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Biofuels Report: Against the Grain

Robin Maynard

1st March, 2007

Plant fuels can never meet our current and growing energy needs and, as Robin Maynard reports, adopting a ‘carbohydrate economy’ may prove disastrous for our farmers, our food supply and our future

Addressing the Conservative Party Conference in October 2006, the President of the National Farmers Union (NFU), Peter Kendall, was keen to impress upon delegates ‘the key role’ his members could play in tackling climate change. Referring to how the country’s farmers kept Britain fed when imports were blocked by German U-Boats, Kendall declared: ‘Not since the Second World War has our land, our farming and our farmers been so important as a resource.’

In particular, he banged the drum for the large-scale planting of biofuel crops – these being the familiar crops of oilseed rape, sugar-beet and wheat, but which, rather than being used as human or animal foodstuffs, would be processed into fuel, namely biodiesel or bioethanol.

In seeking to ally his members’ interests to those of the newly carbon-conscious Conservatives, Kendall clearly sees an opportunity to revive the reputation and fortunes of UK farmers. For decades, UK farming has stood accused of all manner of ills – of producing surpluses that swallowed up vast subsidies from UK taxpayers; of then dumping these surpluses on world markets, undercutting prices and destroying the livelihoods of poor farmers in the developing world; and of all the while ploughing up wildflower-rich meadows, decimating insects and other wildlife through indiscriminate pesticide use, and polluting rivers and under ground aquifers with fertiliser run-off. More accurately and justly, these ills should be laid at the door of the industrial end of agriculture and the agribusinesses constantly pushing the agrochemicals, pharmaceuticals and farm machinery that fuel intensive farming. Indeed, during those decades, it’s not just wildlife, but hundreds of thousands of family farmers and farm-workers who have also disappeared from our farmland.

What a PR coup for the industrial farming lobby to now be seen as the good guys, making common cause with environmentalists to tackle climate change through the growing of ‘green’ energy crops. Farmers across the world who have seen the prices they receive for producing their crops fall relative to the costs of growing them, would have a new, booming market and they would be valued for producing something everybody needs: energy. Meanwhile, processors of crops for food oils and other industrial uses would gain a bigger, competitive market for their outputs. For local politicians, more crushing and refining plants equals more jobs.

Vested interests

Whatever the NFU’s vested interest in pushing biofuels, the policy framework coming from the European Commission and UK government seems modest and reasonable. The EU Directive ‘on the promotion of biofuels or other renewable fuels for transport’ sets a target for member states to achieve a substitution of petrol and diesel with biofuels of 5.75 per cent by 2010, with an estimated maximum of around 10 per cent by 2015.

Yet even meeting these targets will be near impossible, and indeed many member states, Britain among them, are already falling behind. Figures from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) show that Europe would need to convert more than 70 per cent of its total arable land to raise the proportion of biofuel currently used in road transport to a mere 10 per cent.

In the UK, we currently use 37.6 million tonnes of petroleum products annually. To replace that with biodiesel from oilseed rape would require 25.9 million hectares of land – which is not only four and half times greater than our total current area of arable land (on which the first-generation biofuel crops of oilseed rape, sugar-beet and wheat would be grown), but also greater than the entire area of agricultural land in the UK (18.5 million hectares).

The story is the same in the USA. Despite turning 55 million tons of maize into bioethanol, equivalent to one sixth of the entire US corn harvest, this distils down to only enough biofuel to substitute for three per cent or current oil and diesel used in road transport.

The rich countries of Europe and the USA are also looking further afield in pursuit of the maximum economic gain. Malaysia and Indonesia have cleared huge swathes of rainforest – one of the world’s most valuable resources for natural carbon storage and biodiversity – to plant oil palms for biofuel production. ‘The demand for biofuel will come from the EU,’ Malaysian newspapers confidently report. The country now has over 30 refineries for producing biofuel from palm oil, including joint ventures with European-based companies, such as Dutch producers Biox, which have set up just across the North Sea in Rotterdam.

Friends of the Earth’s 2005 report, The Oil for Ape Scandal – How palm oil is threatening the orang-utan, catalogues the environmental and human costs of the global biofuel market:
‘Indonesia has one of the highest rates of tropical forest loss in the world, and illegal logging is rife. The island of Borneo, divided between Indonesia and Malaysia, has lost half its forest cover, while the smaller Indonesian island of Sumatra has lost more than 70 per cent. In Indonesia, the rate of deforestation has increased to two million hectares each year, an area of forest the size of Wales. A World Bank report has blamed commercial developments – especially oilpalm plantations – for the acceleration. In Malaysia, the development of oil-palm plantations was responsible for 87 per cent of deforestation between 1985 and 2000. The palm-oil industry has set up 6.5 million hectares of oil-palm plantations across Sumatra and Borneo, but the destruction extends to over 10 million hectares of rainforest. By 2020, Indonesia’s oil-palm plantations are projected to triple in size to 16.5 million hectares – an area the size of England and Wales combined.’

Oil-palm plantations are estimated to be responsible for at least half of the observed loss of orang-utan habitat between 1992 and 2003. Furthermore, acording to Friends of the Earth, plantations are often forcibly established on land traditionally owned by indigenous peoples. In Indonesia, between 1998 and 2002 alone, 479 people were reported as having been tortured in conflicts defending community rights, and dozens of people have been killed in land-tenure disputes. No wonder rainforest campaigners call biofuel made from oil palm, ‘deforestation diesel’.

On the other side of the world, Brazil, the world’s largest sugar producer and exporter, is also far down the route of converting cropland and rainforest to biofuel production. Half of Brazil’s sugar cane harvest goes to make bioethanol; while the ever-expanding area of soya-bean plantings, already a leading cause of rainforest destruction in the Brazilian Amazon, is being diverted to fuel production. According to Greenpeace, an estimated 1.2 million hectares of what used to be rainforest have already – mostly illegally – been destroyed to grow soya beans.

Going bust

Norfolk may seem a long way from Borneo and Brazil, but by joining the global rush to grow large-scale biofuel crops, UK farmers will, like any commodity producer, have to compete at world market prices; and the entry of another group of biofuel producers will only accelerate the intensity of that global market.

A few huge-scale UK biofuel barons might be able to compete, but it’s doubtful they will be that profitable, given that oil palm produces four times the biodiesel per hectare of oilseed rape, and is grown in countries where labour and life are cheap, and environmental restrictions limited or ignored.

From the UK to Indonesia, farmers will be forced into ever more cut-throat competition, forcing down prices and causing ever greater rainforest clearance as Indonesian and Malaysian producers scale up to cut costs. Indigenous peoples, orang-utans and a fair number of UK farmers will be tossed into the flames of that brutal competition. US soya-bean farmers felt the heat last year: despite winning a tax break from the government for growing soya beans for fuel, their prices were undercut just three months later when more than a quarter of a million gallons of biodiesel made from Ecuadorian palm oil was imported.

Far from improving fuel and food security at home or overseas, any massive planting of biofuel crops will further erode it. As oil becomes more expensive to extract, and the consequences of using it more damaging to our environment, we will need to reduce our reliance on long-distance, oil-hungry food imports and use our own farmland to feed people, not cars.

The European Commission by setting a 5.75 per cent target for biodiesel as part of the overall fuel mix and paying farmers an extra 45 Euros a hectare to grow them is encouraging the increased release of greenhouse gases due to the vast inputs of fossil-fuel-derived fertilisers used to grow them. The UK government has compounded this environmental idiocy by cutting fuel duty on biodiesel by 20p a litre. Far from supporting a ‘green energy crop’, they are, in effect, exacerbating climate change by stealthily subsidising the use of fossil fuels.

New markets for old crops

We have to stop seeing biofuel crops as a new solution, and rather as old commodity crops in search of new markets. The two main biofuel crops promoted in the UK are oilseed rape and sugar-beet. As a source of human foodstuffs, oilseed rape has seen some decline in market demand as food processors and consumers take nutritionists’ advice to avoid the hydrogenated fats that oilseed rape is used to produce.

The once booming sugar-beet industry has been a political sacrifice to the hugely popular ‘Make Poverty History’ campaign. The protected quotas for making white sugar inefficiently from a root vegetable grown in the temperate UK, have been stripped away as one of the concessions to bring greater trade justice to southern producers, who can grow sugar-cane far more cost-effectively.

The main processor for that now redundant sugar-beet, British Sugar, has, along with the NFU, been pushing for greater support for biofuels. In desperation at the closing of one market and anticipation of the opening of another, British Sugar is building a £20 million processing plant at Wissington, Suffolk for turning 100,000 tonnes of sugar-beet and wheat into bioethanol.

This may be good news for the East Anglian sugar-beet barons and the Caribbean sugarcane farmers, no longer having to compete against subsidised white sugar on the global market, but the enterprise has more to do with saving British Sugar’s business than the planet.

In a crisp critique of the East of England Development Agency’s support for a UK bioethanol programme comprising 12 such processing plants, Sue Pollard of the Green Party noted that just one plant, processing 100,000 tonnes of sugar-beet and wheat annually, would require 35,000 hectares of cropland to supply. Given the spread of suitable arable land, this would have to be brought in from a catchment area of more than 24,000 square kilometres, by HGV lorries totting up three million miles annually, and belching out 36,000 tonnes of CO2 in the process.

Feeding cars, not people

To date, the USA has provided 70 per cent of the world’s grain exports. Now, countries dependent on US wheat and maize are getting nervous. Lester Brown of the US Earth Policy Institute gives a grim prediction:
‘Simply put, the stage is being set for a head-on collision between the world’s 800 million affluent automobile owners and food consumers.’

It may sound like far-fetched scaremongering to suggest that there could be a real conflict between the growing of crops to feed people and for fuel to feed cars. But the situation in other countries, far down the road in turning over their agricultural and previously uncultivated land to growing biofuel crops, suggests otherwise. ‘Cars, not people, will claim most of the increase in world grain consumption this year,’ ran a headline on The Daily Telegraph’s website, covering the US Department of Agriculture’s projection that of the extra 20 million tons of wheat grown globally in 2006, 14 million tons would go to producing bioethanol for use in American cars, with the remaining six million tons left to feed the world’s growing numbers of hungry people.

Bioethanol plants for turning wheat and corn into fuel are being constructed across the US corn belt at an amazing rate, with 55 built or planned in Iowa alone. Over 50 per cent of all corn grown in South Dakota, one of the top 10 growing States, is already being diverted into making fuel for cars. This trend is worrying US livestock producers and food processors. That might be beneficial if it forced factory-farms to shift to more extensive, natural grazing systems and food and drink processors to rely less on corn-syrup and other food and drink bulking additives.

But it’s not just animal feed-lot and big food businesses that are feeling the pinch. As the price of corn and wheat rises due to increased competition between the US fuel and food markets, staple foods like bread become more expensive and less grain is available for export and as food aid.

Most recently, the competition between food and fuel in the UK was heightened, with the announcement that the government would end subsidies for food production crops by 2020 and replace these with subsidies for what environment minister David Miliband called ‘environmental security’ – tackling global warming through the growing of energy crops, protecting the landscape and reducing methane emissions.

It makes no difference if large areas of our prime food producing land are turned over to fuel crops, compelling us to buy in food from the world market – or if homegrown food security is sustained while other countries, such as Africa, are encouraged to grow our fuel. Either way, relying more on imports of food or fuel is not sustainable and contradicts the objective of curbing the greenhouse-gas-generating food and fuel miles inherent in those imports.

This increased competition between food and fuel use coincides with world grain stocks standing at their lowest level, and at a time when world population growth brings 75 million more mouths to feed each year. The heat waves in 2006 reduced both US and European harvests. This, combined with existing low global grain stocks and the increasing demand for wheat and maize for biofuel production, caused prices to rocket. With wheat prices now hitting a 10-year high, millers are predicting a knock-on hike in the cost of a loaf of bread.

Today, only in wealthy countries can most consumers afford to feed both themselves and their cars. Yet in the face of global climate change, it will become increasingly difficult to avoid the choice between fuel or food even in the West. As we consider whether to fill our bellies or our motorways it’s worth considering this: the grain needed to fill a typical SUV’s 25-gallon tank with bioethanol would feed one person for a year.

Robin Maynard was co-ordinator of the family farming body, FARM and is currently Head of Communications for the Soil Association. This article is written in a personal capacity.

This article first appeared in the Ecologist March 2007

 

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