January 20, 2017
Agrofuels or biofuels?
The term “agrofuels” describes liquid fuels derived from food and oil crops produced in large-scale plantation-style industrial production systems. These agrofuels are blended with petrol and diesel for use primarily as transport fuel. The term biofuels is used widely for any fuel derived from biological material in contrast to fossil fuels (coal, oil, gas) but where plants are cultivated in agricultural systems for the purpose of fuel production, the term agrofuel is more appropriate to include the specific context and problems such as monoculture plantations and the competition with land for food production.
Agrofuels are speeding us towards climate change: Agriculture already contributed at least 14% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Corn for ethanol, and soy and canola for biodiesel, are industrial monocrops that take fertilizers, pesticides and water to grow - and these three are also the major genetically engineered crops grown in the world (most owned by Monsanto). It is estimated that in 2010, 1/3 of the US corn crop will be dedicated to ethanol production instead of food. Production of agrofuels, primarily palm oil, is now the largest cause of deforestation in South East Asia - and deforestation is responsible for 20% of global carbon emissions. The race to access crop land for fuel and food production is now resulting in a global "land grab" where foreign countries and companies are buying or leasing land. 86% of global biomass is located in the tropics and subtropics, a simple fact driving an industrial grab that threatens to accelerate the pace of forest destruction and land acquisition in the South in order to feed the economies of the North.
- Read the "debate" on agrofuels between CBAN Coordinator Lucy Sharratt and Gord Quaiattini of the Canadian Renewable Fuels Association in the July/August Costco Connection.
- Listen: Bioethanol and biodiesel not a green alternative, Interview with CBAN Coordinator Lucy Sharratt, Vancouver Cooperative Radio va Rabble.ca October 2010
- Read "Biofuels Backfire: hasty approach will impact environment, food production" from Common Ground magazine, July 2010 by Lucy Sharratt
- Click here to download a background document from Food Secure Canada.
April 2014: Biofuels such as ethanol made from the leftovers of harvested corn plants are worse than gasoline for global warming in the short term. A $500,000 study paid for by the U.S. federal government released in the peer-reviewed journal Nature Climate Change concludes that biofuels made with corn residue release 7 per cent more greenhouse gases in the early years compared with conventional gasoline. Read the CBC story here.
August 2012: There's growing pressure on the Obama administration to end support for corn ethanol. The worst drought in 50 years has not only condemned this year's (mostly GM) corn crop but threatens next year's too. The US government mandate requires unleaded fuel to be approximately 13% ethanol, regardless of supply.
August 2012: Growing demand for African palm oil for biofuels and as a key ingredient in cosmetics and processed foods is fuelling deadly land disputes in the Honduran countryside, pitting large landowners against landless peasants. At least 78 people have been killed over the past three years as a competition for land In Honduras heats up.
February 2012: A new study from the George Morris Centre shows that Canadian ethanol production policies are responsible for increasing costs for the Canadian livestock sector by $130 million per year.
Europe's world-leading $13 billion biodiesel industry is on the verge of being legislated out of existence after studies reveal indirect impacts cancel out most of its benefits. See Reuters story, July 8, 2011: Climate impact threatens biodiesel future in EU
ETC Group Report, October 2010: "The New Biomassters - Synthetic Biology and the Next Assault on Biodiversity and Livelihoods" exposes the emerging global grab on plants, lands, ecosystems, and traditional cultures as industry shifts industrial production feedstocks from fossil fuels to the 230 billion tones of 'biomass' (living stuff) that the Earth produces every year - not just for liquid fuels but also for production of power, chemicals, plastics and more in the new "bioeconomy".
Podcasts from the “Earth Grab” events:
The rush to grow ‘biomass’ for fuels and industry will be worth $1/2 trillion – but won’t feed people, or stop climate change. Farm leaders from the Global South describe the reality and propose alternatives: Iderle Brénus, leader/organizer, Mouvement paysan Papaye, Haiti; Ibrahim Coulibaly, farm movement leader, COPAGEN, Mali.
Biofuels in Canadian fuel
The Conservative Government is implementing the "Renewable Fuels Regulations" to require 5% of fuel should come from biofuels like corn ethanol, even though a study from Environment Canada found that the ecological footprint could not reliably be determined. The highly controversial new regulations was passed (Bill C-33) in June 2008 in the midst of the new food crisis. The Bill allows the federal government to develop and implement regulations requiring 5% average renewable content in gasoline by 2010 as well as require 2% average renewable content in diesel and heating oil by 2012. The Canadian government rushed the "Renewable Fuels Regulations" to require biofuels in our gas but there are new reports all the time about serious environmental and economic problems with biofuels.
What's Wrong with Biofuels Regulations in Canada?
There are many new studies and the verdict on biofuels is not looking good:
- The promised economic benefit to farmers will not be seen. The government’s own "regulatory impact statement" now reveals that farmers will not benefit from the production of grains used to make the biofuels. The statement says more corn will be imported from the US to meet the biofuels regulation in eastern Canada!
- The impact statement also shows that consumers will bear most of the costs associated with the biofuel expansion - to a total of $2 billion. This is because the ethanol-blended gas has a lower energy content so consumers will need to buy more fuel! The statement also says: “Assuming all industry costs are passed on to the consumer, regional average cost over 25 years range from 7 cents in Ontario to a relatively higher impact of 30 cents in Quebec and the Atlantic provinces”.
- The promise that air quality would get better and thus improve the health of Canadians also didn’t pan out as a recent 2009 Health Canada report concluded that “there are no substantial differences in predicted health effects between use of conventional use (gasoline) and E10 (ethanol-blended gasoline).”
- The Federal Government still says the new biofuels mandate will be good for the environment, even though their own research indicates no statistical difference in Greenhouse Gas Emissions at the tailpipe between vehicles using ethanol and vehicles not using ethanol. <http://www.cbc.ca/canada/manitoba/story/2007/03/30/ethanol-emissions.html>
When the Senate passed Bill C-33, it also suggested that, “any new information that is available prior to regulations being proposed is taken into consideration before such regulations are promulgated.”
Global Conflict Over Agrofuels
The corporate "agrofuels" gold-rush has ignited a major global conflict. Find out why...
"At the World Forum on Food Sovereignty, held in Mali in Africa, we and other delegates discussed how capital has manipulated terminology by adding the prefix “bio”, which signifies life, to renewable plant-based fuels. This is ridiculous, because all living things are “bio”. We could call ourselves bio-people, bio-John Smith, bio-soya, etc. Companies use the prefix “bio” to encourage the public to see their products as a good thing, as politically correct. So, at the international level, Vía Campesina has agreed to use more accurate terminology. These fuels and energy are produced from agricultural crops and so the correct terms are agrofuels and agro-energy." - João Pedro Stedile is one of the leaders of the Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra (MST), Brazil’s Landless Movement
August 2010, Friends of the Earth Europe and Africa report: Africa Up For Grabs: Africa is increasingly being seen as a source of agricultural land and natural resources for the rest of the world. National governments and private companies are obtaining land across the continent to grow crops for food and fuel to meet growing demand from mainly overseas countries.
Agrofuels and GE Trees
Biotechnology corporations are seriously promoting genetically engineered trees and new GE crops for use as biofuels (agrofuels). The Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO) Pacific Rim Summit on Industrial Biotechnology and Bioenergy September 10-12, 2008 in Vancouver was all about genetic engineering and new technologies for biofuels - including, and explicitly, GE trees. The conference included the session “Cellulosic Ethanol from Softwoods Around the World” and the presentation “Biotechnology in Purpose-Grown Trees to Make Bioenergy Production" by ArborGen, the leading company researching GE trees.
This corporate link with agrofuels was a major reason why Brazil, Canada and the US defeated the attempt by African governments to establish an international moratorium on GE trees at the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity in 2008.
“Fast growing, purpose-grown trees are an ideal feedstock platform for second generation bioenergy production…Producing renewable energy from purpose-grown trees is the latest step in the evolution of trees’ long and fruitful history and critical to meeting global bioenergy development needs.”
– from summary to BIO Conference presentation "Biotechnology in Purpose-Grown Trees to Make Bioenergy Production" in the session "New Feedstocks for Biofuels", a presentation from Barbara Wells of ArborGen.
Reports and Articles
Backgrounder from Food Secure Canada, 4 pages.
Click here to read The Food Crisis - and How to Beat It short opinion piece from the Food Security Policy Group and Food Secure Canada, May 25, 2008
The Dark Side of Brazil's Agribusiness Boom: Violence, Mutiny and Environmental Pillage in the Amazon, Center for the Study of the Americas, October 2008
Feeding the World with GM Crops: Myth or Reality? (8 page pdf) by GM Freeze, UK, June 2008 - The global food crisis is being used by some to call for more wide introduction of GM crops.
Via Campesina Position Paper - Small Farmers Feed the World: Industrial agrofuels fuel hunger and poverty, June 24, 2008
Food Sovereignty is the answer to the world food and energy crisis, Via Campesina, speech, May 29, 2008
Biofuels By Decree: Report from Burma, May - Burma’s military is implementing a nation-wide plan to plant eight million acres, an area the size of Belgium, with Jatropha curcas for biodiesel production. Two years into the campaign, the people of Burma have suffered forced labor, confiscation of farmlands, and threats to food security. At the same time, testimonies of crop failure and mismanagement expose how the campaign is a fiasco.
"Genetically Engineered Trees, Cellulosic Biofuels & Destruction of Forest Biological Diversity" Global Forest Coalition, Global Justice Ecology Project, February 2008
"The real costs of agrofuels: Food, forest and the climate" (72 page pdf) Global Forest Coalition, December 2007
Small scale sustainable farms are cooling down the Earth, Via Campesina, November 2007
Miguel Altieri and Elisabeth Bravo, “The ecological and social tragedy of crop-based biofuel production in the Americas” April 2007
Agrofuels in Africa: the impacts on land, food and forests, African Biodiversity Network, July 2007.
P.E.I Biofuels Plant Under Fire at Agriculture Committee Hearing: Plant would create new market for Monsanto's genetically engineered sugar beet