Killing Me Slowly – Ethanol Biofuels

Food or Fuel?
By Siv O’Neall
Jun 10, 2007, 06:33

The scientific community now finally seems to agree on the fact that global warming is happening and that it’s urgent to find remedies against the imminent hazards that threaten the planet. The big question that confronts the world community now is how do we go about countering this imminent global disaster.

During a short tour to a few cooperative countries in Latin America in March 2007 by our opportunist president, an ethanol alliance was proclaimed in Brazil (Sao Paolo March 8) between George W. Bush and Brazil’s President Luiz Inacio “Lula” da Silva. “[It was] hailed by apologists for both governments as an advance in the development of alternative sources of energy and a gain for both countries’ economies.” (WSWS – ‘Brazil: Bush-Lula biofuel plans based on conditions worse than slavery’)

The relative costs and benefits of ethanol biofuels, however, are very much subject to doubt and even to open criticism by much of the community that is fighting for alternative sources for fuel.

An article in Le Monde Diplomatique of June 2007 (‘Les cinq mythes de la transition vers les agrocarburants’ – ‘The five myths of the transition towards biofuels'[1]) makes an impressive case against the cultivating of corn, sugar cane, wheat and soy beans for the development of ethanol to replace dwindling currently existing energy sources.

There is an insufficient supply of natural gas and oil-based energy which simply has to be replaced until the masses of energy-consuming people are forced to decrease their dependence on gas and oil and all the various forms of petrochemicals that we are addicted to.

However, what is the case for or against the imagined ethanol panacea? How thoroughly were the research and the arithmetic done before this huge enterprise was launched?

The case against ethanol biofuel is written in huge and clear script, so clear it is surprising that even the corporate industry that pushes for ethanol, for obvious reasons, is unable to read the writing on the wall. The cultivation of ethanol-producing crops is clearly just another way of making more profit. Instant profit is the god of the day and the mega cultures of corn, sugar cane, wheat and soy beans will add huge profits to transnational corporations. If one day the supply of oil and gas is going to give diminishing returns, which still seems to be a somewhat distant way off in the future, the way the price of gasoline and natural gas are skyrocketing, the big corporations will certainly make sure that they are protected against any possible future economic downturn.

The United States, Brazil, India and China are already busy cultivating these crops. The industry is already under way and has been for five years as far as the U.S. is concerned.

There are two major arguments to be made in this context.

First: Is the production of ethanol really going to amount to a real gain which can be added to already existing sources of energy? It turns out that, in order to produce ethanol fuel it would take so much energy for transportation and other production costs that using ethanol fuel would not even amount to a net gain in the use of traditional energy sources or a lowering of the output of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

Second: Besides this obvious drawback, there is the even more frightening fact that the culture of these fuel producing crops would take away such huge amounts of land from food-producing agro business that it would lead to increasing mass starvation on the planet. Already over half a billion people on the planet are starving.[2] Is it really the moment to convert huge arable lands from food production to ethanol-producing corn, sugar cane, soy beans and wheat?

What will follow if the world ignores the need for equitable distribution of the food that is presently available (more than enough to feed the world population) and sets out on a course of depriving the people of what is their due?[3] There is already an urgent need for improved policies for feeding the world’s population, and it seems insane instead to take away the food from the people who are already exposed to the risk of starving.

Food prices (corn, cane sugar, soy beans, wheat) are increasing already because of the competition for the production of ethanol made from what could have been food crops. When families pay 50 – 80 % of their income for food, even a relatively modest increase in the price of corn, etc. will have disastrous consequences. There is an obvious likelihood that food prices will soar because of the vast inflation in these commodity prices. The price of tortilla, the staple food of all Mexicans, went up so drastically during the last few months of 2006 that President Felipe Calderon had to intervene after powerful street protests and set a more reasonable limit for the increased price of corn.[4] Even so, the rise in this basic staple was severely felt by poor Mexicans.[5]

Read the rest here.

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