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Biofuels -- More Frankencrops and Global Hunger in the Guise of Solving the Energy Crisis

From  April 27, 2006

Dear Friends and Colleagues,

Tony Blair's "Africa Commission" declaration last year that Africa should encourage development by growing Biofuels, is evidently starting to take root with a recent announcement in Zimbabwe about the growing of GM to produce biodiesel (see Gaia Mailout "African Biosafety Laws May Fail to Protect Countries" 19 April 2006)

Although thought by many to be an environmentally and economically sustainable alternative to the coming oil and climate change crises, a closer look at the true implications of biofuels is needed before Africa submits to yet more potentially destructive policies.

"Biofuels", is the name given to the oil and ethanol produced from crops like soya, palm and maize, and which can provide an alternative to, or be mixed in with diesel or petrol to run cars or engines.  Since they do not involve burning fossil fuels, they are considered to be more environmentally friendly.  The CO2 they produce during burning is the same amount that they absorb during growth, and are therefore considered to be "carbon neutral" and therefore a possible strategy towards reducing CO2 production and climate change.  Several countries are committing to various percentages of biofuels being mixed into petrol or diesel for vehicles.

However, there are many reasons why even environmentalists object to biofuels as a large-scale solution for climate change and development.

Firstly, there is not enough land to provide for the world's current level of oil need if it is to be met by biofuels.  Developed countries are likely to encourage developing countries to use their land for biofuels for export. Oil prices are likely to rise in the next years, as are biofuels. Governments and agribusinesses will find that they can make more money by using land to grow fuel for western cars, than they can to grow food for their citizens.   

We have already seen the best land in Africa devoted to huge plantations for export crops such as flowers, coffee, green beans, fruit, while there is less and less support and land for growing food for local consumption. George Monbiot in his article below predicts that Africa may find herself pandering to the needs of the global rich, and "feeding cars, not people".

Secondly, the expansion of land required to meet the rising need for biofuels is likely to eat into precious forest land - as has already been observed in Argentina and Brazil with the expansion of soya, and Indonesia with the palm oil plantations.  Any environmental benefits gained from having a "green" fuel are lost many times over by cutting down trees which absorb a great deal more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, and are critical for the health of the planet.

And thirdly, they are an invitation to encourage more GM crop planting, which poses the threat of contaminating local food crops, environmental harm, and pushing farmers off the land.  Hundreds of thousands of farmers in Argentina have been forced off the land with the expansion of GM soya plantations, and Africa might expect that the small scale farmers who make up 80% of her population to be similarly affected.

A genuinely "green" fuel source would be biodiesel made from waste oil already used for frying foods like chips.  With some filtering and treatment, this can be used to run diesel engines.  But this will only ever meet a small fraction of the world's fuel needs.

The unavoidable truth is that we must make serious efforts at reducing oil consumption in order to reduce our CO2 and climate change impact.  And we must not let this so-called "green" intitiative for biofuels become an opportunity for GM crops to get a foothold into Africa and do more harm than good.

Best wishes,



1. Argentina: The Environmental Costs of Biofuel   Article from Inter Press Service. Date: 20 April 2006   Marcela Valente

2. Do Biofuels Represent an Ecological Alternative to Oil?   Excerpt from Article from Resistance Bulletin 56.  Date: September 2005

3. Feeding Cars, Not People   Article from the Guardian.  Date: 22 November 2004   George Monbiot

4. GM non-food crops will bring contamination threats to food and nature   Press Release from GeneWatch UK.  Date: 23 April 2004

5. Biotechnology: Still Fueling Controversy   Article from AlterNet.  Date: 21 April 2006   Charles Shaw

6. Biofuels and GM   Analysis from GM Watch.  Date: 29 March 2004 *********************************

1. Argentina: The Environmental Costs of Biofuel

Article from Inter Press Service. Date: 20 April 2006 Marcela Valente

BUENOS AIRES, Apr 20 (IPS) - The passage of a law on biofuels in Argentina is both good and bad news for sustainable development. While the new law will foment the production and use of alternative sources of fuel, it will also give a boost to soybean production, which has come in for harsh criticism from environmentalists.

After two years of debate, the Argentine Senate approved on Wednesday a bill that will grant tax incentives to the producers of biofuels while guaranteeing them a share of the market for 15 years. However, the new law is less generous than the original version of the bill, which was submitted in 2004 by biofuel proponents.

The new legislation grants tax exemptions to farmers who use vegetable oil to produce biodiesel, sugar cane or corn to produce ethanol, or organic waste to produce biogas.

Both biodiesel and ethanol are renewable, cleaner alternatives to costly and increasingly scarce petroleum derivatives.

To ensure a market for the alternative fuels, the state will guarantee that four years after the law goes into effect, gas stations will be under the obligation to offer gasoline that contains five percent ethanol and diesel comprised of five percent biodiesel.

Vehicle engines require no modifications to run on these mixtures, say experts.

Companies in the oil industry and large soybean producers complained that the new law does not include subsidies. They also protested the fact that the state will have the authority to oversee and regulate production of biofuels and to distribute the tax benefits.

The state will determine the requisites for projects to be eligible for the tax exemptions, and will set quotas every year for the benefits to be distributed in such a way as to give priority to small and medium companies, farmers, and regional economies.

But according to the corporations and agribusiness, the tax incentives will be granted in an arbitrary manner.

Biodiesel releases almost the same amount of carbon dioxide - the main greenhouse gas - into the environment as diesel fuel, according to Argentina's Secretariat of the Environment.

But expanded production will also lead to an increase in the cultivation of oilseeds, which will contribute significantly to absorbing such emissions, notes the government body, which estimates that net emissions will be reduced to one-third of the current level once biodiesel is widely used.

The biofuel projects could thus qualify as clean development initiatives under the Kyoto Protocol on climate change. The clean development fund is aimed at helping industrialised countries and corporations cut their greenhouse gas emissions.

However, the environmental effects of biofuels will not all be positive in Argentina, activists warn.

The new law worries those who have criticised the continued expansion of soybean monoculture. Soybeans are the top export product and the most widely planted crop in Argentina, which is the third-largest soybean producer in the world after the United States and Brazil, and the leading exporter of soybean oil.

Argentina's soybean crop, which is mainly transgenic, threatens biodiversity in agriculture and has hurt family farms and the rural social fabric, according to environmentalists and other critics. In the last decade, expanding monoculture has prompted an exodus of seasonal workers and small farmers to the cities, while fuelling the concentration of land ownership.

The Argentine branch of international environmental watchdog Greenpeace has launched several campaigns to protest the deforestation of land rich in biodiversity by large soybean farmers.

The worst episode occurred when the government of the northwestern province of Salta stripped the Pizarro nature reserve of its legal status as a protected area in order to auction off part of the land to agribusiness firms.

However, after 20 months of an intense campaign by environmentalists, indigenous groups and local residents, the sale of land was cancelled and the reserve's protected status was restored.

This year, a total of 15.2 hectares of land will be used for soybean cultivation, which is over half of the entire area devoted to agriculture in Argentina. Soy output this year is expected to reach 40 million tons, a record high.

The soy industry encompasses sales of the beans themselves, soy meal ­ widely used as animal feed because of its high protein content ­ and soy oil.

To meet the new quota for biofuel production, producers estimate that the soy-growing area will expand by around 10 percent.

In an interview with IPS, Jorge Rulli of the Rural Reflection Group, a local environmental organisation, said that the law will "inexorably reinforce the critical conditions of the current process of growing 'soyification' and permanently compromise Argentina's principal productive base, which is agricultural and livestock activity."

Rulli stressed that the employment generated by the processing of vegetable oil for fuel "will not compensate for the enormous unemployment provoked by this model of agriculture and does absolutely nothing to remedy its impact on the social fabric."

A report released in late 2005 by the Inter-American Institute for Cooperation on Agriculture (IICA) on biofuel prospects in Argentina and Brazil warned that the development of this sector would not come without a price for Argentina.

The potential negative impacts included the replacement of other crops, disturbance of land rotation systems and undesired effects on the soil. As a result, the IICA stressed that a careful estimation of these impacts should form part of the overall evaluation of the costs and benefits of biofuel production initiatives. .

For his part, Alberto Rodriguez, executive director of the Argentine Vegetable Oil Industry Chamber, commented to IPS: "Let's suppose that Argentina doesn't produce biofuel and other countries do. The price of soy oil on the world market will rise, and soy cultivation will expand all the same."

On the other hand, Rodríguez predicted a drop in the price of soy meal. The yield of every soy plant is 80 percent meal and 20 percent oil. Therefore, if there is a greater demand for soy oil for biofuel, this will create an enormous supply of soy meal, which could drive down its market value.

Rodríguez added that it will be essential to promote production and trade for these new fuels based on costly inputs like vegetable oil or alcohol. In fact, he said, it is unlikely that they will account for more than five percent of blended fuels within the next four years, because of the increase in fuel prices this would entail.

Even with the rising price of petroleum it will be difficult for these alternative fuels to compete, which is why the sector will need direct subsidies, he maintained.

Nevertheless, investment in biofuel production has already begun to grow, thanks to the prospect of the law that made it through Congress this week and the incentive of increased demand from the European Union, which established a mandatory 5.7 percent biofuel content in all fuels by the year 2010. There are already around 50 small projects in operation, most of them geared to supplying energy for agricultural and livestock activity.

One of the companied created, Oilfox, has even managed to export biofuel, but is not yet producing the volume required. Company spokespersons explained that their buyers in Germany needed 10,000 tons of biofuel monthly for a shipping company, but they have only signed a contract for one-tenth of this amount.

In the meantime, the Spanish-Argentine oil and gas company Repsol YPF announced an investment of 30 million in dollars in a biofuel refinery in the province of Buenos Aires, which is expected to produce 100,000 tons a year as of 2007. (END/2006)


2. Do Biofuels Represent an Ecological Alternative to Oil?

Excerpt from Article from Resistance Bulletin 56.  Date: September 2005

Given that the countries which have ratified the Kyoto Protocol have to fulfill certain obligations in relation to CO2 emissions, and that in other international forums they having committed to replace 20% of gasoline and diesel with other sustainable sources by the year 2020 (this is the case of countries members of the European Union), a series of industries have appeared, consultants and specialized firms working to convert these obligations into business.

What is foreseen for the future is that even though fossil fuels will slowly be replaced by other forms of energy the oil industry will continue to play a central role in its substitution, and the use of the infrastructure that they have today with some adaptations, for example in the distribution of fuels for vehicles and other forms of transport that require this form of energy.

Identified as alternatives to the motorized transport are the following forms of fuel: Natural gas, hydrogen, bio fuels, biomass liquid fuels (BTL) and liquid gas.


Various European countries have established goals that increasing use biofuels as a substitute to gasoline and diesel.

Biofuels include ethanol and biodiesel that are obtained from conventional agricultural crops such as sugar cane, cereals and oilseeds.

The European Union has established that by the year 2010, 6% of fuels will be biofuels and hopes that by 2020 the percentage will increase to 8%.

However it is unlikely that Europe will dedicate its soils to the growth of these types of crops.

In this new world scenario, the Third World Countries are playing an important role: they will provide the land and their fertility, cheap labour and will retain all environmental effects caused by large plantations from which the biofuels and refining.

In the same manner as occurs with the oil industry, the increasing European demand for biofuels means that countries of the Third World become the sources of supply of this new industry.

In effect currently the main supplier of bioethanol to the United Kingdom is Brazil.

Companies dedicated to the business of biodiesel have placed their sights on Latin American, African, Asian and Pacific countries, since they consider that these countries can obtain raw material at competitive prices. According to declarations made by the CEO of the DI Oils, they are working with plantations of crops known as Jatropha for the production of biodiesel from Ghana to the Philippines, passing through India, Madagascar and South Africa. Up till now they have established 267.000 Ha and have the intention of expanding to 9 million Ha in the future.

According to the British Crop Protection Council (BCPC) the use transgenic crops for the biofuel industry will be inevitable.

Currently President Lula of Brazil has declared transgenic soya to be used for biofuels and good soya for human consumption. Argentina is also advancing plans to transform transgenic soya into biodiesel.

The industry considers the for the processing of biofuels, large refining plants need to be constructed close to agricultural areas or forests which is where the raw material is found. This will depend on whether the biofuel is sold in its pure form or as a mixture. Generally biofuels are mixed with gasoline or conventional diesel. The forms of transport are similar to those used in the oil industry.

It is predicted that the oil industry with the aim of maintaining control over the distribution of fuels, will enter an agreement with these new companies since in many cases the production chain can be very complex.

To refine biodiesel a transesterification method is needed via a catalytic breaking of the acid oily chain of crude oil to transform it into alcohol ester (biodiesel) and glycerin.


Apparently this is a business in which everybody wins. The European emissions of CO2 decreases, third world countries increase their exports increasing the quality of life of rural populations.

However the reality is different.

In relation to climate change, it is said that during the growth of the crop, these absorb CO2. This is true only in relation to what was growing before the plantation was established. Since the industry has plans of growing exponentially, it is possible that they occupy primary or secondary forested areas, as already occurs with the plantations of soy in Argentina (where slowly forests of el Chaco have been displaced), Paraguay (where soy has replaced Pantanal, Atlantic Forest and Chaco areas) and even more dramatically in Brazil where Amazon forests, Pantanal, Atlantic forests have been replaced by soy. In this case the CO2 balance is negative.

On the other hand the moment in which the biodiesel is burnt CO2 is regenerated as product of the combustion.

Additionally other green house gases are generated as a product of the crop itself, the refining and distribution of the fuel. Therefore we can say that the use of biofuels generates CO2 and other green house gases.

In relation to the benefits to the producers of the raw material these can be extremely negative.

Firstly we have the destruction of forest and other original vegetation, as has been seen, but if we include the mass expansion of these crops it could threaten food sovereignty of local populations, because they would stop producing food crops for the population with the aim of producing "clean fuels" for European countries.

Argentina for example has planned to increase the production of soya to 100 million tons, which implies a huge environmental and social cost to the Argentinean people, such as the displacement from rural lands, growing deforestation and desertification of soils and therefore greater hunger and social inequity.

Large scale agriculture, such as is needed to comply with the demand for biofuels is highly dependant of oil derivates which apart from producing CO2 emissions are highly contaminant.

The predictions for Brazil are alarming, since this country could become the world leader in the substitution of fossil fuels for sources of renewable energy, with all the impacts this implies. Even though in Brazil biofuels have been obtained from sugar cane the increase expansion of soy (transgenic?) will make the substitution of this crop inevitable.

Recently the Spanish government of Zapatero announced that Repsol will install a biodiesel plant in Leon. It is predicted that the raw material will be obtained from oily crops and will come from regions where labour and land is cheap and where transgenic crops are permitted. This is in the Southern Hemisphere.

To look for solutions to the current energy model, it is not enough to think of technological solution or substitute one source of energy for another, but instead we need to think of new sustainable decentralized and just.societies,


Grupo de Reflexión Rural. 2005. Argentina

Energy Institute. Petroleum Review. Suplemento Especial sobre nuevos combustibles. Septiembre 2005.

ASAJA Leon. 2005. 'Aquejados por la fiebre del biodiesel'. El anuncio de Zapatero de traer de la manos de Repsol una planta de biodiesel a Leon ha generado no pocas expectativas dentro y fuera del mundo agrario.


3. Feeding Cars, Not People

Article from the Guardian.  Date: 22 November 2004 George Monbiot

The adoption of biofuels would be a humanitarian and environmental disaster

If human beings were without sin, we would still live in an imperfect world. Adam Smith's notion that by pursuing his own interest a man "frequently promotes that of Š society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it" and Karl Marx's picture of a society in which "the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all" are both mocked by one obvious constraint. The world is finite. This means that when one group of people pursues its own interests, it damages the interests of others.

It is hard to think of a better example than the current enthusiasm for "biofuels". Biofuels are made from plant oils or crop wastes or wood, and can be used to run cars and buses and lorries. Burning them simply returns to the atmosphere the carbon which the plants extracted while they were growing. So switching from fossil fuels to biodiesel and bio-alcohol is now being promoted as the solution to climate change.

Next month the British government will have to set a target for the amount of transport fuel that will come from crops. The European Union wants 2% of the oil we use to be biodiesel by the end of next year, rising to 6% by 2010 and 20% by 2020.(1) To try to meet these targets, the government has reduced the tax on biofuels by 20 pence a litre, while the EU is paying farmers an extra 45 euros a hectare to grow them.

Everyone seems happy about this. The farmers and the chemicals industry can develop new markets, the government can meet its commitments to cut carbon emissions, and environmentalists can celebrate the fact that plant fuels reduce local pollution as well as global warming. Unlike hydrogen fuel cells, biofuels can be deployed straight away. This in fact was how Rudolf Diesel expected his invention to be used. When he demonstrated his engine at the World Show in 1900, he ran it on peanut oil. "The use of vegetable oils for engine fuels may seem insignificant today," he predicted. "But such oils may become in course of time as important as petroleum."(2) Some enthusiasts are predicting that if fossil fuel prices continue to rise, he will soon be proved right.

I hope not. Those who have been promoting these fuels are well-intentioned, but wrong. They are wrong because the world is finite. If biofuels take off, they will cause a global humanitarian disaster.

Used as they are today, on a very small scale, they do no harm. A few thousand greens in the United Kingdom are running their cars on used chip fat. But recycled cooking oils could supply only 100,000 tonnes of diesel a year in this country,(3) equivalent to one 380th of our road transport fuel.

It might also be possible to turn crop wastes such as wheat stubble into alcohol for use in cars ­ the Observer ran an article about this on Sunday.(4) I'd like to see the figures, but I find it hard to believe that we will be able to extract more energy than we use in transporting and processing straw. But the EU's plans, like those of all the enthusiasts for bio-locomotion, depend on growing crops specifically for fuel. As soon as you examine the implications, you discover that the cure is as bad as the disease.

Road transport in the United Kingdom consumes 37.6 million tonnes of petroleum products a year.(5) The most productive oil crop which can be grown in this country is rape. The average yield is between 3 and 3.5 tonnes per hectare.(6) One tonne of rapeseed produces 415 kilos of biodiesel.(7) So every hectare of arable land could provide 1.45 tonnes of transport fuel.

To run our cars and buses and lorries on biodiesel, in other words, would require 25.9m hectares. There are 5.7m in the United Kingdom.(8) Switching to green fuels requires four and half times our arable area. Even the EU's more modest target of 20% by 2020 would consume almost all our cropland.

If the same thing is to happen all over Europe, the impact on global food supply will be catastrophic: big enough to tip the global balance from net surplus to net deficit. If, as some environmentalists demand, it is to happen worldwide, then most of the arable surface of the planet will be deployed to produce food for cars, not people.

This prospect sounds, at first, ridiculous. Surely if there was unmet demand for food, the market would ensure that crops were used to feed people rather than vehicles? There is no basis for this assumption. The market responds to money, not need. People who own cars have more money than people at risk of starvation. In a contest between their demand for fuel and poor people's demand for food, the car-owners win every time. Something very much like this is happening already. Though 800 million people are permanently malnourished, the global increase in crop production is being used to feed animals: the number of livestock on earth has quintupled since 1950.(9) The reason is that those who buy meat and dairy products have more purchasing power than those who buy only subsistence crops.

Green fuel is not just a humanitarian disaster; it is also an environmental disaster. Those who worry about the scale and intensity of today's agriculture should consider what farming will look like when it is run by the oil industry. Moreover, if we try to develop a market for rapeseed biodiesel in Europe it will immediately develop into a market for palm oil and soya oil. Oilpalm can produce four times as much biodiesel per hectare as rape, and it is grown in places where labour is cheap. Planting it is already one of the world's major causes of tropical forest destruction. Soya has a lower oil yield than rape, but the oil is a by-product of the manufacture of animal feed. A new market for it will stimulate an industry which has already destroyed most of Brazil's cerrado (one of the world's most biodiverse environments) and much of its rainforest.

It is shocking to see how narrow the focus of some environmentalists can be. At a meeting in Paris last month, a group of scientists and greens studying abrupt climate change decided that Tony Blair's two big ideas ­ tackling global warming and helping Africa ­ could both be met by turning Africa into a biofuel production zone. This strategy, according to its convenor, "provides a sustainable development path for the many African countries that can produce biofuels cheaply".(10) I know the definition of sustainable development has been changing, but I wasn't aware that it now encompasses mass starvation and the eradication of tropical forests. Last year the British parliamentary committee on environment, food and rural affairs, which is supposed to specialise in joined-up thinking, examined every possible consequence of biofuel production ­ from rural incomes to skylark numbers ­ except the impact on food supply.(11)

We need a solution to the global warming caused by cars, but this isn't it. If the production of biofuels is big enough to affect climate change, it will be big enough to cause global starvation.


1. The European Union, 8th May 2003. Directive 2003/30/EC: On the Promotion of the Use of Biofuels or Other Renewable Fuels for Transport. Official Journal L 123 , 17/05/2003 P. 0042 ­ 0046.

2. Eg Monsanto, no date. The Biodiesel Revolution.

3. British Association for Biofuels and Oils, no date. Memorandum to the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution.

4. Robin McKie, 21st November 2004. Forget the tiger. Put some mushrooms in your tank . The Observer.

5. Department for Transport, 2004. Petroleum Consumption: by Transport Mode and Fuel Type.

6. Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Crops for Energy Branch, 17th November 2004. Pers comm.

7. ibid.

8. Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, 2004. Agriculture in the UK 2003.

9. Lester R. Brown, 1997. The Agricultural Link: How Environmental Deterioration Could Disrupt Economic Progress. Worldwatch Paper 136. The Worldwatch Institute, Washington DC.

10. Dr Peter Read, 20th October 2004. Good news on climate change. Abrupt Climate Change Strategy Workshop. Press Release.

11. House of Commons Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, 29 October 2003. Seventeenth Report.


4. GM non-food crops will bring contamination threats to food and nature

Press Release from GeneWatch UK.  Date: 23 April 2004

A new GeneWatch UK report published today reveals how the production of GM crops intended for non-food uses could contaminate food crops and wild species. The 48 page report 'Non-food crops: new dawn or false hope? Part 2: grasses, flowers, trees, fibre crops and industrial uses', was written by Dr Sue Mayer, GeneWatch's Director.

The report considers research taking place into the development of GM crops intended for non-food use: grasses, flowers, trees, crops such as cotton used for fibre production, and the range of different crops being modified to provide the raw materials for industrial production of oils, starches and plastics. It considers how they are being modified, how successful it has been and what environmental and health issues are raised. It makes recommendations for policy and research.

The report reveals:

how the biotechnology industry are pursuing the use of GM in non-food crops in the hope of side-stepping public concerns over GM foods; that GM grasses for use in lawns and golf courses may be commercialised in the US soon and raise serious environmental concerns because they are perennial, freely wind pollinating, and often spread via underground shoots. Grasses commonly spread worldwide on wool and via imported grass and bird seed;  

how GM trees for use in intensive plantations may pose serious environmental threats because trees are long lived and their seed and pollen can move long distances;

that grasses, trees and fibre crops are often being modified in the same way as food crops including herbicide tolerance which has caused controversy over biodiversity impacts;

the use of GM food crops, like oilseed rape, for non-food uses such as the production of biofuels and plastics, could lead to the contamination of non-GM and organic food crops;

GM cotton and flowers are the first commercialised non-food GM crops that are being grown commercially outside Europe;

GM potatoes modified for industrial starch production could be given approval for growing in Europe in 2004.

"The use of GM for non-food crops could bring contamination of food and nature by the back door," said Dr Sue Mayer, GeneWatch's Director and author of the report. "Industry and government hope to get around public concerns by using GM technology on non-food crops. We know it is difficult to contain GM crops inside a field or farm but GM grasses and trees will not even stay inside a country. Although people aren't going to eat them, the GM contamination threat to other plants remains".

For more details please contact Sue Mayer on 01298 871898 (office) or 07930 308807 (mobile)

The full text of the report can be downloaded as a pdf file (240kb) from:   


5. Biotechnology: Still Fueling Controversy

Article from AlterNet.  Date: 21 April 2006 Charles Shaw

As America responds to its oil addiction, the biotech industry is once again promising to save the world. And this time, they just might mean it.

It should have been one of the more earth-shattering admissions of the last hundred years when George W. Bush -- the former Texas oilman who steadfastly denies that oil ever played a part in our decision to invade Iraq -- announced that America was in fact "addicted to oil."

Instead, America's response was more akin to hearing one's 55-year-old effeminate bachelor uncle come out of the closet to the family at a holiday dinner: Everyone knew it already, but no one ever expected him to say it.

However, the evidence is indeed staggering. The United States of America uses more than a quarter of the world's annual oil production; the current administration is comprised of oil executives; our foreign policy apparatus consists of a reckless form of petro-diplomacy that requires us to prop up brutal regimes or overthrow unfriendly governments.

The situation has made our economic well-being so dependent on oil that even the slightest interruption to the oil supply has far-reaching ramifications, as we saw first with the removal of Iraqi oil from the world market, and then the refinery catastrophe in the wake of hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

And it seems to be getting worse. Oil refineries are producing at full capacity, supply has either peaked or is rapidly approaching the peak, even as demand is projected to grow 50 percent by 2025, spurred by the massive economic growth of China, India and Brazil.

As a result of all these factors, oil prices have increased more than 500 percent from the 1998 price of $13 a barrel. And when we consider the very real possibility of another mega-hurricane season, or a terrorist attack on the Saudi refining operation, even an oil-addicted president realizes that we need to make serious changes -- and fast -- or else we may not be around to pick up the pieces.

Enter BIO 2006, the annual convention of the Biotechnology Industry Organization, held last week in Chicago. Nearly 20,000 attendees converged on the city to hawk new technologies, hook up with investment opportunities, or pitch their city or state as the perfect destination for the burgeoning biotech and life-science sector, which, according to the Department of Commerce, will comprise 18 percent of the U.S. GDP by 2020, or nearly 3 trillion dollars.

And this year, "biofuels" -- renewable fuels made from plant materials -- were the center of attention, with biodiesel and ethanol as the industry's two leading hopes for spurring renewed interest and investment.

On the heels of Bush's "addicted to oil" speech, heading into the convention, BIO released a letter to Congress on March 13 requesting full funding for programs that would support research and development into ethanol production. This would all be made possible through the introduction of the newest scintillating field of biotechnology, known as "White" industrial biotechnology.

EuropaBio, the European equivalent of the Biotechnology Industry Organization, is advancing the cause of "White Biotechnology" with claims that it will reduce pollution and waste through using renewable organic resources and recycling waste for more efficient energy supplies.

In the March 13 release, BIO CEO Jim Greenwood said industrial biotech is a force that can "end our national addiction to oil. We need to rapidly move forward commercializing these technologies for cellulosic ethanol production, which will strengthen our energy and national security."

The timing of it all couldn't have been better, especially for an industry that has been reeling in a steady stream of bad PR in recent years. There have been serious problems with the introduction of the first two fields of biotech, "green" bio-agriculture -- genetically modified crops -- and "red" biomedical technology like stem-cell science.

"Green" biotech especially has resulted in a series of black eyes for the industry. News out of India last year showed that since 1997 some 25,000 farmers have committed suicide after going bankrupt when Monsanto's pesticide resistant cotton didn't work as promised. And on March 17 of this year, Canadian farmer Percy Schmeiser, who spent four years engaged in a court battle with Monsanto, joined with European NGOs to file suit against Monsanto and the agricultural biotech industry at the UN High Commission for Human Rights, alleging that the industry has destroyed farmers' lives and livelihoods around the world.

With the advent of "white" biotechnology, the industry is once again offering a one-size-fits-all solution to our ills. Naturally, skeptics and critics abound. But are there the same concerns with these new technologies? And what precisely do supporters mean when they talk about creating a "bio-based economy"?

The bio-based economy

Through recombinant DNA technology, scientists can use microorganisms in new and exciting ways to manufacture polymers, vitamins, enzymes or transportation fuel. By harnessing the natural power of enzymes or whole cell systems, and using sugars as feedstock for product manufacture, industrial biotech companies can work with nature to help us move from a petroleum-based economy to a "bio-based economy." -- BIO website

At a BIO conference plenary session on biofuels, former CIA head R. James Woolsey claimed that "Biotechnology will be for the 21st century what physics was to the 20th," unlocking the secret potential of the planet in ways never before imagined, while at the same time rescuing us from the social and environmental perils of the petrochemical system.

"For every billion dollars we shift from foreign oil to domestic biofuels, we can add anywhere from 10-20,000 American jobs," Woolsey said, "and at least half of our gasoline needs can be grown here with cellulose".

This, at least, has become the new conventional wisdom. The January 27 issue of Science Magazine featured "The Path Forward for Biofuels and Biomaterials," a self-described road map to developing a sustainable industrial society without worrying about greenhouse gases.

As of now, ethanol makes up only 2 percent of U.S. transportation fuels, and biodiesel accounts for less than .01 percent. But the U.S. Department of Energy has set goals to replace 30 percent of the liquid petroleum transport fuel with biofuels, and to replace 25 percent of industrial chemicals with biomass-derived chemicals by 2025.

The resulting cry to build an infrastructure around biofuels has come from all quarters. As one European biotech executive put it, "The Stone Age did not come to an end because of a lack of stones. So too, the Oil Age will not come to an end because of a lack of oil."

The benefits of biofuels

There is good reason for the hype around biofuels. On paper, they promise a huge improvement over our fossil-fueled society. Being plant-based, both biodiesel and ethanol are renewable, whereas oil and gas are a finite and dwindling resource. In addition to offering a sustainable fuel supply, a switch to biofuels will also reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

And because diesel fuel outperforms both ethanol and gasoline -- a gallon of diesel will take you as far as 1.5 gallons of gasoline and two gallons of ethanol -- the economic savings can be at least as enticing as the environmental ones.

But it's the economic incentives that are most likely to drive the shift, according to Matt Atwood, an organic chemist and project manager for Biodiesel Systems, a Madison, Wis.-based biodiesel company. "The creation of the biodiesel industry in the U.S. is imperative," Atwood says. "If we don't begin to solve this problem now, there is a possibility the U.S. economy may collapse. If we can't get products to market, we're in big trouble."

One often-proposed first step is to increase fuel efficiency in automobiles. Unfortunately, Americans have shown that they are unwilling to drive less unless the price of gas goes too high, and we've not yet found out how high "too high" is. But increasing fuel efficiency is just a first step. Converting passenger vehicles to biodiesel could have widespread effects as well.

Atwood says the 'monstrous' diesel market in Europe is a good example. "50 percent of [Europeans'] autos are diesel-powered, as opposed to less than 1 percent in America," he says, "and they get approximately 100 mpg." Once Americans start to see the benefits of biofuels, he believes the market will grow substantially.

Assuming that moving from fossil fuels to biofuels is inevitable -- which it clearly is not -- the question remains: Is it the best long-term solution to our economic and environmental concerns? Here again is where the agricultural biotech industry enters the picture.

While these crop-based fuels promise to be a boon to America's cash-strapped farmers, critics of this technology -- many of them farmers who were convinced to convert their farms to GMOs in the mid-'90s -- are surfacing with big questions, objections and heartfelt recriminations against the ag-biotech industry, whom they have learned to distrust.

Feedstocks and the lingering problem of GMOs

"Feedstocks" are the raw material required for an industrial process, and biofuels use plants and biomass as its feedstock and life-blood. Biodiesel Systems feedstock, as with most biofuel startups, will primarily be soy, grown by farmers in the Midwest. Soybeans are converted to soy oil that is sold on the commodities market. Although there's no sure way to say how much soy-based biodiesel comes from genetically modified stock, as of 2003, 81 percent of the U.S. soy harvest was genetically modified.

"I understand the concerns with using GMOs in the biofuel supply," Atwood says, "but fundamentally, as a scientist, you have to weigh the benefits against the detriments. Do I have a problem with GMO-only fuel crops? I feel the benefits far outweigh the negatives, and nobody really knows the full negatives yet."

At present, feedstocks are the bottleneck for biodiesel production. The Department of Energy estimates U.S. biomass crop potential at around 160 million tons a year, which the say will save us 1 million barrels of oil a day. Unfortunately, right now, our oil consumption is around 21 million per day. So we're going to have to do much better than that.

This means we cannot simply grow our way to diesel independence. To reach our national consumption in diesel we would need twice the arable land we have now, all growing soy. And planting that much soy means planting genetically modified soy.

There are alternatives to soy-based biofuels, including corn (which raises many of the same GMO concerns) and jatropha, a nonedible oil seed, which is a dual-use crop that produces both oil for biodiesel and biomass for ethanol.

Jatropha can produce 200 gallons of oil per acre planted, compared with 75 gallons of oil per acre of soy planted, and 150 gallons per acre of canola. Moreover, jatropha is grown in arid climes, where the agricultural footprint is small to negligible. Additionally, coconut produces 300 gallons of oil, and palm oil can produce a yield as high as 650 gallons.

But controversy ensues even with a purported miracle product like palm oil. In June 2005 British journalist George Monbiot published a column titled "Worse than Fossil Fuel: Biodiesel enthusiasts have accidentally invented the most carbon-intensive fuel on earth." In the column, Monbiot cited a September 2004 Friends of the Earth report about the impacts of palm oil production, which stated that "In terms of its impact on both the local and global environments, palm biodiesel is more destructive than crude oil from Nigeria," mostly due to massive deforestation efforts in Southeast Asia in order to create palm plantations.

Atwood believes Monbiot is overstating the case and insists that the technology is sound. He points to a five-year incentive program of the National Biodiesel Board, which estimates it will add $1 billion to U.S. farm income and create 50,000 new jobs.

But certain people simply aren't convinced. In an op-ed printed last month, John Peck of the National Family Farm Coalition responded to BIO CEO Jim Greenwood's statement that biotechnology will end our national addiction to oil by stating, "nothing could be further from the truth":

"Thanks to Monsanto, farmers are now stuck producing vast quantities of low quality Bt corn that has hardly any market. This unwanted biotech corn must then be dumped -- at taxpayer expense -- into domestic ethanol production or factory livestock farms, or abroad in places like Mexico. There it contaminates indigenous varieties, undercuts peasant farmers and creates desperate people who have no choice but to cross the border. And in the wake of the Starlink disaster, in which genetically modified corn not intended for human consumption found its way into fast-food tacos and elsewhere, one can only imagine the consumer safety threat posed by fields of high-starch, low-fiber biotech corn, engineered with an ethanol enzyme, growing adjacent to sweet corn across the Midwest."

Peck also points out that the conventional ethanol industry is dominated by factory-farm giant Archer Daniels Midland (ADM), a company with as high a contempt factor as Monsanto, and that many family farmers "have lost their shirts investing in co-op ethanol projects that get gobbled up by ADM when times get tough." Peck and his colleagues are concerned that the millions of dollars Jim Greenwood is asking Congress to approve will end up going right into the pockets of Monsanto and ADM.

The solution, according to Peck, is simple: "Rather than going to war or trusting in biotech," he writes, "the United States would do much better by investing in comprehensive energy conservation, decentralized energy production, and genuine renewable alternatives such as wind, solar and biodiesel."

Where is this ship headed?

Experts at the BIO convention pointed to the United States as the world's No. 1 growth market for ethanol, and they expect to see a series of biorefineries develop in the "corn belt" of America, which will produce fuels, natural biodegradable plastics and food products. ADM has a commercial ethanol plant that is scheduled to come online in 2008, and with congressional approval of the $91 million in energy appropriations, we can expect to see more companies getting in on the act.

Because of this, we should not expect the present system of corporate control to change much unless efforts are made to create a locally based, competitive biomass market. "White biotechnology will require a heavy application of green biotechnology to become successful," said Steen Riisgaard, CEO of Novozymes, a bioengineering firm. "And eventually, white will transform into green when plants are bioengineered to be optimal fuel stocks. This will not please the opponents of GMOs."

But as biotechnology continues to grow as an industry, and the science behind it becomes more sound, it is clear than one can no longer effectively lump biotech into one monolithic category.

For that reason, it is crucial for the opposition to begin to sort out the demonstrably horrible behavior of the Monsantos of the world from more promising technologies that may offer alternative fuels and plastics and biomedical cures for diseases like cancer, AIDS and Alzheimer's.

The jury is still out on the "bio-based society," but from where most of us are sitting, it can't be any worse than what we have now.

Charles Shaw is a regular contributor to AlterNet.


6. Biofuels and GM

Analysis from GM Watch.  Date: 29 March 2004


GM companies are hoping that the rush for biofuels will mean large new markets for their products.  It is probably not a co-incidence that two of the main crops for 'biodiesel' and 'bioethanol' are sugar beet and oil seed rape (OSR), two of the three in the Farm Scale Trials.  GM trees are also a possibility for complex, very expensive and energy intensive technologies being developed to produce ethanol from wood (ligno-cellulosic processes), including poplar and willow for Short Rotation Coppice (SRC).

*GM biofuel crops

There is considerable public concern about the scientific uncertainties of GM crops, and growing evidence of harm to animal and human health (see below).

Articles in the EDP [Eastern Daily Press] about biofuels reveal intentions for 'designer biomass crops' for 'improved' characteristics for biofuel crops.  For example, OSR requires considerable chemical inputs, and the production and transportation of these inputs entails considerable ghg emissions.  So, hey, why not design crops to need less inputs...

Short rotation coppice (SRC) is one of the major options being promoted for wood supply for electricity. Syngenta, formed by the merger of Novartis and Astra-Zeneca (see Corporate Watch web site for corporate profile) had what appears to be the only GM tree crop destroyed by protesters (Jellots Hill) - this was poplar for SRC.

See the petition for UN: GLOBAL BAN ON GM-TREES

Massive land requirement for biofuel crops, further intensification of unsustainable agriculture

The proposed Eastern Region Bioethanol plant would require 38,000 hectares of crop land and a catchment area of more than 24,000 sq k.  The UK programme would require 500,000 hectares of crop land, with about another 500,000 for biodiesel crops.

The amount of land required for bioethanol, biodiesel, and crops to burn for electricity production will be immense and the additional pressures on agriculture will be tremendous.

The practices and chemical inputs of intensive industrial agriculture (IIA) are already known to be unsustainable because they are causing serious damage to soils (erosion, contamination and degradation) and water (pollution of ground and surface waters), as well as accelerating losses of biodiversity.

"In the EU, an estimated 52 million hectares, representing more than 16% of the total land area, are affected by some kind of degradation process.  In the accession countries this figure is 35%"

"Figures for England and Wales show that the percentage of soils with less than 3.5% organic matter rose from 35% to 42% in the period 1980- 1995 probably due to changing management practices.  In the same period, in the Beauce region south of Paris, soil organic matter had decreased by half for the same reason" (COM(2002) 179 final.  Towards a Thematic Strategy for Soil Protection.  Pages 9 and 11)

*Soils:  a non-renewable resource

Biofuels are referred to as 'renewable' fuels because the carbon dioxide released by burning them is absorbed by the next crop.  What is often forgotten is that the soil in which they are grown should be regarded as a non-renewable resource, since soil formation takes place slowly over long time periods.  Vast amounts of soil are blown or washed away each year, levels of soil organic matter are falling and knowledge about the damage to the myriad soil organisms is limited, yet they are vital to soil health and recycling of organic matter and nutrients (GM poses particular risks for soil organisms).

A further worry is that because SRC would be classed as an industrial crop (possibly on set-side land),  the limits for sewage sludge (SS) applications would be relaxed.  This is very short sighted.  SS doesn't only contain heavy metals, but a whole range of toxic (and bioaccumulative) chemicals which have not been tested for their effects on the environment.  Cumulative and synergistic effects are rarely even considered.

As the degradation and desertification of land accelerates world wide we cannot afford to pollute land which will be needed for long term Food Security.  The contamination could be irreversibly in time spans that mean anything to us.


The implications for small-scale and family farms, and remaining forests and wildlands, across the world does not look hopeful if the corporations and their instruments succeed in pushing biofuels as an alternative to fossil fuels.  There is currently a concerted campaign to promote biofuels as environmentally friendly, helping beleaguered farmers and as the only effective option to reduce transport emissions.  The evidence says the contrary - but that is carefully ignored

Large scale biofuel schemes are a Business As Usual option which keeps major corporate interests happy, but limits the options for communities to develop small scale energy technologies using their local resources - because the large plants will devour them.  On the consideration of associated transportation emissions alone, this would seem to be a very bad idea:

* A 100,000 tonne/year Plant requires 12 - 18 HGV drivers (300,000 t/y: 30-40) to transport crops from farms to plants, entailing more road building to accommodate substantial associated vehicle use.  The transportation miles are estimated at well over 3 million miles, though it is not clear if this includes empty trips (so could be 6+ million miles? Just think of the emissions from all those HGVs.

See Biofuel Notes for full information.

*Important additional info:  CReD -  The East of England Development Agency, or EEDA' s Carbon Reduction team

Cheer leader Bruce Tofield of CReD is tirelessly campaigning amongst local groups to join together in the great CRed Mission:  Follow the Star of the East (initally proposed as an incinerator to link up with energy 'nodes' across the Region, including a Wind Farm and ...... er,... Bacton and Sizewell).

Tofield finds  "exciting" prospects for Norfolk in developing low-freezing point aviation fuel, including working with the John Innes Centre - eg for modifying soya so it will grow better here so we can produce the fuel? (EDP, 'Norfolk's role in new plane fuel', 25/3/04, p37).

CReD's stated objectives may be laudable, but just look at what their 'partners' may unwittingly be endorsing.  CReD is supporting EEDA's large scale Bioethanol Plant plans, and the 'oil fields' of East Anglia' to produce biodiesel from vast areas of Oil Seed Rape (GM if they can drum up "consumer demand" for biofuels, which would then be construed as demand for GM).   The competition for which CReD, funded by EEDA, have entered their 'Slug of the East' brain wave (hailed as 'World Leader' and  'Green' Incinerator at Trowse by the EDP)  just happens to be run by ... EEDA). * Caution:  watch out for claims of benefiting the people of Norwich (sic) - this is the cover for a very severe case of inflamed egos preoccupied with the size of their GDP.

This might all seem quite entertaining except that some groups appear to be taking this CRud seriously at the moment.  This is perhaps understandable because CRed are parasitic on the excellent reputation of the School of Environmental Sciences. But, they are only based in Env., under the Leadership of Prof Trevor Davies (soon to be Pro Vice Chancellor ...... ) and are in fact a tentacle of  EEDA, which is where their funding comes from. The insidious creep of corporate interests into Universities is becoming very worrying.

(See,3604,1154585,00.html for George Monbiot's 'The corporate stooges who nobble serious science',  Tuesday February 24, 2004)

*And Who EEDA, many people wonder?

Many people are unaware of what EEDA is, or what they do.  It is important that they should know because this unelected Quango, and associated bodies, has a mission to promote business interests and wields a great deal of power over our lives.  An example would be the increasing control of social housing, planning and funding.  In this brave new world,  the term housing 'need' is liberated from the traditional meaning of meeting social need, it now means meeting business needs.

EEDA's mission is to make the Eastern Region one of the 20 most prosperous in the EU and so they are pushing for massive economic growth.  Their Regional Economic Development Strategy  (REDS) was subject to an independent Sustainability Appraisal, which demonstrates that EEDA thinks that sustainability means 'sustained economic growth':

"The REDS clearly states its priority for economic growth in its vision statement.  It immediately qualifies this economic priority with a statement of core values including a recognition that social and environmental factors must also be considered in order to achieve economic development which will be sustainable as well as sustained.  This is the most important acknowledgement of the issue of sustainable development in the strategy report" (Arcardis Geraghty and Miller, International (AGMI) and Segal Quince Wicksteed Ltd (SQW), p.18)

However, the consultation process for the REDS  revealed considerable concerns about the over-riding growth objective, and the East of England Regional Assembly (EERA) subsequently voted against the REDS.  The response of EEDA towards these concerns was one of 'disappointment'  and no apparent interest in addressing them. The following extracts are from EEDA's web site 'Press releases - EEDA disapointment at Regional Assembly reluctance to sign up to prosperity' (undated)

"The East of Enjgland  Development Agency (EEDA) announced its disappointment today as the East of England Regional Assembly (EERA) failed to endorse the revised regional economic strategy at the Regional Assembly's quarterly forum, held at Chelmsford."

"It is disappointing that, despite significant time and effort on EEDA's part, some Regional Assembly members still do not buy into EEDA's recommendations for creating more prosperity, better opportunities and an increased quality of life for all who live and work in the region."

"It is vital that all partner organisations, businesses and individuals help contribute to its delivery, and we will be working with the Regional Assembly over the coming months to persuade its members that this revised economic strategy is the best way to move the region forward" (If that doesn't send a shiver to the very heart of your democratic bones........)

Can anyone get EEDA and their lackeys at CReD to think realistically about the land requirements and the immense implications of all their corporate techno-fix wheezes?

*Additional info on GM and health

The government has given the go-ahead for planting GM maize in the face of considerable public concern, and increasing evidence of serious consequences.

For more information see Spring 2004 edition of 'Science in Society' for article by Mae-Wan Ho and Sam Burcher 'Cows ate GM Maize and Died'. According to a report by Greenpeace Germany, "common errors in feeding and infections had by and large been ruled out as the cause of death", and the farmer involved, Gottfried Glockener, a supporter of GM crops, now suspects that Syngenta's GM maize Bt 176 is to be blamed.  This paper also outlines other research showing damage to animal health from Gm crops.

And, 'Scientists suspect health threat from GM maize' John Vidal, environment editor, Friday February 27, 2004.

"Doctors thought they had an infectious disease, but when four families left the village and recovered, and then showed the same symptoms on return, an environmental cause was suspected.  ..... Blood tests showed the villagers had developed antibodies to the maize's inbuilt pesticide. ...

His studies suggest that a virus promoter - which is like a motor driving the production of the genetic message - was unexpectedly found intact in human cells...

His team also said it had found that genetically engineered viruses used in the GM process recombined with natural viruses to create new hybrid viruses with unpredictable characteristics. If confirmed, this could suggest that they could cause new diseases.....

Prof Traavik said tests so far showed evidence of an immune reaction",3604,1157210,00.html

UK supermarkets sell meat from animals fed on GM food, even under their alleged GM-free own-label products. FoE Norwich recently contacted supermarkets about policies on GM foods and replies appear to reveal that meat is described as GM-free if the animal has been fed on non-GM food for the 90 days previous to slaughter.