The biofuel fantasy

The biofuel fantasy

By Carmelo Ruiz Marrero

What little legitimacy the Green Revolution had left received the coup de grace with the publication of the IAASTD report, a four-year study of world agriculture sponsored by UN agencies and the World Bank. It is very sad to see some environmentalists turning to the obsolete and destructive model of the green revolution, ignoring all the criticism that has been made, and to top it off in the name of fighting climate change.

The fantasy of biofuels, also known as agrofuels, refuses to die. Even today a significant portion of the environmental movement clings to the idea that fuels derived from agricultural crops can help lift the world out of its dependence on fossil fuels and thus solve two major global problems: oil depletion and global warming. .

Let's review the facts

A study by the US National Academy of Sciences (NAS) determined that if all the corn grown in the United States were used for ethanol and all the soybeans in the country were converted into biodiesel, this would only displace 12% of the demand for gasoline and less than 6% of diesel demand.

Those figures are worrying. The United States grows about 44% of the world's corn — more than China, the European Union, Brazil, Argentina and Mexico combined. This means that if world corn production were to be quadrupled and devoted entirely to ethanol production, it would satisfy US demand, but leave the rest of the world's vehicle fleet still running on gasoline, while drivers starve. .

And it seems that even that NAS estimate turned out to be too generous for the industry. In 2006, 20% of US corn was used to make ethanol, and this displaced only 1% of gasoline demand.

According to David Pimentel, an entomologist at Cornell University, all plants in the United States - including all crops, forests and grasslands combined - receive a total of 32 quads a year of solar energy. A quad is one quadrillion (ten to fifteen power) of BTU’s (British Thermal Units), a unit of heat and power commonly used by engineers. It sounds like a lot, but the American population burns more than three times that amount of fossil fuel energy a year.

Do biofuel crops compete with food production? Of that there is no longer any doubt, it is no longer even a serious topic of discussion. Last July, a confidential World Bank study, led by economist Don Mitchell, came to light, which concluded that biofuels are responsible for 75% of the global rise in food prices this year.

When full, a car's gas tank contains the number of calories that an adult human body would keep running for about a year. Also, it takes 22 pounds of corn to make one gallon of ethanol. So it's not hard to believe that every time a car tank is filled with ethanol, a person is starving for a year. Either way, it doesn't take a Ph.D. to know that an acre of land planted for biofuel is an acre that is not producing food.


When confronted with these data, agroenergy enthusiasts argue that "Biofuels may be just a drop in the bucket of energy demand, but let's make that bucket smaller, reducing our energy consumption." The problem with this argument is that these crops have nothing to do with reducing energy demand. No government or corporation investing in agrofuels has said a single word about reducing consumption.

The numbers clearly show that to make a dent in global energy demand, the bulk of energy crop production must be in the global South, the so-called Third World. The agrofuel revolution will not be in Canada or Siberia. Only in the south of the world, in Africa, Latin America and Southeast Asia, is there enough land, sunlight and cheap labor.

The implications for food security in the global South are chilling. The appropriation of vast tracts of land for energy crops will undoubtedly be a continuation of the colonial agro-export model, the same socially retrograde, feudal, environmentally destructive and exploitative model that progressives and environmentalists in the North and South of the world have worked so hard to eradicate. .

I have met deluded environmentalists who believe that the export of biofuels from South to North can be an engine for socially and ecologically sustainable development. They talk about biofuels produced on small family farms that will be an important source of income for rural communities - they talk about fair trade, certification schemes and corporate social responsibility. But the harsh reality is that there is no room for small family farms in the agroenergy revolution. Only huge monocultures that stretch from horizon to horizon can achieve the economies of scale that are needed for this project. Global investors and multilateral creditors like the World Bank have been very clear on this.

An outdated model

Large-scale monocultures, known as industrial agriculture or the Green Revolution model, promoted in the global South in the second half of the 20th century by the US government, UN agencies, and the Ford and Rockefeller foundations, have repeatedly shown be ecologically disastrous, prone to erosion, destructive of biodiversity and a complete calamity for rural communities. They cannot be managed sustainably, they always need large energy inputs, and they always require toxic pesticides and herbicides.

What little legitimacy the Green Revolution had left received the coup de grace last April with the publication of the IAASTD report (, a four-year study of world agriculture sponsored by government agencies. the UN and the World Bank. The study conducted by over 400 experts, is to agriculture what the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is to global warming. The IAASTD report, endorsed by 58 governments, warns that industrial agriculture has degraded the natural resources on which our survival depends, threatens water and energy resources, and hinders efforts to combat global warming.

It is very sad to see some environmentalists turning to the obsolete and destructive model of the green revolution, ignoring all the criticism that has been made, and to top it off in the name of fighting climate change.

* Carmelo Ruiz Marrero, especially for Clarity. The author directs the Puerto Rico Biosafety Project.

Video: Thermochemical Conversion of Biomass to Biofuels via Pyrolysis (September 2021).