portland independent media center  
images audio video
newswire article commentary global

energy & nuclear | genetic engineering

The Threat of Agrofuels Industrialized GMO Monocultures Will Only Hurt Farmers

As concerns about peak oil mount, many people are declaring agrofuels to be the latest panacea for saving civilization from its impending collapse.
The Threat of Agrofuels - Industrialized GMO Monocultures Will Only Hurt Farmers

-----------------------------------------------------------------------

I know a lot of folks reading indymedia get annoyed when we post these sorts of articles but there are good Biofuels and Bad Agrofuels. Using a waste product like used veggie oil or even the straw from harvesting of wheat etc... (of course putting the waste material from turning straw into biofuels back onto the farm to replenish the soils' nutrients) is an acceptable technique with low environmental and social consequences. However growing crops to produce Agrofuels is severely detrimental environmentally and socially whether here in the US or in other countries around the world.

Biofuels are a part of the solution not the solution itself.

Our position on Agro/biofuels can be read here:  link to www.nwrage.org


-------------------------------------------------------------------------
Sunday, November 04 2007
Contributed by: John Peck

As concerns about peak oil mount, many people are declaring agrofuels to be the latest panacea for saving civilization from its impending collapse. Propelling this bandwagon is a whole gaggle of venture capitalists, free trade advocates, farm commodity groups, agribusiness giants, biotech outfits, and - yes - the oil giants and car makers. As detailed in the July 2007 issue of Seedling (available online at www.grain.org), many of the biggest agrofuel boosters are familiar opponents to those now struggling for global justice, food sovereignty, and land reform. At the top of the list one finds such names as: ADM, Cargill, Bunge, ConAgra, Dreyfus, DuPont, Syngenta, Monsanto, Marubenji, Tate & Lyle, Weyerhauser, Tembec, British Petroleum, Misui, Royal Dutch Shell, Chevron, Mitsubishi, Petrobras, Total, Barclays, Morgan Stanley, Goldman Sachs, Societe Generale, and the Carlyle Group.

Not surprisingly, the InterAmerican Ethanol Commission is also led by other neoliberal globalization cheerleaders such as Florida governor, Jeb Bush; Brazil's former Minister of Agriculture, Roberto Rodrigues; and Luis Moreno, the president of the Inter-American Development Bank.

Contrary to their greenwashed image, 21st century agrofuels bear little resemblance to the homegrown energy sources of yesteryear. It is one thing to fill your car tank with used vegetable oil and quite another to be bulldozing rainforests and displacing peasants for the sake of globetrotting commodities. Wood, peat, and other biomass have been burned for eons, while the utility of plant-derived liquid fuels was first realized in the mid 19th century, well before petroleum. In fact, when Rudolf Diesel first demonstrated his new fangled engine at the World Exhibition in Paris in 1898 he ran it on peanut oil. Henry Fords' early cars were designed to run on ethanol derived from hemp, but by the 1930s Big Oil had conspired to squash grassroots alternatives. Today, if you want energy free from corporate control you have to do it yourself, such as Amish farmers who cook with wood stoves or Bougainville rebels that run their vehicles on coconut oil.

Modern corporate outfits demand high volume supply from industrial monocultures of corn, soybeans, sugar cane, and increasingly palm oil. Most ironic is to see the vehicles of organic co-ops driving around the Midwest powered by biotech agrofuels. Given how reluctant most people are to consume genetically engineered foods directly, the
only other outlet for these dubious "wonder" crops is as high fructose corn syrup, factory farm livestock rations, or agrofuel feedstocks. In the research pipeline are agrofuels derived from yet other food sources - cassava, wheat, barley, as well as cellulosic ethanol derived from switchgrass, crop residue, and even biotech trees. Some scientists are also working on genetically engineered algae for agrofuel production.

The majority of agrofuels also come from industrial refineries that are just as fossil fuel intensive and ecologically destructive as any petroleum counterpart. We are not talking about grandpa's old moonshine still. The notorious Gopher State Ethanol Plant in St. Paul, MN, which finally closed in 2004, was emitting a 230 tons of volatile organic
compounds (VOCs) from drying corn mash into densely populated neighborhoods each year - seven times the legal limit. Local water tables have dropped by 30 feet since the UWGP ethanol plant began its operation in Friesland, WI, consuming a whopping 176 million gallons annually. Much of this is dumped as 89F wastewater back into a local stream. Many critics expect ethanol plants to eventually cause widespread groundwater contamination as occurred in CA with methyl tertiary butyl ether (MTBE). Reckless MTBE production affected the drinking water supply of 45 million people and led to a successful 2001 lawsuit against 18 energy companies seeking $300 million in damages. The lesson the agrofuel industry took away from the MTBE case, though, was not to clean up its act but to seek a liability waiver, similar to what the U.S. nuclear industry enjoys, in the last federal energy bill. Fortunately, this ploy as part of the last federal energy bill debate was narrowly defeated by a coalition of consumer advocates, local governments, and environmental groups.

If you happened to pony up cash as an early investor in the agrofuel boom expecting to get rich quick, you may have since lost your shirt as the big boys cornered the market. This was the fate of many U.S. farmers who started the ethanol industry in the 1990s only to witness their pioneering work hijacked by ADM and Cargill.
Whereas in 2003 over 50% of ethanol plants in the U.S. were farmer owned, today nearly 90% are controlled by absentee investors. Taxpayers can also get ripped off along with farmers. In MN, which requires that all gasoline contain 10% ethanol, the state lost $33 million in subsidies when a farmer owned ethanol plant got gobbled up by ADM in 2003. A controversial $500 million ten year long deal recently signed between British Petroleum (BP) and the Univ. of California -Berkeley to create an Energy Bioscience Institute would allow BP to "share" patent royalties with the primary partner - the unwitting CA taxpayer.

As a 2006 study by Elanor Starmar and Tim Wise at Tufts Univ. revealed, U.S. taxpayer subsidies for corn, soybeans, and other commodity crops basically facilitated the rapid expansion of factory farms and the penetration of foreign markets, all the while lining the pockets of corporate agribusiness. Runaway U.S. corn exports under NAFTA bankrupted millions of Mexican peasants, driving them off their land and across the border, while making an entire nation precariously dependent upon imported food. With the agrofuel boom, though, competing fuel demands for these food crops has led to unprecedented price hikes for consumers worldwide.

Earlier this year the cost of tortillas in Mexico skyrocketed 400% in a matter of weeks, triggering angry protests. U.S. corn farmers received $42 billion in taxpayer subsidies between 1995 and 2004 to make up for below parity market prices, insuring record profits for the grain cartel. Now, the U.S. is spending another $7 billion annually on
taxpayer subsidies for agrofuels. ADM and Cargill have already threatened to import sugarcane ethanol from Brazil if taxpayer incentives for domestic corn-based ethanol are not sufficiently "competitive." So much for the notion that agrofuels will bring about greater energy security.

In a March 13th 2006 press release leading up to their national convention in Chicago, Jim Greenwood, president of the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO), proclaimed that a new wave of genetically engineered technologies "will end our national addiction to oil." Monsanto and Cargill recently joined with Renessen to develop a GMO maize specifically geared towards ethanol production, while Monsanto and Votorantim are hoping to debut GMO sugarcane for the Brazilian ethanol market by 2009. Given the insatiable demand for fossil fuels and synthetic fertilizers to grow such biotech crops, though, Greenwood's prediction seems a bit farfetched. As Steve
Calvin noted in the Jan. 24th, 2003 issue of the Minneapolis Star and Tribune, "Ethanol made from large-scale corn cropping is about as close to being a renewable resource as World Wrestling Federation wrestling is to being an Olympic event."

When one recalls Pres. Bush Sr. remark before the 1992 Earth Summit that the "the American lifestyle is non-negotiable," shifting from petroluem to agrofuel would at best only forestall our inevitable comeuppance. The U.S. government's own 2006 International Energy Outlook forecasts a 71% rise in energy demand by 2030, with
only 9% of that amount coming from renewable sources, including agrofuels. There is simply not enough cropland in the U.S. to fill the tank of every gas guzzling SUV or F16 fighter plane that is now out there, especially when a gallon of ethanol has only two thirds of the energy in a gallon of gasoline Even meeting the Renewable Fuels Standard proposed by the U.S. Senate of 15 billion gallons per year of corn ethanol capacity would require half of all current corn acreage in the country.

A recent study in the Journal of Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics has also made the startling assertion that burning agrofuels may actually contribute more to global warming than burning petroleum. As reported in the Times (U.K.) on Sept. 22, 2007, the burning of biodiesel from corn and canola actually generates 50% and 70%
more greenhouse gas emissions, respectively, than the fossil fuel they would replace. This is because agrofuel combustion generates more nitrous oxide which is 296 times more damaging as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. Scientists admitted that this initial finding does not even take into account the adverse climate impact of the fossil fuels expended to produce agrofuels in the first place. Using these figures, Dr. Dave Reay of the University of Edinburgh estimated that if corn-based ethanol output climbs seven fold by 2022, a proposal now being pushed in Congress, then greenhouse gas emissions from the U.S. transport sector alone would rise by 6%.

Like the melting of arctic permafrost, human-induced drainage of peatlands in southeast Asia for agrofuel palm oil plantations will also have a huge impact on global warming.

Another recent report from the nonprofit group Environmental Defense and covered by Reuters in a 9/20/07 article, warns that ethanol plant expansion in the Midwest could also jeopardize dwindling water supplies. In particular, the Ogallala aquifer, an 800-mile-long underground sea that stretches from Texas to South Dakota and supplies one fifth of all irrigated cropland in the U.S. could be drained of an additional 2.6 billion gallons per year by ethanol production. It takes up to six gallons of water to produce one gallon of ethanol, with another 13 gallons of water lost as waste on average. The expanded corn acreage to supply a booming ethanol market would require an estimated 120 billion gallons of extra irrigation water per year. There are 132 ethanol plants already in operation in the U.S. with 79 more under construction - most proposed for the Midwest.

Meanwhile, the destruction and conversion of tropical rainforests for export oriented agrofuel monocultures continues apace. Robert Farley, Monsanto Vice President, speaking at an agrofuel expo in Argentina on March 15, 2007 admitted that the boom would be "unimaginable in terms of what it's going to mean for corn and soybean surface area." The real winner, though, could be more tropical crops like sugar and palm oil. For instance, Brazil already has 6 million hectares devoted to agrofuels and plans to increase its sugar cane acreage alone by five fold to 30 million hectares to meet ethanol export demands. In 2005 Japanese oil giant, Nippon, signed a joint venture deal with Petrobras to ship out 1.8 billion liters of ethanol per year. Flush with all sorts of speculative capital (over $9 billion in 2006 alone), merger mania is now sweeping Brazil's sugarcane and ethanol sector.

Eduardo Pereira de Carvalho, the president of the Sao Paulo Sugar Cane Manufacturers Union, predicts that a third of the country's pasture will soon be converted to sugar, leading the timber magnates and cattle barons to drive deeper into the Amazon.

On the other side of the earth, Indonesia is striving to overtake Malaysia as the largest palm oil producer by establishing massive export oriented plantations, thanks to $5.5 billion from investors like China's National Offshore Oil Corp. (CNOOC), even as the nation itself suffers a chronic cooking oil shortage. Palm oil hasfive times the yield of canola in terms of producing biodiesel. Those who end up migrating to the colonial frontiers of Indonesia - such as West Papua and West Kalimantan- to grow palm as part of World Bank financed resettlement schemes often end up as sharecroppers to ruthless middlemen and helpless pawns in violent occupations targeting indigenous peoples.

In Colombia the government, with the help of USAID, aims to increase palm oil plantations from 188,000 hectares to over 1 million hectares on land that has been the home of Afro-Colombian communities for centuries. As David Bacon documents in his "Blood on the Palms" article in the July/August issue of Dollars and Sense, one result of this conflict was the Sept. 7th, 2006 mass murder of seven people by paramilitaries in the city of Buenaventura. Particularly annoying for those behind Plan Colombia, is that the contemporary ancesters of runaway slaves, like their indigenous neighbors, have refused to abandon traditions of communal property and cultural autonomy.
"They see Black people as objects that have no value. Therefore, sacrificing us, even to the extent of a holocaust, doesn't matter," notes Juan de Dios Garcia, a leader in the Proceso de Comunidades Negras (PCN), a network of 140 Afro Colombian organizations opposing agrofuel eviction.

Meanwhile, the government of India has targeted 14 million hectares of supposed "wasteland" for jatropha agrofuel plantations. Jatropha is an especially dangerous agrofuel alternative since it is invasive species, toxic to animals, originally transplanted by the Portuguese from Central America to Asia and Africa for living hedgerows.

In Ethiopia, a German firm attempted to purchase 13,000 hectares for a similar jatropha project, apparently unaware that most of this land fell within an elephant sanctuary. In Uganda, grassroots activists are now fighting government efforts to sell off protected areas in the Mabira Forest and on Bugulu Island to agrofuel speculators.

And in the Republic of the Congo, a 68,000 hectare eucalyptus plantation was recently acquired by a Canadian company, MagIndustries, with the goal of exporting half a million tonnes of woodchips to Europe for biomass burning.

In an attempt to deflect critics, many green think tank groups are now scrambling to establish "sustainability" criteria for agrofuels. Like existing organic and fair trade standards, though, such certification schemes readily lend themselves to corruption and coopation, especially when they neglect to address underlying issues of democratic control and food sovereignty. It is hard to imagine injecting the sustainability concept into an agrofuel industry that is already built around patented biotech varieties, chemical intensive monocultures, massive toxic refineries, and global commodity trading.

On Oct. 26th, 2007 Jean Ziegler, a sociology professor at the University of Geneva and the U.N.'s expert on the right to food, declared agrofuels to be a crime against humanity. "The effect of transforming hundreds and hundreds of thousands of tons of maize, of wheat, of beans, of palm oil, into agricultural fuel is absolutely catastrophic for hungry people," he warned as part of presenting a report to the U.N. General Assembly's Human Rights Committee that also called for a five year moratorium. Ziegler was echoing a call issued earlier this year by over a hundred groups to the European Union demanding an immediate moratorium on further government incentives for agrofuel development. A similar moratorium letter is now being drafted for the U.S. by several family farm, environmental, and global justice organizations, including Family Farm Defenders, Food First, and the Rainforest Action Network. Rather than trying to salvage the agrofuel industrial complex, it is much better to step back and reassess whether agrofuels are even a solution or just making humanity's problem worse. The emperor may have no clothes afterall.

For more background information and details on how you can get involved in this grassroots campaign to challenge the agrofuel industrial complex, please contact:

Family Farm Defenders
P.O. Box 1772
Madison, WI 53703
tel./fax 608-260-0900
Family Farm Defenders Website

homepage: homepage: http://www.nwrage.org
phone: phone: 503.239.6841