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Biofuels: Are they viable?
Latinamerica Press
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Massive biofuel production may put region’s food security at risk.

The United States and European Union have set their sights on Latin America to help feed their voracious appetite for biofuels as these countries try to reduce their use of fossil fuels. But rarely does either side of the equation look at the negative impacts that the massive production of these fuels — produced from food, usually — has on a social level, or the threats it poses to biodiversity.

As a signatory of the Kyoto Protocol — which obligates governments to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases by 5.2 percent between 2008 and 2012 — the European Union intends to reduce its use of fossil fuels by 5.75 percent by 2010 and by 10 percent by 2020, replacing them with biofuels.

According to the Organization for Cooperation and Economic Development (OCED), to substitute 10 percent of the European Union’s current fossil fuel demand, 70 percent of the region’s farmland must be dedicated to fossil fuels. Germany is Europe’s largest biofuel producer (rapeseed and sunflower seed oils), with a production of 2 billion liters a year. But this only covers 2 percent of the country’s fuel consumption. Currently, 10 percent of Germany’s farmland is dedicated to biofuel crop production. So the region has turned to biofuel exports from the South’s countries, such as Brazil, Colombia and Nicaragua.

As international oil prices climbed above US$100 a barrel, the United States sees ethanol — corn-based alcohol fuel — as a welcomed alternative to reduce the country’s dependence on crude without reducing its energy consumption. Ethanol production in the United States, which is also the world’s largest producer, comprises 4 percent of its national fuel consumption. President George W. Bush intends to raise that proportion to 20 percent by 2017.

But like Europe, the United States does not have sufficient agricultural lands to produce enough corn and soy for its biofuel goals.

“This means that if all of the country’s corn harvest was used to make ethanol, it would displace 12 percent of our gas; all of our soybeans would displace about 6 percent of the gas,” Brian Tokar wrote in a 2006 article in the US magazine CounterPunch.

From here, the United States has turned to Brazil, which has more than three decades’ experience producing ethanol from sugar cane. The United States and Brazil make up 70 percent of the world’s ethanol production. In March 2007 the US and Brazilian governments signed a bilateral cooperation agreement to create an international market for this alcohol-based fuel. An increased demand would require production increases in Central American, Caribbean and African countries.

Meeting the demands of “El Norte”
Some Latin American and Caribbean governments are eager for the creation of an open ethanol market, and view it as an opportunity to have new energy exportation that generates jobs, attracts investment to rural areas and strengthens economic ties with the United States and Europe. Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador and Paraguay all have policies in place to help move this trend along.

Also, keeping in line with the Kyoto Protocol, these and other countries in the region have established the obligatory use of a percentage of biofuels in their markets. In Peru, starting on Jan. 1, 2009, 2 percent parts biofuel must be mixed with diesel fuel, a percentage that will increase to 5 percent in 2011, creating an internal demand for biofuels.

The annual sugar cane ethanol production in Brazil, which is currently 15 billion liters, is expected to triple by 2016, based mainly on foreign demand. But Brazil has a great advantage: the cost of biofuel production is a third less than in the United States and half of the cost in the European Union, according to the study “Opportunities and Risks in Bioenergy,” by the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean and the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) in 2007.

In February of that year, Nicaragua entered the exclusive list of ethanol exporting countries by making its first shipment of the fuel to the European market of 3 million liters. It was worth around $3 million.

In Peru, Maple Energy has one of the most ambitious ethanol projects after Brazil. The Dallas, Texas-based company plans to grow sugar cane for ethanol production in the important farming department of Piura, on Peru’s northern cost. It says it plans to farm some 8,000 hectares (20,000 acres) and is planning to export it to the United States and Europe as early as 2009.

Threats abound
“Even though this is presented as an opportunity for the economies of the South, reality has shown that monoculture for biofuels, such as palm oil, soy, sugar cane and corn, creates major destruction to the biodiversity and the livelihood of the rural population, and this undermines food security even more and causes serious impacts on water, soil and the regional climate,” some 200 representatives of social movements and nongovernmental organizations said in a letter to the European Union in January of last year.
Many activists, farmers and environmentalists have warned about the threats that biofuels represent for not only the environment, but the populations of the poorest countries.

“The big problem with producing ethanol on the coast [of Peru] is that its lands and water are limited. To dedicate a great part of these lands to this kind of crop implies displacing the small-scale farmers. Sugar cane crops need a lot of water,” said Peruvian economist Pedro Francke in an interview for the daily La República.

One hectare of palm oil consumes at least 4,753 liters of water. In one year, more than 300,000 hectares (741,000 acres) of palm in Colombia will have consumed 525 billion liters, according to the magazine Biodiversidad, Sustento y Culturas. “That water could supply half the population of Colombia for 50 days instead of destining it to feed cars,” the article added.

Numerous studies have found that biofuels can be much more contaminating than hydrocarbons and could require much more energy to produce than the energy they provide when used.

Ethanol made from pastures in the United States produces 50 percent more greenhouse gases than gasoline, according to a study published in the US magazine Science. Ethanol produced with corn requires 29 percent more energy from fossil fuels than the energy it produces; biofuels produced with soy require 27 percent more and biofuel from sunflower seed oil requires 118 percent more.

For the production of biofuels to be profitable, intensive agricultural methods, including heavy fumigation and fertilization, are necessary. Large-scale production requires vast swaths of land, which is causing a displacement of food crops for massive monoculture. Deforestation is also a direct effect.

International ecological organization Greenpeace has accused the German government of destroying native forests in Argentina for the farming of soy for biofuel. According to a report it presented in early April, a quarter of Argentina’s biofuel exports were sent to the European Union — the rest went to the United States, which resold some of it to Europe, mainly to Germany.

Science says for biofuels to compensate for the emissions of greenhouse gases produced by the deforestation in the Amazon, they will need to be consumed for 319 years.

Greenpeace proposes the establishment of a quality standard that requires the study of a biofuel’s life cycle to determine whether it generates a reduction in greenhouse gases by a minimum of 60 percent compared with the fuel it is replacing.

The increased use of food for the production of fuel is also driving up food costs as it has become a raw material. Such has been the case with the staple crop of corn in Guatemala and Mexico.

Food products, particularly grains and milk products, will increase between 20 and 50 percent in the next 10 years because of the growth of the biofuel industry, said a 2007 OCED-FAO study.

The production of biofuels competes with the production of food, creating a threat to the food sovereignty for the region’s populations. Also, an increased production of biofuels translates to more production of transgenic soy and corn.

Reducing demand for fuels
Some sectors have warned about the risks that the massive production of biofuels poses to the environment and the population’s well being.

“Biofuels can become part of the solution on a local scale,” said international organization Friends of the Earth, referring to the potential re-use of used oil or the use of certain crops when sustainability criteria are met. “But it doesn’t make sense if it is not within a proposal based on the reduction of the demand for fuel.”

To achieve this, a reduction in energy consumption is required, a stop to the consumerist lifestyle, the promotion of public transportation. Agriculture will need to be oriented toward the internal market and local ecological agriculture must be developed. Furthermore, sustainable economic development on an environmental and social level must be fostered.


Soy plantations are eating up
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