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The dangers of biofuels

7 November, 2007

George Monbiot has just written a powerful article about the dangers of biofuels.   Amongst other things, he points out the enormous social impact they will have if agricultural land is increasingly used for vehicles during a time of unprecedented demand to produce food in the Third World.  Essentially, the increasing production of biofuels, unless strictly regulated, means that the cars of the rich will compete with the poor of the world for food — and market forces will determine that cars win this battle.

I see here shades of the ‘Green Revolution’ of the 1960s, in which advanced agricultural techniques, the use of chemical fertilizers and machinery was sold to Third World farmers as a panacaea that would bring them out of a state of ‘underdevelopment’.  In effect, the benefits for the West were much greater.  Consumers benefitted from a drop in global food prices, but the Third World farmers encouraged to mass produce monocrops were left with large debts and diminishing returns on their harvests.  In a similar way, biofuels, presented as a Good Thing will turn out to be anything but for the global South.

Monbiot writes:

Even the International Monetary Fund, always ready to immolate the poor on the altar of business, now warns that using food to produce biofuels “might further strain already tight supplies of arable land and water all over the world, thereby pushing food prices up even further.”(5) This week the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation will announce the lowest global food reserves in 25 years, threatening what it calls “a very serious crisis”(6). Even when the price of food was low, 850 million people went hungry because they could not afford to buy it. With every increment in the price of flour or grain, several million more are pushed below the breadline.

The cost of rice has risen by 20% over the past year, maize by 50%, wheat by 100%(7). Biofuels aren’t entirely to blame – by taking land out of food production they exacerbate the effects of bad harvests and rising demand – but almost all the major agencies are now warning against expansion. And almost all the major governments are ignoring them.

They turn away because biofuels offer a means of avoiding hard political choices. They create the impression that governments can cut carbon emissions and – as Ruth Kelly, the British transport secretary, announced last week(8) – keep expanding the transport networks. New figures show that British drivers puttered past the 500 billion kilometre mark for the first time last year(9). But it doesn’t matter: we just have to change the fuel we use. No one has to be confronted. The demands of the motoring lobby and the business groups clamouring for new infrastructure can be met. The people being pushed off their land remain unheard.

And, because they only apparently benefit the environment, but in fact produce much greater levels of greenhouse gases when deforestation and the fertilisers used to grow them are taken into account, they are going do more harm than good for everyone.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. gregdowney permalink
    7 November, 2007 6:25 pm

    Jovan, I heard a report on this the other day, too. I was taken aback when I heard how US ethanol projects have made life in Mexico difficult by driving up the price of corn. I can’t remember what the figures were, but the impact on corn supply to provide a tiny percentage of the US demand for fuel was shocking. I think it was 15% of the US corn to supply 2% of the fuel, but don’t quote me on that one.

    In the US, the whole ethanol thing has long been considered by progressives to be a boondoggle, a massive agricultural subsidy masquerading as energy policy. One danger now is that people are actually believing the rhetoric of the boondoggle and the impact on the food supply could be enormous — is already enormous for those on the margin.

  2. 9 November, 2007 11:07 am

    I agree, though I’ve never heard of a boondoggle before. Sounds nasty.

    Truthout have just posted some news articles about biofuels here, including their tendency to promote deforestation in places like Indonesia.

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