16:  Feeding Cars, Not People

The adoption of biofuels would be a humanitarian and environmental disaster

George Monbiot. Published in the Guardian 22nd November 2004

If human beings were without sin,  we would still live in an imperfect  world. Adam Smith's notion that by  pursuing his own interest a man  "frequently promotes that of ... society  more effectually than when he really  intends to promote it" and Karl  Marx's picture of a society in which  "the free development of each is the  condition for the free development of  all" are both mocked by one obvious  constraint. The world is finite. This  means that when one group of people  pursues its own interests, it damages  the interests of others. ######It is hard to think of a better example  than the current enthusiasm for  "biofuels". Biofuels are made from  plant oils or crop wastes or wood, and  can be used to run cars and buses and  lorries. Burning them simply returns  to the atmosphere the carbon which  the plants extracted while they were  growing. So switching from fossil  fuels to biodiesel and bio-alcohol is  now being promoted as the solution  to climate change.

Next month the British government  will have to set a target for the  amount of transport fuel that will  come from crops. The European  Union wants 2% of the oil we use to  be biodiesel by the end of next year,  rising to 6% by 2010 and 20% by  2020.(1) To try to meet these targets,  the government has reduced the tax  on biofuels by 20 pence a litre, while  the EU is paying farmers an extra 45  euros a hectare to grow them.

Everyone seems happy about this. The  farmers and the chemicals industry  can develop new markets, the government can meet its commitments to cut  carbon emissions, and environmentalists can celebrate the fact that plant  fuels reduce local pollution as well as  global warming. Unlike hydrogen fuel  cells, biofuels can be deployed straight  away. This in fact was how Rudolf  Diesel expected his invention to be  used. When he demonstrated his  engine at the World Show in 1900, he  ran it on peanut oil. "The use of  vegetable oils for engine fuels may  seem insignificant today," he predicted. "But such oils may become in  course of time as important as  petroleum."(2) Some enthusiasts are  predicting that if fossil fuel prices  continue to rise, he will soon be  proved right.

I hope not. Those who have been  promoting these fuels are well-intentioned, but wrong. They are wrong  because the world is finite. If biofuels  take off, they will cause a global  humanitarian disaster.

Used as they are today, on a very  small scale, they do no harm. A few  thousand greens in the United  Kingdom are running their cars on  used chip fat. But recycled cooking  oils could supply only 100,000 tonnes  of diesel a year in this country,(3)  equivalent to one 380th of our road  transport fuel.

It might also be possible to turn crop  wastes such as wheat stubble into  alcohol for use in cars - the Observer  ran an article about this on Sunday.(4)  I'd like to see the figures, but I find it  hard to believe that we will be able to  extract more energy than we use in  transporting and processing straw. But  the EU's plans, like those of all the  enthusiasts for bio-locomotion,  depend on growing crops specifically  for fuel. As soon as you examine the  implications, you discover that the  cure is as bad as the disease.

Road transport in the United  Kingdom consumes 37.6 million  tonnes of petroleum products a year.(5)  The most productive oil crop which  can be grown in this country is rape.  The average yield is between 3 and 3.5  tonnes per hectare.(6) One tonne of  rapeseed produces 415 kilos of  biodiesel.(7) So every hectare of arable  land could provide 1.45 tonnes of  transport fuel.

To run our cars and buses and lorries  on biodiesel, in other words, would  require 25.9m hectares. There are  5.7m in the United Kingdom.(8)  Switching to green fuels requires four  and half times our arable area. Even  the EU's more modest target of 20%  by 2020 would consume almost all our  cropland.

If the same thing is to happen all over  Europe, the impact on global food  supply will be catastrophic: big enough  to tip the global balance from net  surplus to net deficit. If, as some  environmentalists demand, it is to  happen worldwide, then most of the  arable surface of the planet will be  deployed to produce food for cars,  not people.

This prospect sounds, at first, ridiculous. Surely if there was unmet  demand for food, the market would  ensure that crops were used to feed  people rather than vehicles? There is  no basis for this assumption. The  market responds to money, not need.  People who own cars have more  money than people at risk of starvation. In a contest between their  demand for fuel and poor people's  demand for food, the car-owners win  every time. Something very much like  this is happening already. Though 800  million people are permanently  malnourished, the global increase in  crop production is being used to feed  animals: the number of livestock on  earth has quintupled since 1950.(9) The  reason is that those who buy meat and  dairy products have more purchasing  power than those who buy only  subsistence crops.

Green fuel is not just a humanitarian  disaster; it is also an environmental  disaster. Those who worry about the  scale and intensity of today's agriculture should consider what farming will  look like when it is run by the oil  industry. Moreover, if we try to  develop a market for rapeseed biodiesel in Europe it will immediately  develop into a market for palm oil and  soya oil. Oilpalm can produce four  times as much biodiesel per hectare as  rape, and it is grown in places where  labour is cheap. Planting it is already  one of the world's major causes of  tropical forest destruction. Soya has a  lower oil yield than rape, but the oil is  a by-product of the manufacture of  animal feed. A new market for it will  stimulate an industry which has  already destroyed most of Brazil's  cerrado (one of the world's most  biodiverse environments) and much of  its rainforest.

It is shocking to see how narrow the  focus of some environmentalists can  be. At a meeting in Paris last month, a  group of scientists and greens studying  abrupt climate change decided that  Tony Blair's two big ideas - tackling  global warming and helping Africa -  could both be met by turning Africa  into a biofuel production zone. This  strategy, according to its convenor,  "provides a sustainable development  path for the many African countries  that can produce biofuels cheaply".(10)  I know the definition of sustainable  development has been changing, but I  wasn't aware that it now encompasses  mass starvation and the eradication of  tropical forests. Last year the British  parliamentary committee on environment, food and rural affairs, which is  supposed to specialise in joined-up  thinking, examined every possible  consequence of biofuel production -  from rural incomes to skylark numbers - except the impact on food  supply.(11)

We need a solution to the global  warming caused by cars, but this isn't  it. If the production of biofuels is big  enough to affect climate change, it will  be big enough to cause global starvation.


1. The European Union, 8th May 2003. Directive 2003/30/EC: On the Promotion of the  Use of Biofuels or Other Renewable Fuels for  Transport. Official Journal L 123 , 17/05/2003  P. 0042 0046.

2. Eg Monsanto, no date. The Biodiesel  Revolution. biofuels/071202.html.

3. British Association for Biofuels and Oils, no  date. Memorandum to the Royal Commission  on Environmental Pollution. http:// royal_commission_on_environmenta.htm

4. Robin McKie, 21st November 2004. Forget  the tiger. Put some mushrooms in your tank .  The Observer.

5. Department for Transport, 2004. Petroleum  Consumption: by Transport Mode and Fuel  Type. dft_transstats/documents/page/ dft_transstats_031767.pdf

6. Department for Environment, Food and  Rural Affairs, Crops for Energy Branch, 17th  November 2004. Pers comm.

7. ibid.

8. Department for Environment, Food and  Rural Affairs, 2004. Agriculture in the UK  2003. publications/auk/2003/chapter3.pdf

9. Lester R. Brown, 1997. The Agricultural  Link: How Environmental Deterioration Could  Disrupt Economic Progress. Worldwatch  Paper 136. The Worldwatch Institute, Washington DC.

10. Dr Peter Read, 20th October 2004. Good  news on climate change. Abrupt Climate  Change Strategy Workshop. Press Release.

11. House of Commons Committee on  Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, 29  October 2003. Seventeenth Report. http:// cm200203/cmselect/cmenvfru/929/92902.htm

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