In The Part Played by Labor in the Transition from Ape to Man, Friedrich Engels wrote:
“Let us not, however, flatter ourselves overmuch on account of our human victories over nature. For each such victory nature takes its revenge on us. Each victory, it is true, in the first place brings about the results we expected, but in the second and third places it has quite different, unforeseen effects which only too often cancel the first. …”
That subject, the irony of history, comes up frequently in the writings of Marx and Engels, and even more frequently in real life. A letter published in the December 14 issue of Science magazine offers a case in point.
Subsidies to corn-based biofuel are supposed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Many analysts have argued that the benefit is at best marginal, because growing corn and making ethanol is energy-intensive. But the problem goes beyond that, as the letter points out. The writer is William F. Laurance of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute:
“The United States is the world’s leading producer of soy. However, many U.S. farmers are shifting from soy to corn (maize) in order to qualify for generous government subsidies intended to promote biofuel production; since 2006, U.S. corn production has risen 19% while soy production has fallen by 15%. This in turn is helping to drive a major increase in global soy prices, which have nearly doubled in the past 14 months.
“The rising price for soy has important consequences for Amazonian forests and savanna-woodlands. In Brazil, the world’s second-leading soy producer, deforestation rates and especially fire incidence have increased sharply in recent months in the main soy- and beef-producing states in Amazonia (and not in states with little soy production). Although dry weather is a contributing factor, these increases are widely attributed to rising soy and beef prices, and studies suggest a strong link between Amazonian deforestation and soy demand.
“Some Amazonian forests are directly cleared for soy farms. Farmers also purchase large expanses of cattle pasture for soy production, effectively pushing the ranchers farther into the Amazonian frontier or onto lands unsuitable for soy production. In addition, higher soy costs tend to raise global beef prices because soy-based livestock feeds become more expensive, creating an indirect incentive for forest conversion to pasture. Finally, the powerful Brazilian soy lobby is a key driving force behind initiatives to expand Amazonian highways and transportation networks in order to transport soybeans to market, and this is greatly increasing access to forests for ranchers, loggers, and land speculators.
“In a globalized world, the impacts of local decisions about crop preferences can have far-reaching implications. As illustrated by an apparent “corn connection” to Amazonian deforestation, the environmental benefits of corn-based biofuel might be considerably reduced when its full and indirect costs are considered.”
To quote Engels once more …
“The individual capitalists, who dominate production and exchange, are able to concern themselves only with the most immediate useful effect of their actions…. and the sole incentive becomes the profit to be made on selling. … In relation to nature, as to society, the present mode of production is predominantly concerned only about the immediate, the most tangible result; and then surprise is expressed that the more remote effects of actions directed to this end turn out to be quite different.”