Sunday, July 13, 2008

Is Biofuel "a crime against humanity"?


British Journalist Christopher Booker and Blogger Richard North raised the question in a Telegraph today. Although Booker and North are figures on the British right and sometimes go off half cocked, they are both highly intelligent and creative. Both have inquisitive and skeptical minds that are disinclined to take "official answers".

They lay the source of the crime to a faith in "renewables". The leadership of the European Union endorsed this faith in 2007 by stipulating that by 2020 10% of European motor fuel was to come from renewable sources. This decision was very ill conceived on both environmental and humanitarian grounds. The even before the decision was made, enterprising businessmen were clearing rain forests in tropical countries to grow plant oil producing crops. Food crops like corn and soybeans were also diverted from human food consumption to fuel production, with staggering humanitarian consequences. Coupled with growing demand for food in the newly emerging economies of Asia, a food shortage crisis began to emerge. Now this crime cannot be laid solely at the feet of European leaders, the Bush administration and the United States Congress have surely played a role, and Brazil among other countries has been a biofuel offender.

Booker and North call attention to what can best be described as failed EU energy policy as one of componants of the crime:

"Internal European Commission documents show that, as late as January 2007, when officials were discussing that 10 per cent target, they saw it not as an answer to global warming but only as a way to increase the EU's "energy self-sufficiency". They were also aware that switching huge areas of farmland from food to fuel would drive up world food prices."

"Indeed a 2006 report from the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) had already suggested that for the EU to meet its 10 per cent target from home-grown biofuels would require a staggering 70 per cent of arable land to be taken out of food production, necessitating a huge increase in EU food imports. Even worse, by the end of 2006 the Commission was aware that the world was about to face a food shortage."

"Yet, in attempting to show that enough acreage would be available to meet the new biofuels target, the officials indulged in "Enron accounting", using the same areas of land three times."

Booker and North call attention to a 2005 Cornell University study that suggested that far from being an major source of unique energy, biofuel production consumed 29% more energy than it yielded.

It was estimated that 55 million tons of U.S. corn was going into ethanol in 2006, nearly 1/6th of the American grain harvest. The consequence was an increase in the price of the basic food staple of the Mexico City poor, corn tortillas. In 2007 massive demonstrations against the increase of tortilla prices rocked Mexico. Food price inflation has become a world wide phenomena. "We're seeing many people being priced out of the food markets for the first time," said Josette Sheeran, who is executive director of the Rome based World Food Program. According to Mrs. Sheeran, the amount of food that her agency can afford to buy for hungry children had dropped 40% fduring the last 5 years due to food price inflation.

One would think that such a massive amount of food diverted to fuel use in the United States, that a significant amount of fuel would be produced. Yet in 2006 this was not the case. In 2006, corn ethanol produced in the United States, represented only 3% of its automotive fuel. Not enough to put a dent in the growing oil shortage, not enough to affect the subsequent gasoline price rise, and certainly not enough to justify the crime against humanity that diverting the food of the world's poor in order to satisfy the economic demands of the American farm lobby, "Green" fanatics, and clueless European political leaders.

Unfortunately Booker and North sully their otherwise excellent report by doing a song and dance in favor of global warming skepticism. Unfortunately because they have a message that needs to be heard. Biofuel is most assuredly a "crime against humanity."


randal.leavitt said...

I think we can expect to see a lot more criticism of the global heating hypothesis. The industrialists dont like it because it reduces the value of their investments in carbon combustion. The greens dont like it because it promotes the building of new nuclear power plants. Lots of scientists dont like it because speaking frankly about it has cost them their careers. I have posted some thoughts about it:

A Fading Fad


Warren Heath said...

World Bank Secret Report Leaked – Biofuels caused 75% increase in Global Food Prices

Obvious why that report has been kept secret. Biofuels, like the Hydrogen Economy and Clean Coal are just another SCAM, which the Taxpayer is forced to pay for, which accomplishes nothing but makes Lobbyists, Politicians, and Modern Day Snake Oil Producers Obscenely Rich. Biofuels in addition to being a mind blowing Scam, are a monstrous, murderous, aberration that kills millions and WILL KILL A BILLION PEOPLE IF IT ISN'T STOPPED. The destruction of farmland, pollution of the water table, extreme depletion of precious water resources, pollution of oceans where agricultural run-off meets dumps into the ocean, destruction of natural ecosystems, increased vulnerability to agricultural diseases & pests, release of massive GHG emissions from destroyed ecosystems. A LOOSE-LOOSE-LOOSE proposition.

Corrupt politicians, who couldn't pass entry level high school physics, are making life & death energy decisions. Rumor is John McCain can't even use a computer. Here is an excellent article on Biofuels by Tad Patzek who is a professor in the Civil and Environmental Engineering Department at the University of California, Berkeley:

Professor Patzek blasts Biofuels – An Evil Scam that brings Mass Murder to a Whole New Level, Hitler & Stalin would be awestruck by its Ingenuity at making Genocide look Virtuous

Consider one of the most hyped and certainly one of the best of the Biofuels, biodiesel from the Jatropha shrub, (more than 720 thousand hectares of Jatropha have been planted. By 2014, it estimates that number to have risen three-fold to over 21 million hectares). For the most optimistic scenario, let’s use the elite Jatropha which produces 2.7 tonnes of biodiesel per hectare. That amounts to 346 USgal of biodiesel fuel energy per acre per year. According to U.S. Gov 2008 fuel economy tests, that would give you 6224 miles per acre burnt in a 2008 Jeep Cherokee 2WD SUV with a 3.0 liter BMW diesel engine. To get the same distance with a 2003 Toyota RAV4 BEV 2WD SUV, also US Gov fuel economy ratings, you would need 1682 kwh of utility energy. With an average yearly output of 1,400 kwh per peak kw per year for an average US location. That gives us a 1.2 kw peak of solar panels will replace that one acre of Jatropha diesel, used in an electric vehicle. That cost would be about $4,500, including DC converter. So we have $4,500 of solar panels will replace one acre of Jatropha diesel for 40 years or more. No annual irrigation, fertilization, tedious harvesting, energy intensive processing (Note that I’m not counting the considerable energy inputs to planting, maintaining, harvesting, processing & distributing the Jatropha biodiesel). Note that solar is still about the most expensive electric power source. Just what is an acre of land worth, even if not prime agricultural land. Tell me where the true cost of land is $4,500 per acre – land taxes should be half of that. And you can’t tell me, that if you can produce biodiesel, you can’t produce edible oils in a similar manner (actually Jatropha oil can be made edible). The same one acre of land that would drive an average American SUV for about 7 months, would feed 10 people for a year. The numbers are much worse for the wacky Corn Ethanol scam. This is utter insanity. A product of energy policy for sale to the highest bidder.

The only Biofuels that could have any sane, ethical merit are ones made from agricultural waste, forest products waste, garbage or sewage waste and, of course, algae based fuels. Algae being more of an industrial than an agricultural process, to begin with. All Biofuel subsidies and R&D money should be allocated to those potentially economical, ethical prospects. Better yet, spend the money on battery and EV technology – screw the wacky Biofuel and hydrogen scams.

Alice Friedemann: Why Cellulosic ethanol and other Biofuels are Not Sustainable and a Threat to America's National Security - Part I

David Walters said...

I don't disagree with any of what the writer states or you comment on. However, not all biofuels use food. The key is 'bio' not 'food'. There are industrial, non-agricultural methods of procuring biodiesel (although no ethanol).

It's also a little myopic to talk about the problems of ethanol production if we dont look at what most corn goes to anyway: corn syrup and beef. It's absolutely an insane way of feeding people. So, if we want to talk about how producing ethanol hurts people (which it does!) we need to talk about how MOST corn is used and how THAT hurts people and denies them food too.


Charles Barton said...

Randal, the GW skeptics never seem to give up. However peak oil is undercutting part of their argument. It is hard to argue that we ought to stay the course on energy, with $4.00 a callon gasoline.

Warren Heath, Your comments are so extensive and of such good quality that you ought to have our own blog.

David, I do have several objections to using bio-waste as a fuel source:
It would take a considerable amount of energy to collect bio-waste. It would take even more energy, perhaps more than the energy output to ferment and distill ethanol from the bio-waste material. Wether the energy output of this process is greater than the energy input is open to question.

Finally the the issue of soil conservation is ignored in the entire biofuel discussion. In fact removing organic materials from the soil removes minerals and nutrients from the soil. The soil fertility is diminished by harvesting organic materials. Thus bio-fuels using organic waste are not sustainable.

Soylent said...

"Finally the the issue of soil conservation is ignored in the entire biofuel discussion. In fact removing organic materials from the soil removes minerals and nutrients from the soil. The soil fertility is diminished by harvesting organic materials."

I'm not sure that's necessarily true. Ash contains all the mineral nutrients(but not the nitrogen or sulphur). More pressing appears to be the degradation of the abillity of soil to hold nutrients by soil errosion; this is bad enough already if all you're doing is planting corn or soy beans. That's why good soil builders like switchgrass are used to improve soils.

Fermenting the material in anaerobic digesters gets you methane, but whether that can be made cost effective outside of special circumstances(some materials ferment faster and more thoroughly than others, such as cow 'waste') is not known. It appears to preserve the nutrients quite well and you can get something
quite similar to compost as a waste product.

I find pyrolysis especially interesting. Char is very stable material and can persist in the soil for millenia; it also has very high surface area making it good at holding water and possibly nutrients. Low temperature wood chars were used by the amazonians to increase soil fertillity, and one can still find dark soils thousands of years old in the amazon with better fertillity than surrounding soils, see

But certainly, it's a limited form of energy production. It appears to me most suitable as a replacement for oil in production of plastics and chemicals as opposed to production of fuels or electric power.


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