Unintended consequences

A new story is being written that deserves to be called The Law of Unintended Consequences: How the Biofuel Craze Caused a Food Crisis and Damaged the Environment. Increasingly, news agencies are warning about the perils for the environment and people as land is converted to biofuel production.

A Time magazine article, entitled The Clean Energy Scam (April 7, 2008), said that “several new studies show the biofuel boom is doing exactly the opposite of what its proponents intended: it’s dramatically accelerating global warming, imperiling the planet in the name of saving it. Corn ethanol, always environmentally suspect, turns out to be environmentally disastrous ... Meanwhile by diverting grain and oilseed crops from dinner plates to fuel tanks, biofuels are jacking up world food prices and endangering the hungry.”

Global Forest Coalition managing co-ordinator Simone Lovera told the Inter Press News Agency that biofuels are becoming the main cause of deforestation in Brazil, Indonesia and Malaysia. “We call it ‘deforestation diesel,’” he told the news agency from the coalition’s office in Ascunción, Paraguay.

Creating more land to produce biofuels has led to destruction of forests, wetlands and grasslands that store enormous amounts of carbon. In fact, deforestation has contributed to 20 per cent of all current carbon emissions. The boom in biofuels has caused a dramatic expansion of Brazilian agriculture, where a Rhode Island-sized chunk of the Amazon rain forest was  chopped down in the second half of 2007 and fires are consuming another huge chunk of land, according to Time. 

Brazil is the nation which has taken to biofuels in a big way — 45 per cent of the nation’s fuel for vehicles is produced by sugar growers. Sugar growers have actually been relatively good custodians of the environment using just one per cent of Brazil’s arable land for biofuel production. But as biofuel demand increases, there is a fear that massive sugar planation expansion is just around the corner. 

A new study in the journal Science concluded the effect of deforestation to produce corn ethanol and soybean biodiesel contributes about twice the carbon emissions of gasoline.

On the island of Borneo in Indonesia, and nearby Malaysia, palm oil plantations are expanding into rain forests to produce more biofuels in response to government subsidies. Indonesia has subsequently become the third-largest emitter of carbon dioxide through clearing and draining carbon-rich peat land for the palm oil plantations which releases millions of tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere. Indonesia is only surpassed in CO2 emissions by China and the U.S.

Peter Brabeck-Letmathe, the head of Nestles, the world’s largest food and beverage company, told the Swiss newspaper NZZ am Sontag, the growing use of crops such as corn and wheat to make biofuels is putting world food supplies in peril.

“If as predicted we look to use biofuels to satisfy 20 per cent of the growing demand for oil products, there will be nothing left to eat,” the Nestles CEO told the newspaper. “To grant enormous subsidies for biofuel production is morally unacceptable and irresponsible.”

But that’s exactly what governments across the globe are doing, including the Manitoba government which in 2003 passed the Biofuels Act, which will eventually mandate a mix of 10 per cent ethanol with gasoline to produce “gasohol” at fuel pumps. In 2005, the federal government announced a target of 500-million litres of ethanol by 2010.

In the rush to fuel the biofuel boom, U.S. farmers have removed 16 per cent of the land normally reserved for wheat and soy production to feed people into growing corn to feed cars and trucks.

While high fuel costs, a 10-year drought in Australia, pests in Southeast Asia and a cold-snap in China have helped to increase wheat, corn, soybeans  and rice prices, the biofuels craze has also driven up the cost of these commodities to consumers. 

Food riots have already occurred in Egypt, West Bengal and Mexico and are threatening to increase as  hunger spreads in Jamaica, Nepal, the Philippines and sub-Saharan Africa. “Soaring prices for basic foods are beginning to lead to political instability, with governments being forced to step in to artificially control the cost of bread, maize, rice and dairy products,” reported the London-based Guardian.

“Record world prices for most staple foods have led to 18 per cent food price inflation in China, 13 per cent in Indonesia and Pakistan, and 10 per cent or more in Latin America, Russia and India, according to the UN Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO). Wheat has doubled in price, maize (corn) is nearly 50 per cent higher than a year ago and rice (half the world’s people rely upon rice) is 20 per cent more expensive, says the UN. Next week the FAO is expected to say that global food reserves are at their lowest in 25 years and that prices will remain high for years.”

The government in Beijing is already selling grain from  its reserves to hold down prices and has placed restrictions on wheat exports — a consequence of this action was a dramatic rise in flour prices in Indonesia. Russia and Ukraine have also restricted the export of wheat, which has tightened supplies and caused prices to spike in grain-importing countries. Egypt has suspended rice exports, primarily to Middle East countries, while Vietnam, the world’s second-largest rice exporter, has cut rice exports by 25 per cent and will not be signing further export contracts for the time being. In South Korea, housewives are hoarding rumen, noodles made of wheat, after a sudden price increase.

The price of spaghetti in the desperately poor country of Haiti has doubled. A bag of 57-cent spaghetti may seem reasonable to people living in a rich country like Canada, but in Haiti families are doing without because they can’t afford the new price for pasta. 

The reality is that what is occurring in Haiti is happening to millions of the world’s poor.

When biofuels were a modest undertaking with little impact on food production no one was overly concerned, but the emphasis by governments to “save the environment” by promoting biofuels has had the unintended potential to drive the planet towards food shortages, political instability, turmoil and environmental disaster.