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America’s Food-To-Fuel Problem
Art Carden, Forbes
Government enthusiasm for “green” initiatives has given us a series of allegedly well-intentioned programs that have been both environmental and economic disasters. Consider American ethanol. The two-headed beast that is good intentions and unintended consequences rears its ugly head in the form of environmental degradation and higher food prices–a source of inconvenience in rich countries but a matter of life and death in very poor ones.

Government attempts to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels are manifesting themselves in diversion of the food crop to fuel production. The Wall Street Journal reported on Aug. 8, 2008, that as much as one-third of the Midwestern corn crop will be diverted to ethanol production; the Government Accountability Office forecast that approximately 30% of the U.S. corn crop would be devoted to ethanol production by 2012; and the Earth Policy Institute reported Jan. 21 that the U.S. devoted approximately one-fourth of its grain crop to ethanol production.

…Yesterday’s American ethanol mandate is today’s Haitian food riot and next week’s African famine. This illustrates the nature of government intervention, and it should teach a lesson we all need to learn. When a policy produces predictable changes in incentives, it should be evaluated based on its effects rather than its intentions. It is also a lesson in humility: Our articulated visions of a good Earth or a good society will often go horribly awry. Economists are often derided for not knowing exactly what will happen after economic or institutional change–what will people do if they don’t work in the heavily protected manufacturing or agricultural sectors?–but this structural ignorance is precisely why we cannot, indeed should not, proceed with reckless regulation.
(10 Feb 2010)

EU biofuels significantly harming food production in developing countries
John Vidal, The Guardian
EU companies have taken millions of acres of land out of food production in Africa, central America and Asia to grow biofuels for transport, according to development campaigners. The consequences of European biofuel targets, said the report by ActionAid, could be up to 100 million more hungry people, increased food prices and landlessness.

The report says the 2008 decision by EU countries to obtain 10% of all transport fuels from biofuels by 2020 is proving disastrous for poor countries. Developing countries are expected to grow nearly two-thirds of the jatropha, sugar cane and palm oil crops that are mostly used for biofuels.

“To meet the EU 10% target, the total land area directly required to grow industrial biofuels in developing countries could reach 17.5m hectares, over half the size of Italy. Additional land will also be required in developed nations, displacing food and animal feed crops onto land in new areas, often in developing countries,” says the report.

Biofuels are estimated by the IMF to have been responsible for 20-30% of the global food price spike in 2008 when 125m tonnes of cereals were diverted into biofuel production. The amount of biofuels in Europe’s car fuels is expected to quadruple in the next decade.

The report attributes the massive growth in biofuel production to generous subsidies. It estimates that the EU biofuel industry has already received €4.4bn (£3.82bn) in incentives, subsidies and tax relief and that this could triple to over €13.7bn if the EU meets its 2020 target…
(15 Feb 2010)
The report is here.

Burn Up the Biosphere and Call It Renewable Energy

Rachel Smolker, Common Dreams
The New Taxpayer Bailout That Will Make You Sick AND Poor
Just when you thought the biofuels bad dream was about over along comes the nightmare of “biomass.”

Last week President Obama announced his plans to ensure that the mandate for biofuels, 36 billion gallons by 2022, voted into law in the Energy Independence and Security Act in 2007, is met, and to provide huge new supports through the USDA for the cutting, harvesting and transport of biomass (aka forests, plants) to be delivered to incinerators and burned as “renewable” electricity and heat.

The transportation biofuel mandate was adopted without clear consideration of the impacts of production on food, public health, direct and indirect land use, greenhouse gas emissions, soils, water or biodiversity. Since being passed into law, the critique of biofuels, particularly corn ethanol, has only grown deeper and more damning. Cellulosic fuels, not much available yet, will, according to mythology, avert these concerns because they are made from the inedible parts of plants. True, we do not eat forests, but creating huge new demands for wood is a recipe for disaster.

Lucky, technological hurdles have slowed the development of cellulosic fuels, but no such hurdles lie in the way of burning biomass for electricity and heat. Across the country, communities are being offered “green jobs” cutting, hauling and chipping their forests to feed the gaping maws of a new generation of “green energy” utilities being constructed or retrofitted in their neighborhoods. At least 200 new burners are proposed around the country. Further, many facilities that burn coal are seeking to co-fire biomass under the assumption that burning trees is a step up from burning coal. It’s not.

To fully appreciate the magnitude of this race to burn up the biosphere, consider the scale – each demands on the order of 13 thousand tons of wood per year, delivered by a stream of diesel-fueled trucks, to produce one megawatt of electricity. According to the Energy Information Agency, in 2007 The U.S. produced 4348856 GWh of electricity. If we were to produce 10% of our electricity with biomass, my back of the envelope calculation suggests we would need about 760 million tons of wood. At a moderate harvest rate (20 tons per acre), that would mean cutting an area approximately the size of Florida each year. The impacts on air quality and human health from burning it would be staggering.

… Right now, virtually every policy intended to support renewable energy, here and around the globe, is resulting in massive new funding, subsidies and mandates to cut and burn more forests. In Europe, about two-thirds of “renewable energy” is from biomass burning, accounting for nearly 80% of growth in renewables from 1990-2005. In the U.S. more than twice as much “renewable energy” is produced from biomass as from wind and solar combined. In sum, when we support the development of renewable energy, we are mostly supporting the burning of the biosphere.

Rachel Smolker is codirector of Biofuelwatch, and an organizer with Climate SOS. She has a Ph.D. in behavioral ecology from the University of Michigan and worked as a field biologist before turning to activism. She is the daughter of Environmental Defense Fund cofounder, Robert Smolker, and she engaged in direct action at EDF offices to oppose their advocacy for carbon trade. She has written on the topic of bioenergy, carbon trade and climate justice. She was arrested protesting outside the Chicago Climate Exchange in November as part of the Mobilization for Climate Justice day of actions, which she wrote about for
(10 February 2010)

Palm oil deal ‘a threat to the rainforest’

Martin Hickman, The Independent
Hundreds of millions of tonnes of palm oil look set to be pumped into Britain’s vehicles despite scientific evidence showing that chopping down rainforests to make way for plantations exacerbates climate change, according to a leaked report.

The European Commission is planning to increase the amount of palm oil used in cars and power stations under the Renewable Energy Directive (RED), which is intended to reduce greenhouse gases, suggests the document.

A loophole in the draft communication from Brussels on implementation of the directive would allow almost all palm oil currently produced to be used in vehicles on British roads.

The development – which campaigners warned have would lead to fresh bouts of forest destruction in Asia to meet growing global demand for the oil – comes after an intense campaign of lobbying in Brussels by Malaysian producers who feared the EU would ban imports of palm oil for energy.

Britons use 50 billion litres of transport fuel a year, 2.7 per cent of which came from biofuels in 2008-09. Palm oil, which is primarily used in food and household products, already controversially forms part of that fuel mix…
(9 Feb 2010)