Monday, March 31, 2008

Biofuels: A Final Nail in the Green Revolution Coffin

In the middle of the last century, with a steadily rising world population and a similar steady shrinking of global food productivity due to over exploited and stressed soils and increasingly polluted water sources, the world was on the verge of perhaps the greatest humanitarian disaster in recorded history. Hundreds of millions of people were at constant risk of starvation and tens of thousands were dying of starvation and nutrition related diseases daily. Then, like the cavalry riding in on galloping steeds, under the command of Doctor Norman Borlaug the Green Revolution came to the rescue and millions were saved from starvation.

Let us be clear. The problem that we are talking about in the biofuels versus food debate did not begin with the construction of the first ethanol plant. It really began and grew with the Green Revolution over the last half of the twentieth century and is being brought to a head by peak oil which is the prime driver behind the frantic rush to biofuels. Prior to the Green Revolution it was becoming abundantly clear that the global human population of about 2.5 billion was too great for the finite carrying capacity of the earth. We could not produce and distribute enough food to feed ourselves. People were dying every day by the tens of thousands of starvation and other nutrition-related diseases. Population experts were warning of mass starvation in Africa and Asia that could claim the lives of hundreds of millions.

In fact the problem actually has its roots in the much earlier Industrial Revolution and the resulting twin, resource-gobbling scourges of overproduction and consumerism. But going back that far requires too long a lens to serve as a useful focal point. The Green Revolution is recent enough in our history, and still very much with us and contributing to the problem, that it is the appropriate place to begin.

Doctor Norman Borlaug, in response to the threat of global famine, proposed what we have come to know as the Green Revolution. The keys to this proposed solution were; a dramatic increase in agricultural irrigation largely facilitated by the exploitation of vast reserves of groundwater in deep aquifers (approximately 97% of the world's liquid freshwater is contained in these underground aquifers) using powerful mechanical pumps; the efficient, mechanized cultivation of vast tracts of hybrid (subsequently GMO) high-yield crops of feed grains like corn, wheat, soy, millet, rice and others; the development of an efficient global food distribution system to get the food from where it could be grown to where it was needed; vastly increased yields and crop security, especially on increasingly exploited marginal lands, through the use of artificial fertilizers and pesticides; the establishment of a global emergency food grain reserve to serve as a buffer against crop losses in vulnerable third world nations (that reserve has shrunk from a marginal 120 day supply to a critical 57 day supply over the past several years[37], [78]); and the development of emergency food aid NGOs to get food to those poor and malnourished most in need of it in Africa, Asia and elsewhere.

All in all, the Green Revolution seemed to most like a good and humanitarian thing to do at the time. Few other programs, after all, could claim to be responsible for saving hundreds of millions of lives. The end result, however, was far more than the millions of lives saved. The Green Revolution resulted in the fastest doubling of the human population in history, from 2.5 to five billion in less than forty years, from 2.5 to 6.5 billion in just over fifty years. Considering that the Green Revolution came about because the carrying capacity of earth could not support our then population of 2.5 billion, doubling and, now, nearly tripling those numbers could hardly be considered a success. That entire surplus of four billion people since added to the global population is living on an artificial carrying capacity that is totally dependent on finite and now rapidly diminishing fossil fuels. Whether we are already at or about to reach peak oil the situation can only worsen as our artificial carrying capacity gradually disappears.

Concurrent with the unfolding of the Green Revolution there grew a new psychology of plenty and, subsequently, affluence. We forgot that finite systems have limits and came to believe that anything was possible and that we could continue to grow forever. The previously unimaginable levels of exploitation of energy to support this growth also seemed to have no limits, a belief fostered by governments, industry and the mainstream media for the past several decades.

But all of that is changing. Despite the impressive accomplishments of the Green Revolution, despite a half century of unimaginable global economic growth, despite wondrous new technological advances, despite the first real globalization of human society, the limits that gave rise to the Green Revolution are still there, waiting like the overly-patient creditor for the loan on which we have been living for the past half century to be repaid, with interest. Like the debt-laden, third world country that pays the interest on its outstanding loans by taking on new loans, the longer we continue to live above our means, the longer we continue to survive on this artificial carrying capacity we have created through the massive over-exploitation of great reserves of energy, the greater and more devastating will be the collapse when it can no longer be avoided. We are living in a fool's paradise.

Over the past couple months I must have read over three hundred articles, columns, papers and reports from all over the world on the link between biofuels and increasing global hunger and poverty. It makes this writing of yet another article on the subject seem like kicking a dead horse. But as long as we continue our infatuation with biofuels the problem is going to continue to worsen and efforts, big and small, are still going to be needed to put the brakes on this insidious and ultimately dangerous new energy fairy.

Much of the debate over whether the production of biofuels is contributing to world poverty and hunger is an apples and oranges affair. Proponents of biofuels claim that the production of biofuel crops in third world countries can actually improve conditions in those countries by giving them another lucrative cash crop ([1], [12], [24], [59]), I guess to go along with the bananas, coffee, tea, cotton and millet that they now produce for export. But for every piece extolling the virtues of biofuels there are a hundred articles warning how they will contribute to the already existing crisis of global hunger (for example; Biofuels and world hunger[10], Will Agro fuels Usher Famine? [16], The Globalization of Hunger[21], Starving for Fuel: How Ethanol Production Contributes to Global Hunger[35] and many, many more). The benefits of the production and export of exportable cash crops, though it may increase the foreign cash influx for a third world country, do not accrue to the people most in need, those grappling with starvation and poverty. It benefits the large-scale, fat-cat industrial farmers who may, or may not, employ some of those living in poverty at a wage that is guaranteed to keep them there, and keep them barely alive nutritionally (see, for example, Neither biofuels nor biotechnology will benefit African smallholder farmers[39], Small farmers speak out against globalisation[57]).

The impact of biofuels on global food prices and global emergency food aid is not on those large farmers who grow and export biofuel crops. The impact is on the poor and starving, urban and rural. The impact is on those small farmers who have been priced off their own small piece of land because of the globalization of food prices and the fact that their small-scale production has to compete in a global market against the output from a highly-mechanized 50,000 acre farm in the U.S. heartland. The impact is on the small farmer who is forced into growing a crop he cannot afford to buy, and can't eat, in order to try to buy food at a market, food that has increased in price by 25-50% over this past year alone[26]. The impact is on the hundreds of thousands of destitute and starving refugees crowded into barely survivable refugee camps, people who have lost everything and have little prospect of ever having anything again. The impact is on the dozens of emergency food aid NGOs that are having to plead to increasingly reluctant western governments ([59], [71], [76]) for much more funding because of the skyrocketing prices of the food grains they rely on to feed starving millions in Africa and Asia ([14], [48], [52], [60], [65], [68], [71], [74]).

The biofuels debate is badly confused because of the many different, and highly variable, biofuels that are lumped under that single banner. The basic grouping of bio-diesel and ethanol/methanol is not even sufficient to lend clarity. The cost and impact of ethanol on the environment and on global hunger depends very much on what type of ethanol/methanol (distilled ethanol, celulosic ethanol, etc) and on the specific feedstock you are discussing (sugar cane, sugar beet, corn, wheat, palm oil, jatropha, cassava, rice, switchgrass, algae, etc.).

I am not a chemist so please forgive me if I oversimplify. Producing ethanol is essentially a task of turning plant sugars into alcohol through a process of esterization and fermentation. Regardless of the feedstock, this final stage is relatively similar in process, technology and cost. Where the tremendous variability occurs in both process and cost is in converting the feedstock into the required sugars, in getting the feedstock to release its sugars. This generally has to be accomplished with the aid of different enzymes that convert the carbohydrates in the organic material into sugars. But not all enzymes are created the same and different feedstocks need different enzymes. Some enzymes are very efficient, others not. The carbohydrates that the enzymes convert into sugars may be very different in molecular structure, and vary considerably in concentration within the organic matter.

The environmental impact and the contribution to soil destruction and, most importantly, to world hunger is very much dependent on that feedstock. To lump together the ethanol produced relatively efficiently from sugar cane in Brazil and the heavily-subsidized corn ethanol produced in a plant in Kansas is to completely cloud the argument. They are as different as night and day. Take away the ludicrous subsidies enjoyed by America's corn ethanol producers and you have an industry operating in the red. The EROEI on corn ethanol is negative, that of sugar cane ethanol slightly above one. In fact the majority of ethanol processes could not survive without government subsidies. Yet any suggestion that those subsidies should be removed meets with a flurry of objections ([6], [8], [9], [20], [22], [49], [51], [59]). You can't just offer the subsidies then take them away. Companies are going to suffer. Many of those companies could fail.

Well that's an argument I would very, very much like to turn around. The green revolution promised the people of the world, especially the impoverished and hungry of the third world, that food would no longer be a problem, that they could be confident of being able to put food in front of their children today and tomorrow, led them to believe that food was an inalienable right and that the world would take care of it's poor and hungry. They could bring children into the world without the risk of having to watch their bellies bloat up from hunger and have them die in their arms because there was no food. To the poor and starving that promise of food, even the most basic of food, was as important as the guarantee of lifetime employment to a factory employee in the industrial heartland. The food aid distributed by the food aid organizations to the most hungry and destitute among us was the equivalent of the corn ethanol subsidy that many governments are reconsidering. Through the surpluses produced starting with the Green Revolution we assumed the role of subsidizing global overpopulation. The end result, like corn ethanol plants sprouting up in Kansas, was that the population continued to climb. Everyday the world had to subsidize more and more excess population.

To take away that subsidy, to now begin diverting that food on which the world's poor are so dependent for their very lives away into the production of ethanol and other biofuels, to now begin to cut back on the national contributions to the emergency food aid agencies that distribute that food, to now start pressuring those poor third world countries into using their increasingly impoverished agricultural land to produce crops to produce ethanol, is going to spread unimaginable additional suffering among the world's poor and hungry. They are going to be paying the real price for our ethanol mania. Removing the corn subsidies from ethanol producers may cause many companies to fail. What we are doing in our pursuit of biofuels will cause untold additional deaths.

I must apologize for the long list of articles and other references below. This is, however, just a small sampling of the massive amount of material available. I urge you to read at least some of them.

1) Biofuels Will Help Fight Hunger
2) Biofuel industry says oil hike driving food prices
3) A balanced contribution
4) AGRICULTURE: Costly Prosperity
5) GSPI States: Some Biofuels Add Significant Food to Your Table
6) Screwing the poor to secure votes
7) Biofuels: Is corn ethanol the way to go?
8) Repeal "Biofuels" Requirements
9) Hell hath no fury like a special interest questioned
10) Biofuels and world hunger
11) Corn prices raise the specter of hunger
12) Ethanol leaders urge U.N. to review biofuel report
13) A clean, green machine?
14) Biofuels eating into food security--Golez
15) Are commodities a bubble ready to burst?
16) Will Agro fuels Usher Famine?
17) Zimbabwe: Myths of Agro-Fuels Boom
18) The Buzz on Biofuels: Worse Than Dickensian
19) Saving and Restoring Forests Saves Far More Carbon Emissions than Biofuels
20) What Is The Real Cost Of Corn Ethanol?
21) The Globalization of Hunger
22) Subsidizing Hunger On Borrowed Cash
23) NCSU researchers re-engineer sweet potato for efficient ethanol production
24) Biofuels "Will Not Lead to Hunger"
25) Zimbabwe: Biofuels - Promote Research On Non Food Crops
26) Global food prices rise 40% in 2007 to new record
27) Biofuels, the Biggest Scam Going
28) The Last Word (for 2007) on Biofuels and Hunger
29) False Solution to Climate Change
30) How Global warming is creating global hunger
31) Eating MEAT and using BIOFUELS becomes an international disaster
32) Three Billion Dead: The Future of Biofuels and the Future of Resistance
33) It's time to wake up to the danger of this infatuation with biofuels
34) Defra scientist: second generation biofuels need investment
35) Starving for Fuel: How Ethanol Production Contributes to Global Hunger
36) Africa: Controversial Proposals Expected At WEF Gathering
37) The world has only 11 weeks of consumable corn reserves - the lowest level ever
38) World Economic Forum to look at Africa's Green Revolution and energy
39) Neither biofuels nor biotechnology will benefit African smallholder farmers
40) Ethanol
41) Ethanol The Road to a Greener Future
42) Methanol
43) Biodiesel
44) Jatropha
45) Biofuels could generate extensive food shortages
46) CLIMATE CHANGE: EU Persists With Biofuels
47) INSIGHTS: Why Ethanol Production Will Drive World Food Prices Even Higher in 2008
48) Food supplies too scarce to meet relief needs
49) DEVELOPMENT: Biofuels a Lose-Lose Strategy, Critics Say
50) The Choice Between Food And Fuel
51) Groups call for moratorium on government biofuels incentives
52) UN aid chief worried by food inflation, weather
53) Impoverished Areas Of Africa And Asia Face Severe Crop Losses From Climate Change In 20 Years
54) Nine Billion Little Feet on the Highway of the Damned
55) Studies conclude that biofuels are not so green
56) Genetically modified (GM) crops ‘failing to keep promises’
57) Small farmers speak out against globalisation
58) The ravages of ethanol
59) CLIMATE CHANGE: Lula Calls for Flexibility from Rich Countries
60) African NGOs call for moratorium on biofuels
61) Canadians Bemoan the Lack of Availability of Biofuels
62) The Future is Famine
63) A recipe for inflation
64) The Great Agrofuel Swindle
65) World Food Program issues 'emergency appeal' for funds,1,6674660.story
66) "We knew we were poor before, but now it's worse than poverty."
67) Hot air on biofuel
68) Food Agencies Are Starting to ask for Extra
69) EU's biofuels target could be amended amid concerns
70) Biofuel: The fake solution to climate change
71) Soaring Food Prices Putting U.S. Emergency Aid in Peril
72) Ethanol Is Not The Answer
73) NYT Hits Small Mark, Misses Big One
74) Higher grain prices putting squeeze on world food aid,0,2800064.story
75) 2008: The year of global food crisis
76) Economies face the prospect of mass migration, fear, famine and disorder
77) World Bank to Increase Africa Agriculture Loans,,date:2008-03-11~menuPK:34461~pagePK:34392~piPK:64256810~theSitePK:4607,00.html
78) Hunger is set to grow as global food stocks fall
79) World Bank Loan To Complement Agricultural Reform In Kazakhstan$file/X_554592.DOC
80) China: Third Irrigated Agriculture Intensification Loan Project
81) Results For "agriculture development"
82) World Bank Support of Agricultural Development Projects in Romania
83) Agriculture & The World Bank


geoff holman said...

Richard, this is not a response as such to this subject, but you did ask for new topics.

I will suggest as a new topic the question of national infrastructure, as mentioned in my comments to you on ROEZ today.

It seems crazy to me that Governments, including US, UK and Australia do not have a database of all infrastructure, including replacement and maintenance costs, life etc.

Without this information how can Governments make sensible decisions on matters such as population, immigration, peak oil priorities etc etc?

Perhaps I am wrong about this? Do you know of any such Government databases?

I will be intersted in your thoughts.



Richard Embleton said...

An intriguing thought and certainly one that I will develop an article on over these next few days. However, I would like to develop somewhat of a clarification of exactly what you have in mind. I wonder, therefore, if you would mind contacting me offline (since I don't know how to contact you) at or at so that we can get on the same wavelength.

Anonymous said...

Richard, just discovered your blog. I'm also a Canadian in Toronto, 39 y/o. I've always been somewhat over a "doomsday" guy (you know, the kind of guy that bought three generators and hundred of cans of tuna for Y2K.. yum!) and never believed anything that the media says if it can be proven otherwise. Now there's peak oil AND we could be sitting on the thresh of a new ice age (google "Ice Age Now"). How disastrous!

Questions - 1) what are YOU going to do for yourself and your family about either/both of these situations? 2) Being able to foresee major problems is different than being able to survive and thrive in the face of them. Would your answer to #1 be different if you have $1 million? 3) what do you recommend the average person do besides "spreading the peak oil news"... not that it has much effect on 99% of the people I've told. Sitting on the porch while "all hell breaks loose" is certainly an option ;)
Personally, I'd love to set up a small commune of motivated/determined people (ideally, skilled in something useful) in a fertile region of possibly another country with year-around growing conditions where you can be self-sustaining, not attract too much attention, etc.

Richard Embleton said...

1) what are YOU going to do for yourself and your family about either/both of these situations?
Firstly, if you mean peak oil and a potential new ice age, I intend to do absolutely nothing about a new ice age. A potential new ice age - in my opinion and without following the google links you suggest - very likely could be the result of anthropogenic global warming causing a temperature equilibrium between the Arctic Ocean and the Atlantic which would result in the thermal conveyor shutting down (it is already slowing down). What we need to address is global warming driven by CO2 and other greenhouse gases.
Second, in the more general sense of your question, I am doing nothing major to personally prepare for either for some very obvious reasons. I am 63, suffering from Cardiomyopathy, have only 30% heart function, semi-debilitating arthritis, high blood pressure and diabetes. I am working on the assumption, right or wrong, that I am not a candidate for long term survival - and I have an extensive family history of early death to back this up - and am unlikely to have to deal personally with the decline following peak oil or the worst of anthropogenic global warming. I am, instead, devoting the lion's share of my energy to this blog and my other writing activities in hope of reaching as many people as possible and making them aware of the long list of disasters - of which peak oil and global warming are only two - sitting on the horizon and trying my best to convince them that they cannot sleep walk into this but need to take action if they expect themselves or their children to be survivors. My daughter and her partner are well aware of peak oil theory and the other approaching disasters, live a very low-impact lifestyle and are arming/educating themselves to deal with the disasters as they begin to manifest themsselves. The rest of my extended family are too busy living the good life to consider any changes. What can you do.
2) Being able to foresee major problems is different than being able to survive and thrive in the face of them. Would your answer to #1 be different if you have $1 million?
I am not sure. I am no longer physically able to consider a self-sufficient homestead. But I would certainly like to help others prepare, if only as a consultant or source of information and ideas. I would very much like to relocate to my home town and try everything in my power to help the community turn itself into a self-sufficient, self-reliant, survivable post-peak community. I still strongly belief that community is well situated to be just that. So I guess the answer is yes, it would make a difference in that it would allow me to pursue that strategy.
3) what do you recommend the average person do besides "spreading the peak oil news"... not that it has much effect on 99% of the people I've told. Sitting on the porch while "all hell breaks loose" is certainly an option ;)
Personally, I'd love to set up a small commune of motivated/determined people (ideally, skilled in something useful) in a fertile region of possibly another country with year-around growing conditions where you can be self-sustaining, not attract too much attention, etc.

I adamantly believe that the only sensible strategy for survival is to do so in an environment with which you are familiar and among people with whom you have a cultural and language afinity. The Jonestown strategy you speak of does not sit with my view of survivability. We do not have the resources available, including the land in fertile regions, for 6.6 billion people to be running off building communes. The best approach for survivability, in my opinion, is to make existing communities survivable for a post-peak, post-fossil-fuel world. Not all communities, of course, can be made survivable. I do not believe large cities can be salvaged, for a wide variety of reasons. Villages, small and medium-sized towns and even small cities of 20-50,000 people can be transformed into survivable post-oil communities. That effort is going to be a long process and difficult, but far easier and far less resource-intensive than starting over. If you will read my article The right to pursue powerdown: seeking alternative lifestyles post-peak at you will see my concerns about the roadblocks that stand in the way of that preparation, both from an individual homestead and community perspective. These hurdles, however, are far easier to overcome and change at the community level than at the homestead level where the rest of the community is stuck in the current lifestyle.