'Next Generation' Biofuels: Bursting the New 'Green' Bubble

The massive new demand for agrofuels is escalating deforestation and resulting in conversion of biodiverse and carbon-rich native forests and grasslands into biologically barren and carbon-poor industrial tree plantations and other crop monocultures.

Introduction

A diverse alliance of organizations has published an open letter [below]  in the U.S. and internationally warning of the dangers of industrially produced biofuels (called agrofuels by critics). The letter explains why large-scale industrial production of transport fuels and other energy from plants such as corn, sugar cane, oilseeds, trees, grasses, or so-called agricultural and woodland waste threatens forests, biodiversity, food sovereignty, community-based land rights and will worsen climate change. With the new Obama Administration slated to take office Tuesday, the letter’s originators warn that if Obama’s “New Green Economy” runs on agrofuels it may trap the U.S. in a dangerous “Green Bubble” of unrealistic promises from an unsustainable industry.

Indications that the incoming Obama Administration may be ideologically wedded to continuing the agrofuel disaster are clear. President Obama’s “New Green Deal” includes support for notoriously destructive agrofuel corporations, the creation of a pro-agribusiness cabinet that includes Tom Vilsack, Ken Salazar and Steven Chu, promotion of cellulosic fuel technologies, and references to increasing the Renewable Fuel Standard biofuel target. Additionally, Obama, a former Senator from a corn-growing state, has indicated that the already troubled U.S. ethanol industry will receive a financial boost soon, despite mounting evidence that the industry simply cannot meet the demand for fuel in any just or sustainable way.

“This no longer about corn ethanol-turning any plants into fuel is simply not renewable,” stated Dr. Rachel Smolker, co-author of the letter and Global Justice Ecology Project agrofuels specialist. “All plants, edible or not, require soils, water, fertilizers and land, all of which are in shortening supply. Yet these unsustainable technologies are commanding the vast majority of renewable energy tax incentives, at the expense of genuine cleaner energy solutions like conservation, efficiency, wind, solar, and ocean power. Additionally, because agrofuel crops rely on fertilizers, 44% of which are imported, they cannot even satisfy the calls for U.S. energy independence.”

Corn and sugar based agrofuels have already come under extreme scrutiny due to their documented contribution to the food crisis, with venture capital investment in these so-called ‘first generation biofuels’ dropping to zero. The open letter exposes the further problems that will result from the so-called ‘second generation’ of agrofuels. These problems range from wholesale destruction of the world’s rainforests and other sensitive forests, to the forced displacement of entire communities to make way for agrofuel expansion, and the biosafety risks of gambling on novel technologies like Synthetic Biology and genetically engineered trees. The letter also makes clear that agrofuels made from inedible plant feedstocks (cellulosic fuels) will continue to exacerbate the food crisis by monopolizing additional agricultural lands for the growing of agrofuel crops such as grasses and trees, instead of food crops.

The groups originating the letter have called on others to join them in preventing another ill-conceived push into agrofuels similar to that which last year raised food prices and hunger levels to crisis proportions. “The last administration’s enthusiastic foray into biofuels exacerbated global environmental destruction, land theft and hunger in just a very short space of time,” explains Kathy Jo Wetter of the ETC Group. “Redoubling that biofuels push is a continuation of disastrous policies rather than the change we need.”

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OPEN LETTER:
Unsustainable Biofuels: Fueling Climate Change, Poverty and Environmental Devastation

As a diverse alliance of organizations concerned with climate change, agriculture and food policy, human rights and indigenous peoples rights and biodiversity protection, we (Global Justice Ecology Project, Institute for Social Ecology, Heartwood, Energy Justice Network, Grassroots International, Food First, Native Forest Council, Family Farm Defenders, ETC Group, Dogwood Alliance, Rainforest Action Network) issue this open letter in opposition to agrofuels (large scale industrial biofuels).

If you would like to join us, please add your organizational signature to this letter by emailing your group’s name, contact person and website to contact@globaljusticeecology.org.

We strongly oppose the rapid and destructive expansion of agrofuels; the large-scale industrial production of transport fuels and other energy from plants (corn, sugar cane, oilseeds, trees, grasses, waste etc.). Agrofuels are a false solution and a dangerous distraction and they must be halted.

Agrofuels are a “false solution”

Many prominent voices in the United States, including President-elect Obama, have voiced support for the large-scale production of agrofuels as a central strategy for solving the problems of energy supply and global warming. A growing body of scientific evidence, however, indicates that this is a tragic misconception and that continued pursuit of agrofuels will aggravate severely rather than resolve the multiple and dire consequences of the climate, energy, food, economic and ecological crises we face. Like other dirty and dangerous technologies and devices being promoted by industry to supposedly address climate change-including “clean coal,” carbon capture and storage [CCS], coal gasification, nuclear power, carbon offset markets, and ocean fertilization-agrofuels are a distracting “false solution” promoted for their potential to reap profits rather than their capacity to address problems effectively.

Agrofuels worsen climate change and poverty

A growing body of literature from all levels of society is revealing that, when all impacts are considered, agrofuels create more, not less, greenhouse gas emissions; deplete soil and water resources; drive destruction of forests and other biodiverse ecosystems; result in expanded use of genetically engineered crops, toxic pesticides, and herbicides; and consolidate corporate control over access to land. While claims are made that agrofuels will benefit the rural poor, in reality, indigenous and smallholder farmers are increasingly displaced. Industrial agriculture and the destruction of biodiversity, two leading causes of global warming, will be further facilitated by agrofuels.

Next generation “cellulosic” fuels will not resolve the problems

With recognition of the role of agrofuels in driving up food prices, there has been increasing attention to the social and ecological costs of corn and sugar cane derived ethanol. In response, there is now a massive push to develop non-food, so-called cellulosic fuels based on claims that these new feedstocks (grasses, trees, and “waste” products) will not compete with food production and can be grown on “idle and marginal” lands. The incoming Obama Administration is clearly positioning to advocate strongly on this platform. Unfortunately, these claims do not hold up to scrutiny.

An enormous additional demand for trees, grasses and other plants, edible or inedible, will not avert the problem of land-use competition. Land that could be used for food crops or biodiversity conservation will be increasingly diverted into energy production. Demand for land for both agriculture and timber is already intense and escalating globally as water, soil and biodiversity dwindle and the climate becomes increasingly unstable.

The scale of demand cannot be met sustainably

Virtually all of the proposed cellulosic feedstocks (including dedicated energy crops such as perennial grasses and fast growing or genetically engineered trees, agricultural and forestry “wastes and residues”, municipal wastes etc.) present serious ecological concerns on the scale required to maintain biorefinery operations and significantly contribute to U.S. energy demands. Furthermore, renewable fuels targets in the U.S. mandate the use of 15 billion gallons of corn ethanol per year, an amount that requires one third of the nations corn crop, and an additional 21 billion gallons a year of “advanced” agrofuels, the definition of which opens the possibility that demand will be met with foreign sources. The massive new demand for agrofuels is escalating deforestation and resulting in conversion of biodiverse and carbon-rich native forests and grasslands into biologically barren and carbon-poor industrial tree plantations and other crop monocultures.

Land use changes resulting from industrial agriculture, including widespread deforestation, are major causes of climate change. Recent research finds that old growth forests sequester far more carbon than was previously estimated, (i.e. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change underestimated carbon stocks for temperate old growth forests by two-thirds). This means that deforestation has been a much larger causal factor in global warming than initially thought, and that intact natural forests are critical for sequestering carbon. It is imperative therefore that we protect remaining forests, grasslands and other carbon-rich ecosystems.

The widespread application of biotechnology for agrofuel production, including genetically engineered (GE) feedstock crops such as GE grasses and GE trees, and plans to use synthetic biology and other genetic engineering techniques to alter and construct microbes, is an unacceptable and dangerous risk.

Sustainability criteria cannot address the problems with agrofuels because they are incapable of addressing many complex and often indirect ecological and social impacts. Neither can they be implemented under globally diverse ecological, social and political situations. Similar efforts to develop criteria for soy, palm oil and timber, for example, have proven vastly inadequate. Finally, these efforts are based on the fundamental and flawed assumption that such massive demands can and should be met.

Agrofuels are not a renewable energy source

While plants do re-grow, the soils, nutrients, minerals and water they require are in limited supply. The diverse and complex ecosystems that native plants belong to are also limited and not easily regenerated. Subsidies and incentives for renewable fuels should be focused on truly renewable options, like wind and solar energy. Instead, currently in the U.S. close to three-quarters of tax credits and two-thirds of federal subsidies for renewable energy are being wrongly invested in agrofuels.

Agrofuels are a disaster for people

As governments, investors and corporations recognize the increasing demand for and profitability of land for food, fiber and now energy, we are witnessing a veritable tidal wave of land grabbing on a global scale. This is disastrous for rural and indigenous peoples who are increasingly being evicted or displaced. If tariffs currently limiting international agrofuel trade are diminished or eliminated, social and ecological damages will escalate.

Social movements around the world, including the international peasant movement, Via Campesina, call for “food and energy sovereignty.” Via Campesina, along with the independent International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD), a long-term independent assessment of agriculture involving over 400 scientists and diverse stakeholders, point to the key importance of a return to locally controlled, diverse, ecologically sensitive, and organic agriculture practices as vital to both addressing climate change and poverty. In demanding a halt to the insanity of agrofuel expansion, we stand in solidarity with peoples around the world who are resisting the loss and destruction of their lands, and with the wildlife and biodiversity being driven to extinction for corporate profit.

Real solutions must be given a chance

There are numerous better options for addressing climate change. These are generally proven, do not involve risky technologies, return control of resources to local inhabitants rather than profiting irresponsible corporations, and are more equitable.

These include but are not limited to:

  • A massive focus on improvements in energy efficiency, public transport and reduced levels of consumption within the United States (and other affluent countries);
  • A rejection of industrial agribusiness and biotechnology and a return to locally adapted and community controlled diverse agricultural practices with the goal of feeding people, not automobiles, while conserving soil and water, maximizing carbon sequestration and protecting biodiversity;
  • Repeal of the 36 billion gallon per year Renewable Fuel Standard biofuel target in the Energy Independence and Security Act.
  • Support for indigenous land rights and community stewardship initiatives as the major focus of efforts to preserve biodiverse ecosystems and the implementation of free and prior informed consent from indigenous peoples with respect to projects proposed on their ancestral lands and territories.
  • Reducing demand for forest products and aggressively protecting remaining native forests and grasslands;
  • Rejection of coal and nuclear technologies, which are inherently toxic and dangerous;
  • Scaling up of decentralized and unequivocally renewable and cleaner wind and solar energies;
  • Leaving fossil fuels in the ground, where they cannot contribute to climate change;
  • Rejection of ineffective market-based approaches that commodify the atmosphere, biodiversity, and humanity itself.

Signed:
Global Justice Ecology Project
Institute for Social Ecology
Heartwood
Energy Justice Network
Grassroots International
Food First
Native Forest Council
Dogwood Aliance
Family Farm Defenders
ETC Group
Rainforest Action Network

More information, including extensive reference notes for this open letter, is available at http://www.foodfirst.org/en/node/2341

 

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