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How Green is the New Biodiesel Movement?

Web Note: The Organic Consumers Association supports the expansion of
renewable fuels such as biodiesel and ethanol, and energy independence from
Middle East oil, but only if the plant feedstocks that produce these fuels
are produced organically or sustainably (i.e. without pesticides,
herbicides, and chemical fertilizers). Otherwise taxpayer subsidized,
chemical-intensive and geneticallly engineered conventional corn, soybeans,
and other crops simply use up more petroleum and keep polluting the
atmosphere, earth, and water--while destabalizing the climate.

Not the Biodiesel You Think It Is
By Michael Feiner for Rural Vermont's Farm Policy Network News

What starts at the pump and comes out of the tailpipe is not the beginning and
end of the discussion on biodiesel, or other "environmentally friendly
alternatives."As with everything else in today's commodified consumer
culture, if you want a fair cost/benefit analysis, you're going to have to
follow the waste stream back a little further.

Most of the biodiesel available today in New England is brought to you by
World Energy Alternatives, LLC, a privately owned company controlling most of
the US market for this new fuel. The distribution and production of biodiesel
is being regulated by the EPA and DOE, two institutions with proven track
records for favoring big business over independent producers. Their aim is not
to allow the people control of their resources, or to insure higher quality,
or to lower the gross pollution of our delicate biosphere, but rather to
further consolidate the market in the lap of transnational corporate
interests, and keep the public nipping at the pump. According to World
Energy¹s own website, biodiesel is primarily made from, "virgin vegetable oils
(primarily soybeans)" redirecting the market "surplus" of vegetable oil into
another saleable form. Why is there a surplus of domestic soybean oil? Because
the regulatory agencies in the much of the rest of the world have declined to
accept American export of genetically engineered (GE) soy products, i.e. the
US "surplus" commodity.

According to a recent article in the Brattleboro Reformer titled, Support for
biodiesel growing in Vermont, (9/18/04, Howard Weiss-Tisman) "Vermont farmers
grow about 1,000 acres of soybeans which mostly goes to cow feed. Lane (David
Lane, deputy secretary for agricultural development at the Vermont Agency of
Agriculture) said he wanted to hear what increased production might mean for
the Vermont farmer. What he and others involved in the big push for biodiesel
production in the state do not seem to be concerned with is what increased
production of Genetically Engineered Soy in Vermont will mean for the
environment, for health, and for the future. Of the 1,000 acres of soy already
being grown in Vermont, it is safe to say that most of that is GE, and the
variety spreading like wildfire across the country and now into Vermont is
Monsanto's Roundup Ready Soy. Vermonters will not miss this obvious exclusion
in the biodiesel debate and just be blinded by the pretty golden glow around
biodiesel," or will they?

Unlike the United States, much of the rest of the world has been more
skeptical and cautious on the issue of genetic engineering, having the
foresight to see the threat this technology as pollution would have on their
environment. In 2002, the authorities of Zambia even went so far as to deny
the import of US food aid in the midst of a widespread hunger crises because
the "food", mostly whole corn kernels, was genetically engineered and the risk
that some kernels might end up being planted in the ground was too high. To
wit, the Bush administration has also tied the acceptance of GE exports to
AIDS relief packages and international trade security. The corporate and
government interests behind this dangerous new technology have found their
sheep¹s clothing, or cow's, with the advent of biodiesel. Now they can steal
into bed with well-meaning environmental organizations and their
constituencies, still pushing their same devil seed onto an unknowing public,
only this time in a package a public clamoring for "alternatives" can't
resist; biodiesel; agribusiness' new Trojan Horse. But it doesn't have to be
that way.

Two more wars in the last four years, and the ongoing neo-colonial operations
in Latin America to secure more US corporate control of petroleum resources,
have woken a few people up from the calm stupor of the late 90's. This and
the drastic spike in the price for this America¹s greatest addiction, oil,
have urged the 21st century environmentalist to ratchet up the pressure in the
push for "alternative energy," especially biodiesel, and Vermont is no
exception. At the same time people have been raising their voices loud across
the globe against genetic engineering. The last ten years in Vermont have seen
a grassroots movement against GE and the planting of these toxic crops in the
state virtually explode in the legislature and across 80 town meetings, in the
streets and on the farms. The two are not mutually exclusive points, and close
attention is needed as the push for alternatives marches on, alternatives to
what? They wouldn¹t trade oil for GE soy? Would they?

The last four months at least have seen biodiesel featured somewhere in
Vermont¹s media on a weekly basis at least, and to the keen observer, few of
the details of these stories match each other. Biodiesel is generally referred
to as a "renewable fuel," renewable meaning comprised of ingredients humans
can reproduce regularly, economically, and hopefully sustainably, but not
necessarily infinitely. There are two things wrong in this statement; one,
biodiesel is made of three separate ingredients, vegetable oil (or animal
fat), Methanol (or Ethanol), and a catalyst, usually lye (sodium hydroxide,
NaOH). The second ingredient, Methanol, preferred by most manufacturers to
Ethanol for its availability and chemical reactive consistency, is a fossil
fuel, predominantly produced through a chemical synthesis process from natural
gas, non-renewable, and highly toxic, making the label "renewable" in
reference to biodiesel a misnomer. The second biodiesel myth is more of an
intentional omission, this is that biodiesel needs to be made from virgin
vegetable oils, a point fostered by the soy, corn, and canola trade
associations across the country, and the manufacturers and patent holders of
genetically altered varieties of these same oil crops. What they also don't
mention is that corn, soy, and canola have some of lowest oil yield per acre
of oil producing crops, and when cultivated conventionally take up a lot of
agricultural land that isn't going to feed people, and are usually heavily
fertilizer, herbicide, and pesticide dependent. Not to mention that most of
these crops in the ground today are of one GE variety or another. Biodiesel
can be, and should only be, if it is to be considered at all sustainable, made
only from post consumer waste vegetable oil, and should always consider a
place for every waste product from the production process to be incorporated
wisely back into the dynamic cycle of sustainable energy production.

The push for biodiesel production in Vermont is gaining a lot of strength
right now and is going relatively unchallenged. If people like Lt. Governor
Brian Dubie are so, "sold on the concept," as Dubie was quoted as saying in
Weiss-Tisman¹s article, then the legislature should spend more time cutting
through the bureaucratic red tape, taxes, licensing, and regulations, and
making it easier for independent producers to make their product available to
the community for a reasonable price, instead of trying to further consolidate
our energy resources into the hands of the few, and selling out Vermont's land
to the Monsanto's of the world again. Vermonters need to capitalize on this
fresh zeal for "greener" energy by moving forward with sound and logical
reasoning towards stewarding a sustainable future, not choosing between the
lesser of two evils. The Vermont public is being duped by a massive industry
campaign to greenwash the GE issue in its new "renewable"form, and they've
got most folks spinning their wheels, and spinning in circles. This time, if
they can¹t feed the world with it, they can at least drive them crazy! People
need now more than ever to educate each other and organize for Real Change;
the stakes are getting too high.

The truth is, biodiesel is not the answer we've been waiting for, if anything,
produced logically, it is only a step in the right direction. Will the next
world war be fought over vegetable oil? Or water? Will we displace more people
around the globe and level more forests to grow GE soybeans to fuel our same
virulent consumer culture? We will wait and see, or we will create the future
we want to see. The alternative we need to be seeking is one to our current
paradigm of insatiable consumption and bourgeois comfort. Sorry, but the
messiah has not yet come, and had she, she wouldn't be driving a
biodiesel-car. She would be walking.

Article published in the Farm Policy Network News September issue by Rural

Rural Vermont is a non-profit advocacy organization dedicated to defending
small family farms, and has been working for economic justice and a
sustainable future in Vermont's rural communities since 1985. For more
information: (802) 223-7222.

Michael Feiner is a recovering petroleum addict burning 12+ gallons of fossil
fuel every 10 days, now living in southern Vermont continuing efforts to halt
the infectious spread of capitalism, neo-liberalism, and colonialism by the
Imperial powers of the world. Working as a part time organic farmhand and
gardener, focusing regionally on stopping the growing threat of genetic
engineering to our food supply. Global Citizen and Conscious Evolutionary.

We published this as our september Farm Policy Network News - a free issue
paper we put out 6-8 times/year. we have been getting a great response to it.
if you're interested in subscribing (or would like a formatted hard copy of
just this issue), you can email me at with your name and
address. we also do weekly email updates/alerts on vermont and national
agricultural issues (we are not solely focused on biotech). if you want to
subscribe to that list, you can also email me at the same address.
Amy Shollenberger
Policy Director
Rural Vermont