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The Myth of Agrofuels

10 / 2007

It is necessary to demystify propaganda about the supposed benefits of agrofuels. The concept of “clean” and “renewable” energy should be discussed from a broader vision that considers the negative effects of these sources.

Production of ethanol based on sugarcane and corn

In the case of sugarcane-based ethanol production, the cultivation and processing of sugarcane pollutes the soil and sources of potable water as it utilizes large amounts of chemical products. Each liter of ethanol produced in a factory, in a closed circuit, consumes close to 12 liters of water. This quantity does not include irrigation, which consumes even more. As a result, the production of agroenergy represents a greater risk for scarcity of natural sources of water and aquifers.

The process of ethanol distillation produces a toxic residue called stillage. For each liter of ethanol produced, between 10 and 13 liters of stillage are produced. One part of stillage may be utilized as fertilizer, if diluted in water. Because of this, researchers warn that this substance may contaminate rivers and sources of underground water. If the annual production of ethanol in Brazil is 17 billion liters, the result is at least 170 billion liters of stillage deposited in sugarcane fields.

Burning of sugarcane serves to ease the labor process during cane harvest. However, this practice destroys microorganisms in the soil, pollutes the air, and causes respiratory illnesses. The processing of sugarcane in factories also pollutes the air through burning of bagasse, which produces soot and smoke. The National Institute of Spatial Resources (INPE) has declared an alert in the sugarcane fields of São Paulo (the largest producer of sugarcane in Brazil), as sugarcane burnings have diminished relative air quality to extremely low levels, between 13% and 15%.

In addition to environmental degradation from the indiscriminate use of natural resources, sugarcane monoculture will dominate some of the best agricultural lands. The expansion of this monoculture will substitute lands meant for food production. In Brazil, the production of sugarcane has invaded lands meant for resettlement under Land Reform, and lands of Indigenous communities.

In the case of corn-based ethanol, the main problem is the risk that this production presents for food sovereignty. The difference of corn in relation to other crops is that it is one of the most common grains used for human food consumption. Therefore, its use as fuel should generate an increase in the prices of a variety of food products that utilize corn.

Recently, the government of the United States announced that it seeks to substitute 20% of its gasoline consumption with ethanol. Currently, corn provides the basis of ethanol production in the United States. The goal of the Bush administration is to achieve an annual production of 132 billion liters of ethanol by the year 2017. To reach this amount, the US (the largest corn producer in the world), would have to use its entire production (268 million tons of corn) and would still need to import close to 110 million tons— equivalent to total annual corn production in Brazil.

In 2006, the price of corn on the global market rose by 80%. In Mexico, the increase of corn export to supply the US ethanol market caused an increase of 100% in the price of tortillas, which represent the principal food source of the Mexican population. In China, foreseeing a food supply problem, the government prohibited corn-based ethanol production.

The March 2007 edition of the magazine Globo Rural published an article that stated, “In global terms, corn cultivation will advance into areas of soy, wheat, and cotton production, which will cause a generalized increase in the price of these products in a true domino effect.” Wheat and rice prices have already risen, as the population looks for alternatives to high-priced corn, thereby increasing the demand for these cereals.

High corn prices should also affect the costs of avian, cow, and pig production, since corn represents 75% of all the grains utilized for animal rations. This will cause an increase in the price of products derived from livestock, such as milk, eggs, cheese, butter, etc. According to Clóvis Puperi, the director of the Brazilian Union of Aviculture, “No cereal has the capacity to rapidly substitute corn without causing an earthquake in the market.”

Another threat is the elevated quantity of water utilized for the production of corn. According to Professor Pimentel of Cornell University in New York, for each kilo of corn produced, 500 to 1500 liters of water are used. And to produce one liter of corn-based ethanol, one needs 1200 to 3600 liters of water. In addition, ethanol factories in the United States are fueled by coal or gas energy, which results in more carbon emissions into the atmosphere.

Vegetable diesel fuel based on soy and palm oil

In the case of soy, the most optimistic estimates indicate that the balance of renewable energy produced per unit of fossil fuel energy spent during cultivation is 0.4 per unit. This is due to the high consumption of oil for use in fertilizers and in agricultural machines. In addition, soy expansion has caused enormous devastation of forests and savannah, destroying biodiversity in various countries, including Brazil.

Even so, soy has been presented by the Brazilian government as the main crop to produce agrodiesel. “The cultivation of soy sticks out like a jewel on the crown of Brazilian agribusiness. Soy could be considered the cradle for the opening of biofuel markets,” affirm researchers from the Brazilian Business for Agricultural Research (Embrapa).

The government estimates that more than 90 million hectares of Brazilian land could be used to produce agrofuels. In the Amazon alone, the proposal is to cultivate 70 million hectares of palm for palm oil. This product is known as the “diesel of deforestation,” as its production has already caused the devastation of large areas of forest in Colombia, Ecuador, and Indonesia. In Malaysia, the largest producer of palm oil in the world, 87% of forests have already been destroyed. In Indonesia, the government is attempting to expand palm oil production to 16.5 million hectares of land, which may result in the destruction of 98% of its forests. Diverse environmental organizations warn that monoculture expansion in forest areas represents a much larger factor for global warming than carbon emissions from fossil fuel combustion.

Beyond the destruction of agricultural lands and forests, there are other polluting effects of this process, such as the construction of transport and storage infrastructure, which demand large quantities of energy. It would also be necessary to increase the use of agricultural machinery, agricultural inputs (fertilizers and pesticides), and irrigation in order to guarantee an increased supply of the product. In the case of palm oil, a study of the Delft Hydraulics institute underlines that each ton produced releases 33 tons of carbon dioxide emissions. Therefore, this vegetable fuel pollutes 10 times more than common diesel.

Production of biomass based on cellulosic material

New research has attempted to introduce the so-called “second generation” of agrofuels onto the world market, developed from a base of celullosic material that would be available in approximately ten years. The idea is that agrofuels produced from food crop sources could be rapidly substituted by cellulosic material, avoiding the risk of impacts on food security and food sovereignty. However, if the current rate of expansion of corn, sugarcane, soy, and palm (the principal raw material sources for agrofuels) continues, the impacts within the next ten years will be enormous.

According to the International Food Policy Research Institute, food prices could rise from 20% to 33% by 2010 and from 26% to 135% by 2020, if the current trend of expansion of agrofuel production continues. According to the FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization), close to 824 million people do not have access to adequate food. This number may rise to 1.2 billion people as a result of rising food prices.

It’s also a mistake to think that cellulosic agrofuels would not utilize agricultural lands, because they will be produced from organic residues from corn, sugarcane, and other crops. However, what are called organic residues are actually natural fertilizers that serve to feed nutrients to and protect the soil. If this material is used for other ends, it would be necessary to apply chemical- and petroleum-based fertilizers, which would annul any positive effects in relation to global warming.

Biomass based on cellulosic material is being developed principally through the production of genetically-modified trees, which represent a great threat for contamination of other crops, since it is practically impossible to control pollinization. Tropical forest areas are also at risk from the expansion of this kind of production.

Genetically Modified Agrofuels

Corporations that produce genetically modified crops are developing nonconsumable types of crops that are meant only for agrofuel production. As there are no ways to avoid contamination of native species by GMOs, this practice places the production of food at risk, and could worsen the problem of hunger across the world.

In the United States, ethanol production is based on a type of genetically modified corn, different from corn for human consumption. Farmers admit that there is no way to control contamination, since they use the same areas to grow corn for both ethanol production and food consumption.

The expansion of agroenergy production is of great interest to companies that produce genetically modified organisms such as Monsanto, Syngenta, Dupont, Dow, Basf, and Bayer. These companies hope to obtain greater public acceptance through promoting GMOs as “clean” sources of energy.

In Brazil, the group Votorantim has developed technology to produce genetically modified sugarcane for ethanol production through two companies, Alellyx and CanaVialis, which recently formed a partnership with Monsanto. This agreement will allow Alellyx and CanaVialis to have access to genetically modified soy and cotton genes developed by Monsanto, in order to apply the technology in sugarcane production.

Key words

agrofuel, agriculture and environment, soils pollution, energy production, food sovereignty


Agroenergy: Myths and Impacts in Latin America


This file « Agroenergy: Myths and Impacts in Latin America » is the result of a seminar about the expansion of sugarcane plantations in Latin America, which took place in São Paulo, Brazil, from February 26-28, 2007.

This file is also available in french, spanish and portuguese.

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