In February of 2008 a study in Science by Timothy Searchinger of Princeton University found that counting the indirect greenhouse gas emissions from land use changed, ethanol is actually worse for the environment than petrol.
As well, a leaked World Bank report claimed that 75% of food price inflation was primarily due to the sudden growth in demand from agro- fuels. Other reports assigned less blame to the industry for food prices, while still other analysts pointed out that by linking food and energy markets, a new level of volatility and speculative activity was introduced into previously stable markets. (Sourced from ‘Agrofuels in the Americas’ report Edited by Richard Jonasse, PhD of Food First, Oakland, California). This is a great piece of research and if you have time, you should read the entire report (PDF link).
I have read numerous such claims and as I have traveled, have particularly noticed the impact of palm oil and sugar cane grown for fuels and noticed how they have denuded landscapes of mature trees. The complexities of the whole argument are amazing. I won’t reproduce them here but it makes you stop before committing to the notion of swathes of corn, cane and elephant grass throughout the world.
But what is the alternative?
Agrofuels require a lot of water and often this is taken from groundwater at the expense of the water table or from other sources, damming rivers and so on. We have seen very clearly in Australia how mismanaged irrigation has been. The Chaffey brothers had a good idea but didn’t factor in drought and exponentially increasing populations in irrigated areas. When I was at school, the Chaffeys were heroes but now … the Murray River is in pain along with many of our other major waterways.
It takes a 5′ x 7′ area of corn to produce one gallon of ethanol
Trees like palm oils have wrecked the natural jungle landscapes of Malaysia and Vietnam and other parts of S.E. Asia and habitats of endemic species have disappeared. They look quite bizarre, having being planted without any reference to what was the original layered jungle. Some animals adapt to the plants that have replaced their homes, but this is a slow process and in the meantime, we are losing many species. Farming is not just a matter of neatening the world. I was pretty horrified to see the re-growth in Weipa, Queensland of the teak forests and other trees replanted in straight rows by the mining company. The undergrowth was completely cleared and no animal worth its salt would bother to make a home there, being totally exposed to predators. Not sure whose idea it was to plan things like that. But that was in 1987 and things are, I am sure, more informed now. Mining companies tend to consult with locals, experts and traditional owners and call for a massive amount of information before excavation and commencing any project. This is not so with farmers, many of whom carve out neat fields matching irrigation spray patterns and fence line capability and plant whatever crop is in demand. Sugar was bad-mouthed for many years for diet being one of the ‘white poisons’, but now has another life as fuel. It is ridiculous to see where fields of cane once were burned and wasted, now it is being planted again, at least in areas where the land has no comparative real estate value.
Corn is another crop that once was food and now is seen as something to power cars as ethanol, but now, in an opportunistic knee-jerk reaction, it is being over-cropped rather than being produced as part of a logical ‘three field system’. Leaving a field to fallow doesn’t make sense to farmers these days. They still have to pay rates, land taxes etc. on an empty field. Yet the earth needs time – and that’s ideally a full cycle of four seasons – to regenerate, to absorb oxygen, fertilizer and to deal with pests a natural way. This seems to be a luxury rather than a given. Especially in the third world, the sowing of genetically modified crops for ethanol not food, is ramping up with seed stock issued from big chemical companies including Monsanto. As well, pesticides (such as Roundup) have to become part of the growing equation as natural methods of dealing with infestation just do not work in monocultures. Where permaculture, for instance, mixes trees, herbs, grasses, grains and so on to confuse pests, growing one crop all the same gives habitats to viruses and insects who just start at one end of the field and eat the lot. Fields of ethanol-producing corn and cane, palm trees and rape/canola attract more virulent pests which thrive amongst their favourite, specialty crops.
Developed nations have set targets for how much ethanol they require and this has opened the way for developing nations to buy that new seed, to farm it and sell it to the highest bidder. For not very much return. And the production replaces the food that they used to grow. The condition of the water table seems to be no concern to some nations who sell water cheaply to consumers, domestic and agricultural as if it is an unending supply.
In the best of all possible worlds, we would live without carbon fuels. It still seems to me that solar is the most logical energy source, perhaps backed up by a bit of wind and geo-thermal where that is available. Harnessing everyone’s collection of power in a central distribution point seems better than banks of batteries which have their own toxic waste and heavy-metal manufacturing problems. Households could have generators as a backup and this could be propane or natural gas. Cars and bicycles deposited around cities would be community property and accessed through the purchase of credit points to be returned to other parts of the city. Electric cars could be run on harnessed solar. But of course THIS begs the question of community. I wonder, having lived in the 1st, 2nd and 3rd world countries, whether the latter truly has a notion of community and social responsibility? That may be controversial and I am willing to see the proof of otherwise. Poverty at times, can breed opportunism and short-term thinking.
No matter what we talk about as a ‘petrol substitute’ it comes back to this: we need to use less. We need to ensure that whatever we use instead isn’t yet another prize to be the inspiration for war-mongering, to cause pollution and to divide the world into the fat and the thin, the fed and the starving, and all people in the world becoming nearer to being poor of spirit and mind – some because they have too much and others because they have nothing.
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