EU's Common Agricultural Policy also promotes the production of ethanol from a combination of sugar beets and wheat. Brazil has mandated that all diesel contain two percent biodiesel by 2008 and five percent biodiesel by 2013.[1] This all appears to be wrapped up in a recognition of (but not an admission to) peak oil and soon-to-be declining global oil reserves. And, of course, those developing countries (can you spell "China" or "India"?) are to blame. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration's latest laughable projections, global energy consumption will rise by 71 percent between 2003 and 2030, with demand from developing countries, notably China and India, surpassing that from members of the OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) by 2015.[1]

Bio-fuels are rapidly turning into the latest golden goose for wealthy agro-business firms, like Cargill and ADM (nearly half of ADM's profits have come from products that the U.S. government has either subsidized or protected), and energy companies alike. In 2006, ADM was the largest producer of ethanol in the United States: producing more than 1.07 billion gallons. Despite huge profits for those involved in bio-fuel production, the U.S. government continues to heavily subsidize both corn farmers and ethanol producers. Direct corn subsidies equaled $8.9 billion in 2005. And the federal government already grants ethanol blenders a tax allowance of 51 cents per gallon of ethanol they make, and many states pay out additional subsidies. In addition, most ethanol currently imported into the United States carries a 54-cents-per-gallon tariff, partly because cheaper ethanol from countries such as Brazil threatens "poor" U.S. producers like ADM. It, of course, has nothing to do with the fact that sugar-cane ethanol has a marginal positive EROEI while corn-based ethanol has a negative EROEI. Cellulosic ethanol would have an even better EROEI except for the high transportation costs involved if the wood products came from wild stands of trees and not wood plantations. Despite already high government subsidies, Congress is considering lavishing more money on primarily corn-based biofuels. Legislation related to the 2007 farm bill introduced by Representative Ron Kind (D-Wis.) calls for raising loan guarantees for ethanol producers from $200 million to $2 billion.

Insidiously, not content with turning food needed by the third world into SUV fuel, the governments of the industrialized nations and their agro-business partners want the third world to use their scarce food-producing land to produce the bio-fuel crops to be used to make bio-fuels. In his article, Biofuels: The Five Myths of the Agro-fuels Transition, Eric Holt-Giménez says "OECD countries are looking to the Global South to meet their fuel demands. Southern governments appear eager to oblige. ..... In Brazil—where fuel crop acreage already occupies a land area the size of Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg and Great Britain combined—the government is planning a five-fold increase in sugar cane acreage. Their goal is to replace 10 percent of the world’s gasoline by 2025."[16] The bio/agro-fuels marketing pitch to the third world goes something like "If peasant farmers in developing countries could become suppliers for the emerging [bio-fuel] industry, they would benefit from the increased income."[1] But the history of industrial demand for agricultural crops in these countries suggests that large producers tied to global agro-businesses like ADM and Cargill will be the main beneficiaries. Holt-Giménez goes on to add, "Behind the scenes—and under the noses of most national anti-trust laws—giant oil, grain, auto and genetic engineering corporations are forming powerful partnerships: ADM and Monsanto, Chevron and Volkswagen; BP, DuPont, and Toyota."[16] Two of the primary crops used for bio-fuel production, soybeans and especially corn, are row crops that contribute heavily to soil erosion and water pollution and require large amounts of fertilizer, pesticides, and fuel to grow, harvest, and dry. Those "peasant farmers" simply don't have the financial resources to get involved in these crops. Of course the agro-business giants, or those newly formed partnerships above, would be more than happy to assist them, for a modest price.

If the assistance came not from the business world but in government to government financial support, targeted for agricultural development, coupled with balanced trade policies, there may be a benefit to the poor, small-scale indigenous farmers. But, at present in the area of biofuels, the problem is both restrictive tariffs and heavy subsidies in rich countries, which drive up food prices and limit export opportunities for efficient developing country producers. Agriculture in Sub-Saharan Africa, studies show, employs 65 percent of the labor force and generates 32 percent of GDP growth. According to the report, however, the share of official development assistance going to agriculture in developing countries is a mere 4 percent, far short of the 11-14 percent share of national budgets invested in agriculture that fueled the Asian green revolutions. According to the WDR, for the poorest people, GDP growth originating in agriculture is about four times more effective in reducing poverty than GDP growth originating outside the sector.[3]

The complicity of the U.S. federal government and the large multinational agro-business companies in pushing the ethanol/bio/agro-fuel agenda is blatantly obvious. The motive, of course, is simple. Having little luck and bearing tremendous cost in trying to control that portion of "America's oil" that is under the ground in other countries, the federal government is again singing the "energy independence" song, only this time on the back of bio-fuels. But it is doing so, in partnership with agro-business, using a carefully orchestrated campaign of biased studies, disinformation, misinformation. misinterpretation, misrepresentation and outright lies.

From the report Salazar: "Everyone Benefits From A Strong, Smart Farm Bill" we see a classic case of disinformation and misdirection. "The Farm Bill takes the next step, helping farmers and ranchers take advantage of renewable energy technologies that have been developed at places like the National Renewable Energy Lab in Golden, Colorado. With the $1.3 billion that this bill devotes to energy programs, farmers will be able to apply for grants to develop bio-refineries and to improve the handling, harvest, transport and storage of feedstocks for biofuels. The bill includes tax credits for small-wind turbines and cellulosic biofuel production. And it stimulates research into the methods and technologies that will allow the most productive lands in the world [so much for not having an impact on land that could produce food] to provide more and more of our energy. Our farmers and ranchers want to be a part of the solution – helping reduce the amount of oil we import while helping stimulate a clean energy economy built on innovation, technology, and our productive advantages. The energy title is a win-win for our rural communities, for consumers who want cleaner, lower- cost energy, and for our national security.” [Funny how the first item mentioned in the tax credits is wind turbines and the whole rest of the bit is about bio-fuels. The wind turbines are smoke and mirrors.] Today, we are faced with a new challenge – that of building a clean energy economy for the 21st century – and we need the help of our farmers and ranchers. Our national security, our economic security, and our environmental security demand that we grow our way toward energy independence. [My emphasis] The country that successfully replaces its imports of foreign oil with clean, home-grown energy will reap competitive and technological advantages that will keep it out front in the world for decades to come. We can all play a part in this new economy, but the productivity and ingenuity of Rural America is our greatest untapped resource in our quest to reduce our dependence on foreign oil."[4]

In her article, Ethanol Campaign Takes On Detractors, Lauren Etter writes, "With the ethanol industry facing growing criticism, a new industry group plans a splashy ad campaign next week that will appear in popular Capitol Hill publications, including The Hill and Roll Call. ..... The group, Renewable Fuels Now, brings together existing agriculture and ethanol groups, firing what it calls an opening salvo at a time when the industry is under siege from groups accusing the corn-based biofuel of perpetrating everything from environmental ruin to "crimes against humanity" for contributing to world hunger. ..... The first advertisement resembles a hostage note, and features mismatched paper cut-out letters that form a sentence reading: "How much longer can we be held hostage to foreign oil?""[8]

And in an article entitled Why should America expand its use of renewable fuels like ethanol?, the NCGA (National Corn Growers Association) quotes support for its position on corn ethanol (and it's claim that "It takes 23 percent more fossil energy to create a gallon of gasoline than that gallon of gasoline itself contains. [Does that mean that all oil extraction now has a 23% negative EROEI?] With ethanol, it's the other way around. It takes 22 percent less fossil energy to create an equivalent amount of energy in ethanol.") from a study done by the Argonne National Laboratory, Center for Transportation Research. (Argonne is a U.S. federal lab under the DOE.) The NCGA says "We believe a recent Argonne National Laboratory study (Michael Wang, Center for Transportation Research, Argonne National Laboratory) has laid to rest some long-held misunderstandings about ethanol and its important role in reducing America’s reliance on imported oil and our greenhouse gas emissions. In terms of key energy and environmental benefits, cornstarch ethanol comes out clearly ahead of petroleum based fuels, and tomorrow’s cellulosic-based ethanol would do even better."[14] That study, however, conveniently omits the oil-derived pesticides and herbicides, of which a hell of a lot is used on corn. It also conveniently doesn't bother to detail any numbers supporting the claim but relies on one chart showing the numbers in summary. The NCGA, by the way, are not unbiased. According to GM Watch, "Syngenta, Monsanto and others contributed about 11 percent of the National Corn Growers Association’s $7 million budget in fiscal year 2001, says spokesman Stewart Reeve. According to South Dakota corn-growing farmer Dennis Mitchell, 'It’s a big conflict of interest when the NCGA and the Soybean Association take money from agribusiness when they’re supposed to be representing the interests of farmers.'."[10] And, according to Poltical Friendster, "ADM operates through association mouthpieces, such as the NCGA and Renewable Fuels Ass'n. ADM controls 70% of the ethanol market and block reduction of the high tariff protecting domestically produced ethanol."[12]

In his article, Biofuels: The Five Myths of the Agro-fuels Transition, Eric Holt-Giménez places the biased government/agro-business misinformation in stark perspective. In that article he says, "By showing us only one side, “biofuels” fails to help us understand the profound consequences of the industrial transformation of our food and fuel systems—The Agro-fuels Transition. ..... Industrialized countries unleashed an “agro-fuels boom” by mandating ambitious renewable fuel targets. Renewable fuels are scheduled to provide 5.75% of Europe’s transport fuel by 2010, and 10 percent by 2020. The United States aims at 35 billion gallons a year. These targets far exceed the agricultural capacities of the industrial North. Europe would need to plant 70% of its farmland to fuel. The U.S.’s entire corn and soy harvest would need to be processed as ethanol and bio-diesel."[16]

Agro/bio-fuels are not going to prevent peak oil. It is already behind us. The shaky maintenance of the plateau on which we are sitting, and any growth in liquid fuels over the past 2-3 years to offset declines from existing fields, has come from alternative sources like tar sands, CTL, GTL, deep water, increasingly from heavy oil and already from bio-fuels. This reality, of course, is kept from the public view by constant redefinition by the DOE of terms like "proven reserves" which is constantly upgraded to include an ever wider basket of liquid fuels.

With both post-peak decline and global warming coming at us we need a strong, globe-wide reassesment of the agro/bio-fuel issue. Global warming will dramatically increase the potential for major crop losses and seriously degraded yields in the years ahead, particularly in the poorest countries straddling the equatorial belt. And as the pace of energy decline (particularly crude oil decline) picks up over this next decade the impact on the global distribution system will be destructive, particularly the high cost, low-profit global food distribution system.

Sources and additional reading:

1) How Biofuels Could Starve the Poor C. Ford Runge and Benjamin Senauer
2) Food to Biofuels a "Recipe for Disaster" By Thalif Deen
3) Nigeria: Agriculture, Pivot for Devt
4) Salazar: "Everyone Benefits From A Strong, Smart Farm Bill"
5) The alarm bells just keep ringing Eric Reguly
6) All About: Planes
7) Biofuels drive threatening food security--consumer watchdog By Ronnel Domingo
8) Ethanol Campaign Takes On Detractors By Lauren Etter
9) National Corn Growers Association - From Wikipedia
10) National Corn Growers Association
11) Itemized Lobbying Expenses for National Corn Growers Assn
12) National Corn Growers Association - NCGA
13) About Renewable Fuels Now
14) Why should America expand its use of renewable fuels like ethanol?
15) The Hidden Agenda behind the Bush Administration's Bio-Fuel Plan by F. William Engdahl
16) Biofuels: The Five Myths of the Agro-fuels Transition by Eric Holt-Giménez
17) Biofuels 2006 HOW IS THE GLOBAL VALUE CHAIN SHAPING UP? by Louis Strydom