BIOTECH BETS ON AGROFUELS
Carmelo Ruiz Marrero
CIP Americas Policy Program
There is a new participant in the international deliberations on global warming and agrofuels: the biotechnology industry. The corporate giants of the genetics industry propose new technologies, including genetically modified trees, second generation cellulosic ethanol, and synthetic biology, to wean society off fossil fuels and fight climate change.
The implications for Latin America are breathtaking. The biotechnology industry's massive move into the energy sector brings together major social and ecological issues in the region, such as agrofuel promotion, genetically modified (GM) crops, and the growth of agribusiness monocultures. Latin American civil society's aspirations of land reform, environmental protection, alternatives to neoliberalism, and food and energy sovereignty, are at stake.
Biotechnology companies have become some of the main movers in promoting the use of farm crops like corn, soy, and sugar cane to make fuel for motor vehicles. Faced with increasing public resistance to human consumption of their GM crops, the biotech industry sees its salvation in the production of GM agrofuels. By portraying GM crops as the answer to climate change and resource depletion caused by fossil fuels, they hope to cast a more favorable light on biotech plants.
They have a lot at stake: Monsanto, for example, obtains 60% of its revenue from the sale of GM seeds. Riding the tide of the biofuels boom, Monsanto and other companies hope to avoid the human health concerns associated with GM food crops and open up a whole new area of profit from the global warming crisis.
Is there enough land on the planet to satisfy a significant part of world energy demand using first-generation agrofuels? Or will they exacerbate global warming and other environmental problems? How will agrofuel production affect indigenous and rural peoples?
According to GRAIN, a Europe-based NGO that advocates the protection of agricultural biodiversity, if the United States dedicated its whole corn and soy harvests to make fuel, it would cover less than one-eighth of its oil demand and barely 6% of its diesel demand. The figures are even more sobering considering the United States grows around 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 dedicated entirely to ethanol production, it could satisfy U.S. demand, but would leave the rest of the world's motor vehicle fleet still running on oil, while drivers starved.
The situation in Europe does not look much better. In his 2007 book Heat: How to Stop the Planet from Burning, British researcher George Monbiot calculates that running all cars and buses in the United Kingdom on biodiesel would require 25.9 million hectares, but England has no more than 5.7 million hectares of farmland in total.
World agrofuel production must be quintupled to merely keep up with rising energy demand, according to the Interamerican Development Bank report "A Blueprint for Green Energy in the Americas." If this is achieved, agrofuels will cover 5% of world energy demand by 2020.
Various Latin America-based organizations, including Oilwatch South America and the Latin American Network against Tree Monocultures declared in 2006 that "energy crops will expand ... at the expense of our natural ecosystems. Soy is projected to be one of the main sources for diesel production, but it is a fact that soy monocultures are the main cause of the destruction of native forest in Argentina, the tropical Amazon rainforest in Brazil and Bolivia, and the Mata Atlántica in Brazil and Paraguay."
"Sugarcane plantations and ethanol production in Brazil are the business of an oligopoly that utilizes slave labor," said the declaration, titled "The Land Should Feed People, Not Cars." "Palm oil plantations grow at the expense of jungles and territories of indigenous populations and other traditional populations of Colombia, Ecuador, and other countries, increasingly oriented to biodiesel production."
One of the signatory organizations, the World Rainforest Movement, affirmed in early 2007 that "the cultivation of these fuels means death. Death of entire communities; death of cultures; death of people; death of nature. Be these oil palm or eucalyptus plantations, be these sugarcane or transgenic soybean monoculture plantations, be they promoted by 'progressive' or 'conservative' governments. Death."
"All of these crops, and all of this monoculture expansion, are direct causes of deforestation, eviction of local communities from their lands, water and air pollution, soil erosion, and destruction of biodiversity," stated GRAIN in 2007 in a manifesto titled "Stop the Agrofuels Craze!" "They also lead, paradoxically, to a massive increase of CO2 emissions, due to the burning of the forests and peat lands to make way for agrofuel plantations."
"In a country like Brazil, way ahead of everybody else in producing ethanol for transport fuel, it turns out that 80% of the country's greenhouse gases come not from cars but from deforestation, partly caused by the expanding soya and sugarcane plantations. Recent studies have shown that the production of one ton of palm-oil biodiesel from peatlands in Southeast Asia creates 2-8 times more CO2 than is emitted by burning one ton of fossil-fuel diesel. While scientists debate whether the 'net energy balance' of crops such as maize, soya, sugar cane, and oil palm is positive or negative, the emissions caused by the creation of many of the agrofuels plantations send any potential benefit, literally, up in smoke."
Some 260 representatives of over 100 organizations, including civil society and academia, from Brazil, United States, Europe, El Salvador, Uruguay, Chile, Costa Rica, and all regions of Mexico, met in Mexico City in August 2007 for a forum on agrofuels and food sovereignty. The forum's conclusions were hardly flattering to the agrofuels industry.
"In a context of crisis in the countryside and of campesino and indigenous agriculture, of agrarian conflicts against communities and the ejido, of attempts to privatize water and the resources of communities, agrofuels can be a new threat of the neoliberal model," said their final declaration. "We declare ourselves in permanent defense of peasant and indigenous territories, the ejido, and the community. We will not permit the expansion of crops for agroindustrial fuels at the expense of the dispossession of their territories and resources. We revindicate again the demand for recognition of the rights of indigenous peoples and their right to self-determination."