Human beings have been burning fossil fuels like they’re going out of style. And they definitely are: We are running out of accessible oil, and we must dramatically cut back on our fossil fuel use to prevent the greenhouse effect from wreaking extreme ecological, human, and economic havoc.
Biofuels—a better term is agrofuels—are often presented as the silver bullet that will enable us to drive our SUVs merrily into the future. Any burnable plant matter can be an agrofuel, but ethanol (fermented from corn, sugar cane, or other food crops) is most common today; biodiesel, derived from soy, palm, or other vegetable oil, is also coming into use.
In theory, agrofuels seem like a great idea. Plants are a renewable resource, and, while burning agrofuels creates the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide, the feedstock plants absorb an equivalent amount of CO 2 as they grow.
So what’s not to love? That’s certainly the attitude of the U.S. government, which offers a 51-cent credit to fuel companies for every gallon of ethanol they blend with gasoline (U.S. ethanol consumption topped 5 billion gallons in 2006 and is climbing). The European Union aims to replace 10 percent of its vehicle fuel with agrofuel by 2020.
But the rosy picture collapses completely when you do the math. A “life cycle analysis” of our current system of corn ethanol production (including growing crops, distilling fuel, transporting inputs and outputs long distances, and making farm machinery) shows that the whole process burns nearly as much fuel energy as it makes. In many estimates, it burns more than it makes.
This is not a fuel source—it’s a massive exercise in greenwashing theater, a cycle that burns extra oil and adds to global warming. The force behind it is not environmentalism, but the political power of Big Corn.
Biodiesel has a better energy balance, but like corn ethanol it has very ugly global effects on people and the environment. These effects are built into the agribusiness-based farming model fostered by public policy today—a model that sucks up water, erodes soil, pollutes groundwater, and produces N 2 O (an extremely powerful greenhouse gas) at unsustainable rates.
THERE’S ONLY so much farmable land on the planet. From Brazil to Indonesia, rain forest is being hacked down or burned at a rapacious rate to feed wealthy countries’ appetite for sugarcane, soy, and palm oil. Torching a lush ecosystem to factory-farm agrofuels does not do the environment any favors. It’s even worse if you’re burning a tropical peat swamp forest, which stores huge amounts of sequestered carbon (this is how Indonesia became the world’s biggest greenhouse gas producer other than the U.S. and China).
And it’s not just irreplaceable biodiversity that large-scale monocropping plantations push aside—it’s also poor communities, including indigenous groups, whose land is bought or strong-armed away from them, destroying livelihoods and traditional ways of life.
What’s also bad news for the poor is that agrofuels burn food—lots of food. To fill one SUV tank with ethanol takes 450 pounds of corn, enough to feed a person for a year, and thousands of gallons of water. The thirst for agrofuels has already started raising world corn prices, spelling malnutrition and disaster for many of the world’s poor.
One kind of agrofuel that does show promise, if grown ethically, is ethanol distilled from cellulose (using woody plants) rather than from starch (using corn or other food crops). Cellulosic fermentation technology, which is still being developed, may eventually produce fuel from crops such as switchgrass, which needs less fertilizer than corn and which needs replanting only once a decade.
The funding currently going to Big Corn must be switched to things that will work. Locally produced cellulosic ethanol should take its place among a combination of renewable energy sources, including wind, solar, tide, geothermal, and small-scale dams.
But the most important take-home lesson is conservation: We must stop using so much power. If we converted into ethanol every single grain of corn, wheat, rice, and soy the U.S. grows, that ethanol would power only about 4 percent of the country’s current yearly energy consumption.
Fortunately, there’s a lot of waste we can cut. We don’t need to ship practically everything we buy thousands of miles across the ocean. (Don’t put that New Zealand apple in your mouth—it’s soaked in low-grade maritime fuel!) We don’t need to drive sport-utility behemoths, live in McMansions, or avoid mass transit. It’s not going to be easy, but in return we will get better-tasting food (in season), a coastline that’s not under water, and a planet for our grandchildren to live on.
Want to read more about agrofuels?
This highly readable article from Foreign Policy in Focus lays out some of the social actors pushing for agrofuels made by large-scale monocropping and some of the social consequences:
Lester Brown, founder and president of the Earth Policy Institute, considers the effects that turning food into fuel will have on world food supplies and political instability:
Here’s a useful page recapping a number of concerns about agrofuels’ impact on the planet and on human society
This accessible, in-depth report by the International Forum on Globalization and the Institute for Policy Studies is a comprehensive introduction to “The False Promise of Biofuels”:
This slightly dry six-page report gives you the rundown on different ways in which agrofuels can increase greenhouse gas emissions and harm rainforests and other sources of biodiversity. The summary of life-cycle analyses—that is, studies of whether you get more energy out of biofuels than you expend in creating them—is good (see p. 5):
This readable 15-page overview considers the effects of agrofuel production on food security, the lives of farm workers, displaced communities, and the environment: