Do Biofuels Save Energy?

Peter Mann, WhyHunger’s Global Movements Program Director Emeritus, reports on this controversial issue and the role of biofuels globally.

by Peter Mann, WhyHunger

As agrofuels and biofuels hit daily headlines, we need to look at critical questions being addressed to the ethanol mania. The CSD-15 meetings dealt with Energy and Sustainable Development, and the agrofuels issues went to the heart of what is sustainable in this latest energy project. Do these fuels actually save energy? Is the biofuels economy sustainable for farmers and the land? Will biofuels lead to greater world hunger? Will massive ethanol expansion increase rural poverty and environmental degradation? What positions are being taken by CSD participants?

Do Biofuels Save Energy?

Ethanol has received a variety of U.S. government subsidies and a current massive expansion, but in the view of David Pimentel, professor emeritus of entomology at Cornell University, ethanol requires more energy to produce, than it delivers and is an environmental bust. Pimentel has written extensively on this topic and he provides the basis of his argument in Biofuel Skeptic Extraordinaire: An interview with David Pimentel by Tom Philpott in Grist Magazine of December 8, 2006. Also see Grist Magazines recent series on biofuels.

Is the Biofuels Economy Sustainable for Farmers and the Land?

Effective critiques of the biofuels economy are not simply about rejecting this technology but also providing ways in which this economy could be transformed to revitalize farming, improve the environment, and create economic opportunity in rural and urban areas of the U.S. If the biofuels economy simply continues the disvalues of our present industrial agriculture system – monocultures, environmental degradation, and corporate control – it will be disastrous. However, if it is focused on local production of feedstocks and fuels, local ownership of processing plants, and sustainable production practices, it could help to rebuild our food and farm systems. This argument is developed in detail by Jim Kleinschmit of the Institute of Agriculture and Trade Policy and Mark Smith of Farm Aid in Biofuels or Bust?!? : How We Can Make the Bioeconomy Sustainable for Farmers and the Land, in Ag Matters, the Spring 2006 issue of the National Campaign for Sustainable Agriculture newsletter.

Will Biofuels Create World Hunger?

Foreign Affairs Magazine is an unexpected ally in the questioning of the emerging bio-fuels economy. C. Ford Runge and Benjamin Senauer, in their article How Biofuels Could Starve the Poor, (Foreign Affairs, May/June 2007) see increases in the price of corn and other food staples as an inevitable consequence of the huge expansion of subsidized ethanol and other biofuels. Corn production is being used to feed the huge mills that produce ethanol. We have already seen some of the consequences in the doubling of prices of tortillas in Mexico. To stop this trend and prevent even more of the worlds poor from going hungry, they propose that Washington shift to a policy of conservation, energy efficiency, and research to improve agricultural efficiency.

Rural Poverty and Environmental Degradation

In an analysis of Brazil’s expanded ethanol program, Brazil’s Ethanol Plan Breeds Rural Poverty, Environmental Degradation, Isabella Kenfield of the Americas Program at the International Relations Center (IRC) shows,   convincingly, that no technological solution can work.  Indeed, it will create a social and ecological disaster if it simply expands the number of hectares mono-cropping sugarcane and leaves the underlying problems of landlessness, hunger, joblessness, ecological degradation and agrarian conflicts intact.

UN Meetings

The meetings at CSD 15 highlighted several of the problems raised above. Roundtables on Biofuels and Sustainability discussed managing the upside and downside of biofuels. With 852 million people food insecure in the world, mostly in Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa, responding to possible acute food shortages has become more complex for UN agencies. The World Food Program is finding that maize is being used for biofuels and is less available for emergency food purchases. Small-scale farmers must be included in the biofuels planning process since many of them would have to choose between food for their immediate family and local markets versus food for fuel. Most of the biofuels discussions have revolved around international trade, but in developing countries, domestic trade is more useful for the peasant farmer. Farm workers and food workers must also be included in biofuels planning. The UN meetings provided constructive ideas both on the macro and micro levels of biofuels.

For more information, see:
International Union for Conservation
Online technology discussions at BioEnergy wiki
Energy Linkages to the Millennium Development Goals
NGO perspectives on CSD 15 including biofuels: Northern Alliance for Sustainability (ANPED)

To conclude: There is a basic conflict between land for food and land for fuel, as well as between social movements for healthy food, farms and communities and the corporate interests of the grain, oil and genetic engineering industries. This is a crucial issue for the discussion of energy and sustainable development.