Note: Take the following article with a grain of salt. In fact, take it with a heaping tablespoon. Advanced biofuels, which are still seemingly economically unviable without massive government subsidies, pose enormous ecological and social risks. The food-vs-fuel debate is not to be taken lightly. Across the world, agricultural communities have suffered after agreeing to plant biofuel crops in place of traditional food staples. The returns promised by multinational companies rarely appear, and the monoculture crop systems require chemicals, deplete water supplies and interfere with traditional farming practices. Often times, violent police or military intervention is required to remove communities from their traditional lands, paving the way for massive plantations of biofuel crops.
As the below article makes painfully clear, advanced biofuels necessarily require the use of controversial techniques involving synthetic biology, genetic engineering of plants – including trees like eucalyptus, poplar and pine – and the conversion of forests and grasslands to plantations, to produce the enormous quantity of biomass required to fuel an overgrown industrial economy with plant material. This incessant tinkering with nature, which is far outpacing the ability to monitor the accompanied risks and negative impacts, could unravel unimaginable consequences on the foundational fabric of life.
The pipe dream of running a wholly unsustainable society on plant matter may well be dying before it wreaks havoc across the globe. However, as oil giants like Shell read the writing on the wall – that oil, gas and other fossil fuels are running out – their push to maintain control over the world’s fuel supply by developing risky forms of biofuels must be challenged by social movements worldwide. The bioeconomy is another false solution to the climate and ecological crises, further delaying the necessary transition away from a high consumption-based society that treats all living matter as a ‘resource,’ to a society that lives in harmony with the natural world, respecting and maintaining ecological boundaries and restoring degraded forests, soils, waters and communities.
-The GJEP Team
September 7, 2013. Source: The Economist
Image: Gillian Blease
Scientists have long known how to convert various kinds of organic material into liquid fuel. Trees, shrubs, grasses, seeds, fungi, seaweed, algae and animal fats have all been turned into biofuels to power cars, ships and even planes. As well as being available to countries without tar sands, shale fields or gushers, biofuels can help reduce greenhouse-gas emissions by providing an alternative to releasing fossil-fuel carbon into the atmosphere. Frustratingly, however, making biofuels in large quantities has always been more expensive and less convenient than simply drilling a little deeper for oil.
Ethanol, for instance, is an alcoholic biofuel easily distilled from sugary or starchy plants. It has been used to power cars since Ford’s Model T and, blended into conventional petrol, constitutes about 10% of the fuel burned by America’s vehicles today. Biodiesel made from vegetable fats is similarly mixed (at a lower proportion of 5%) into conventional diesel in Europe. But these “first generation” biofuels have drawbacks. They are made from plants rich in sugar, starch or oil that might otherwise be eaten by people or livestock. Ethanol production already consumes 40% of America’s maize (corn) harvest and a single new ethanol plant in Hull is about to become Britain’s largest buyer of wheat, using 1.1m tonnes a year. Ethanol and biodiesel also have limitations as vehicle fuels, performing poorly in cold weather and capable of damaging unmodified engines.
In an effort to overcome these limitations, dozens of start-up companies emerged over the past decade with the aim of developing second-generation biofuels. They hoped to avoid the “food versus fuel” debate by making fuel from biomass feedstocks with no nutritional value, such as agricultural waste or fast-growing trees and grasses grown on otherwise unproductive land. Other firms planned to make “drop in” biofuels that could replace conventional fossil fuels directly, rather than having to be blended in.
Governments also jumped on the biofuels bandwagon. George Bush saw biofuels as a route to energy independence, signing into law rules that set minimum prices and required refiners and importers to sell increasing amounts of biofuel each year. By 2013, America was supposed to be burning nearly 3,800m litres a year of “cellulosic” biofuels made from woody plants.