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Oliver Müller {*}

Full Tanks and Empty Plates

Can Biofuels be the Solution of our Energy Problems?


From: Herder Korrespondenz, 2/2008, P. 89-93
webmaster's own, not authorized translation


    Rising energy prices and dwindling oil reserves let the industrial countries face a matter of life and death. Many politicians regard the cultivation of so-called biofuels as golden and in addition good for the climate solution. But in the southern regions of the world new monocultures lead to deforestation, poverty and expulsion.


Oil, the black gold, is the lubricant of our industrial society but will be history in a few generations. The future ought to belong to the green gold: biomass. The industrial societies of Europe and North America hope to get more security by using plants to produce energy and at the same time a more eco-friendly power supply with less carbon dioxide emissions. The prophets of a new energy era work out that the Earth would easily be able to satisfy our hunger for energy from renewable resources. The decreasing dependence on hardly trust-worthy oil states resulting from it seems equally promising.

Two of the biggest current problems, the climate change and the looming energy shortage could be solved by it, a new era would begin. We would even be allowed to keep to our resource expensive lifestyle - so the promises. "Biofuels" are to make it possible. And according to the will of many politicians and lobbyists the green gold is very soon to bubble vigorously. Up to the year 2020 the European Union wants to raise the share of agro fuels to ten percent, and Germany is in the front.


Good Idea with Fatal Consequences

Such visions of a new bioenergy are not without reason attractive scenarios. The term "bio" too suggests sustainability and naturalness, since this prefix has almost become a symbol for a responsible way of life. But reality is far more complex. "Biofuels" are a perfect example of the fact that good ideas can have fatal consequences in a global context. For that reason numerous scientists and organisations in the meantime talk only about renewable resources or agro fuels.



For thousands of years peasants produced food, fodder and textile fibres. Now fuel is added as new product. Since virtually everything we eat can also be changed into fuel a new, fatal constellation emerges. The higher the oil prices rise the more attractive the market opportunities for agro fuels - and the higher the prices for food rise.

Last summer also the German consumers got to feel that. For the first time after years the prices for basic foods such as butter and milk rose. In developing countries the situation is far more dramatic. According to the national consumer association in Bangladesh, one of the poorest countries in the world, the prices of basic foodstuffs such as rice, flour and cooking oil in just one year rose by 45 percent. Since the turn of the millennium in the Third World the costs for food imports have risen by 90 percent.

Thus the agro-fuel boom becomes also a topic for humanitarian aid organizations such as Caritas International. For people in developing countries see how the fruits of the harvest on their fields are exported to Europe and the United States. But they themselves hardly benefit by it, often enough they have not even access to basic forms of energy such as electricity. Even worse: Because of the rise in food prices the poor sections of society can often no longer afford elementary basic foods.

The suspicion is unavoidable: In order to enable the industrialized nations to maintain the expensive life-style damaging the environment, many people in Asia, Africa and Latin America are deprived of the essential livelihood. Consequently the topic of agro fuels must not only be discussed from the point of view of sustainability but has also to examine the aspect of justice to the victims of our prosperity.


The Work of the Aid Agencies Too Suffers from the Boom in Agro Fuels

The rising food prices are catastrophic for the poorest countries that cover up to 50 percent of their food needs through imports. Who's to get by on less than 30 euros a month, as hundreds of thousands of Rickshaw drivers in Bangladesh, is so acutely threatened by hunger. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization FAO currently 854 million people chronically suffer from hunger, especially in Africa; but also in the Middle East, Central America and parts of South Asia their number is growing. The FAO warns that 2.1 million people urgently need food assistance.

At the same time theoretically worldwide every human being could be supplied with a daily ration of 2800 calories. The reason why that today does not succeed is, among other things, that a large part of the agricultural land is not used for food production. The agro-fuel boom will in future cause a further increasing competition for scarce land between food, fodder and energy crops.

In the meantime also the aid organisations are affected by the "Agflation". So e.g. the largest food distributor in the world, the World Food Programme (WFP), which supplies about ten percent of the world's hungry, fights with resources running short. In Namibia the UN organisation found itself forced to shorten the food rations of 90.000 orphans. In Burundi Caritas International, the relief work of the German Caritas, today supplies the Centre "New Hope" in the capital Bujumbura with 70 tons food per month. They are distributed to HIV-infected and people suffering from AIDS. The World Food Programme had overnight withdrawn from the program at the end of 2006. Already before it was said one could only help "in accordance with one's available" stock.

A major reason for the declining stocks were higher food prices due to the growing demand for agro fuels. In a speech in July 2007 the director of WFP, Jossette Sheerean made it perfectly clear that the climate change and rising prices for basic food meant entirely new tasks for the organization, for which there were no solutions yet.

The rising prices are not only felt in Africa but also in Central America. There corn is a healthy, fully adequate food that is for millions of people the daily bread in the form of tortillas. Half of Mexico's population e.g. live below the poverty line, about one-fifth is chronically undernourished, and 20 million Mexicans have at their disposal less than one and a half euros a day.

Therefore it was particularly disastrous when in Mexico at the end of 2006 the price of tortillas exploded, because in the USA the prices for the yellow corn, which is among other things used for the ethanol production, almost have doubled after the "new-energy-act" plans massive state subsidies for the ethanol production out of corn.



After that in some regions of Mexico the prices have quadrupled to 30 pesos per kilogram (about two euros). The so-called Tortilla Uprising in January 2007 with tens of thousands of demonstrators in Mexico City forced the government to act; duty-free corn imports eased the situation.

Above all the European Union and the United States push ahead the growing demand for agro fuels with political measures. The European Union would like to increase the share of agro fuels to ten percent in the next decade. Germany is here the forerunner. Already now 1.13 million hectares of rapeseed areas are under cultivation for the production of agro diesel. The obligation in force since the beginning of 2007 to add 4.4 percent agro diesel has led to a rise in consumption of 856.000 tonnes in the first half of 2007.

In the United States in the meantime ethanol, which is derived from corn, is booming thanks to massive state support. Pure agro ethanol e.g. is supported until 2010 with 51 US cents per gallon (3,785 litres). With financial support from the government the ethanol production is to grow in the next ten years by 600 percent. Up to the year 2017 15 percent of the expected consumption of fuels are to be satisfied with ethanol and agro diesel.

By this policy the rich industrialized nations will reduce the dependence on the oil and gas commodities. But the European Union in addition pursues also agricultural political goals. The farmers are to get new sources of income. This can, if at all, be achieved only with a radical change of agriculture. In 2006 the entire area for the agro fuels in the EU took up three percent of the total area for agriculture. But with it only 1.2 percent of the EU's fuel consumption was satisfied.

In other words: At the present state of technological development the European Union needs more than twice as much agricultural land than there is available at all, if it wanted to replace gasoline and diesel by agro fuels. De facto the cultivation of energy crops in local climes is highly inefficient. With ethanol gained from 200 kilograms of maize a small car goes just 1000 kilometres. While the about 700.000 calories stored in that amount of maize are sufficient to supply for a whole year the food base for an adult. In areas near the equator the balance looks a little better. This applies especially to sugar cane and palm oil, which give much higher yields per hectare than rape or maize. But even so the agro-fuel trees will not grow into the sky. In the threshold country Brazil, which has already since the seventies been producing ethanol from sugar cane, today the ethanol share in the total consumption of fuel is about 13 percent. According to the estimate of the International Energy Agency it might rise up to about 30 percent until 2030.

In the meantime Indonesia and Malaysia place their hopes in palm oil. The Indonesian government plans the expansion of arable land to 200.000 square kilometres until 2020. In this connection one has one's eye not only on the domestic market but also on Europe, the United States, India and China, which set themselves ambitious agro fuel goals. The global agro diesel market promises in the coming years annual growth rates of fabulous 30 percent. And even in Africa there is already a familiar quotation of the "green OPEC", composed of countries such as Ethiopia, Mali or Cameroon, which in future will be of crucial importance on the world energy market.


Among the Losers are the Poor Countries Importing Food

The big business is in prospect also for the European agro-diesel and agro-ethanol refineries. Everywhere in the countries of the South they are looking for available land and conclude contracts. In Ethiopia the government considers an area of not less than 17.2 million hectares, 6.5 percent of the national territory, as suitable for the cultivation of energy crops. Nearly 200.000 hectares have already been assured by contract; there are negotiations about more than 900.000 further ones. They do not even stop in areas such as the eastern districts Fedis and Midaga that are seen as potentially endangered by famine. The German company FloraEcoPower has got a license and has come to an agreement with small farmers in the region about the cultivation of the castor-oil plant also called Christ Palm.

The farmers receive, depending on the crop yield, a compensation corresponding to what they up to now obtained by careful management - too little to live, too much to die. For it they give away their food sovereignty, because they can no longer live on their own resources. In the meantime the company pockets big profits: the yield per hectare is estimated at about six times as much as what the farmers are paid.

The World Food Organization FAO in its recent half-yearly published report "Food Outlook" fears that "the traditional production of food and animal feeds could decline in favour of agro-fuels, for the simple reason that their market potential is far higher assessed." Among the losers were mainly the poor countries that import the food.

What these forecasts could mean for the nutrition of the poor in the world is illustrated by the two American economists C. Ford Runge and Benjamin Senauer.



In a study published in 2003 they drew the conclusion that, under the condition of a constant economic growth and a further increase of the productivity in agriculture, up to 2025 the number of the hungry would decrease by 23 percent to 625 million. Four years later this forecast has dramatically changed because of the increasing demand for agro fuels. "With each percent rise of the basic foodstuff prices the number of the hungry increases by 16 million. This means that in the year 2025 1.2 million people could go hungry, 600 million more than we forecast in 2003", said Runge and Senauer.


The Threat to Biodiversity Can Hardly be Calculated

For the thirst for fuel in the rich world the poor also lose their land. Often they can no longer pay the rent for the land sharply risen in value. But sometimes plain peasants are also simply expelled. A Malaysian native put the situation in a nutshell: "The logging companies destroyed the jungle and went away, the plantation investors destroy the jungle and in addition to it stay." This also leads to the loss of cultural identity, especially when it hits small indigenous peoples.

In the opinion of the Alianza Social Continental, an organization of civic movements on the American continent, the massive exodus across Latin America is the consequence of the spreading occupation of land by investors and corporations wanting to realize major projects in the field of tourism, hydropower and mining of raw materials, but above all for agricultural production. This thirst for land drives many people into the slums of the big cities of Latin America. Still today three percent of large landowners in Brazil possess 50 percent of the fertile land; there are about 20.000 farms that have more than 2000 hectares of land, whereas 2.5 million farmers are to live on less than ten hectares of land.

The agricultural industry also has its eye on up to now unexploited land. This in the tropics is above all the rain forest. In Indonesia the situation is at worst. There about 20.000 square kilometres, i.e. about the area of Hesse, are cleared per year - very often illegally. The greenhouse gases released with it today make the country the third-largest carbon dioxide emitter in the world.

The loss of biodiversity can hardly be quantified. Ten percent of all the plants in the world are native to Indonesia, plus twelve percent of mammals and 17 percent of birds. In contrast to that the CO² balance of a palm oil plantation is sobering.



After about 100 years or four cultivation cycles the soil is so exhausted that it can no longer be used for the agricultural production. At most the grandparents will remember that there once lush rain forest had spread out.

In Brazil things do not look any better. Annually 16.700 square kilometres jungle officially disappear there. The Catholic Bishops' Conference already asked President Lula da Silva to stop the clear-felling. Rain forest was "felled for sugar cane, and also the gruesome exploitation is concealed, the bishops lament. Small farmers and Indigenous were expelled, sugar cane workers treated in an inhuman way in favour of profit. Only for that reason the Brazilian agro fuel could be so cheap. Caritas staff in the strongholds of ethanol production talk of "slavery-like working conditions." The Catholic Church has already counted seventeen dead from exhaustion alone on the plantations in the region of Sao Paulo; agro fuels usually exacerbate social injustice and hunger.

Also the promise of a better protection of the environment is not kept. Especially the environmental impacts clearly show that the agro fuels do not deserve the label 'bio'. Deforestation leads to a loss of biodiversity and reinforces the climate change. Soil that has been clear-felled and leached by renewable resources erodes much faster; floods and other natural disasters are the result. Emergency aid organisations expect an increase of victims in the countries of the South. In addition, the use of machinery, pesticides and fertilizers necessary for the cultivation needs a lot of energy and leads to emissions. The Nobel prize-winner Paul Crutzen has proved that the greenhouse effect of a litre of rape diesel is 1.7 times higher than that of conventional diesel; ethanol from corn does by 50 percent worse than regular gasoline.

That is primarily the result of nitrogen fertilisers needed for the production. In contrast to it sugarcane as raw material achieves much better values and is absolutely an alternative to fossil fuels. This shows that the debate about agro fuels has to be lead in a differentiating way. The massive damages to the environment arise through the creation of monocultures in ecologically sensitive regions. This does not conflict with the fact that agro fuels can under certain conditions cover in a sustainable way a (small) part of the energy requirement. There are, e.g. in biogas plants very useful applications standing out for high energy effectiveness. But their potential is too small for the solution of our global energy problems.

The use of agro commodities of the so-called second generation, which include the not edible biomass as e.g. wood and straw, is still in its infancy. The technical possibilities for their profitable exploitation are not yet matured. And even if that should once be the case, Europe has - according to a study of the Environment Agency in Copenhagen - not enough biomaterial at its disposal to meet its needs. Europe is simply too small for its huge thirst for energy.


The Western Lifestyle Reaches its Limits

What is ethically advisable in the current situation? The uncomfortable truth is: We by our lifestyle collectively reach limits. It is no longer only about the limits of growth, as the Club of Rome in the seventies formulated, there are limits ultimately set to us by nature. Thus it will be inevitable to talk about a reduction of individual traffic, and to promote the saving of energy and the development of renewable energy sources. Furthermore the security of food supply in the marginalized sections of the population in developing countries must be given priority to the requirement of cheap agro fuel in the industrialized countries. Renewable resources should be examined and even certified as regards their environmental and social effects.

The global climate change caused also by the growing energy needs - be it by fossil fuels or "bioenergy" - proves to be the most comprehensive challenge to man's responsibility for creation, to justice and solidarity with the poor. The emissions of greenhouse gases per-capita in Germany are about 2.5 times higher than the global average.

What consequences are to be drawn is excellently described in the study on global climate change published in 2006 by the group of experts of the German Bishops' Conference. The chairman of the Bishops' Conference, Cardinal Karl Lehmann, said at the presentation of the text: "The national and international politics is just as well under obligation as well as international organizations, development institutions and the economy. At last everybody is asked for changing his personal lifestyle in a way that is good for the climate." The industrialized countries are primarily responsible for a development in which the ecological boundaries were ignored in the interest of short-term material gains and a way of life intensively consuming resources.

The German Climate Alliance, which includes numerous church organizations such as Misereor, Caritas International and the Bund der Deutschen Katholischen Jugend (BDKJ)[Federation of German Catholic Youth], has pointed out that according to the causer pays principle the countries, companies and consumers responsible for the climate damages have to pay the costs of adaptation in the most affected developing countries. They should moreover be entitled to assistance for building their own power supply that goes well with the climate. All this may be difficult, but sooner or later it is the only way.


    {*} Oliver Müller (born in 1965) attained a doctorate in theology and is head of Caritas International, the relief work of the German Caritas, after having previously been there for several years the head of the East-Europe Division. At the end of last year in the Freiburg Lambertus publishing house appeared the volume edited by the author together with Wolfgang Hees and Matthias Schüth: Full tank - Empty Plates. The Price for Agro Fuels: Hunger, Displacement and Destruction of the Environment.


Link to 'Public Con-Spiration for-with-of the Poor'