by Rachel Smolker and Brian Tokar, Toward Freedom

In the coming weeks, the Obama administration is expected to release its plans to address the dual problems of global climate disruption and excessive dependence on foreign oil. Meanwhile, in the background, the debate among environmentalists over biofuels and their contribution to future energy needs continues to intensify.

Many mainstream greens actively support biofuels as a central element in an anticipated future mix of energy sources, but voices from the global South are often far more critical. They insist that fuels such as biodiesel, bioethanol and proposed “second generation” fuels be termed “agrofuels,” viewing their widespread use as a potential boon for global agribusiness corporations—with potentially devastating consequences for land-based peoples. This view is now gaining widespread support from groups in the US and Europe.

Last month, the Sierra Club and Worldwatch Institute attempted to sidestep these concerns with their new report, titled “Smart Choices for Biofuels.” They appear to have never even asked the more fundamental question “Are Biofuels a Smart Choice?” To this question, a growing number of environmental and human rights organizations are responding with a clear and resounding “no.”

A recent letter initiated by eleven US-based civil society groups highlights the rapidly growing literature demonstrating that biofuels/agrofuels are worsening climate change, driving deforestation, displacing rural smallholder farmers and indigenous peoples, depleting soil and water resources and more. Given the critical need to preserve and restore ecosystems, burning plant material for fuel is best viewed as a pathway to disaster.

While the “Smart Choices” report, like the Obama administration, claims that “advanced biofuels” and sustainability standards will resolve the problems, there is no way the earth can actually support a massive and ever-increasing new demand for plant biomass. Instead, a drastic reduction in society’s need for liquid fuels is an essential first step, through measures such as public transportation, energy efficiency, and reduction and relocalization of production and consumption.

The text of this, more critical, letter on agrofuels offers a glimpse at a far more realistic view of this issue than is offered by the Sierra Club/Worldwatch report:

As a diverse alliance of organizations concerned with climate change, agriculture and food policy, human rights and indigenous peoples rights and biodiversity protection, we (Global Justice Ecology Project, Institute for Social Ecology, Heartwood, Energy Justice Network, Grassroots International, Food First, Native Forest Council, Family Farm Defenders, ETC Group, Dogwood Alliance, Rainforest Action Network) issue this open letter in opposition to agrofuels (large scale industrial biofuels).

We strongly oppose the rapid and destructive expansion of agrofuels; the large-scale industrial production of transport fuels and other energy from plants (corn, sugar cane, oilseeds, trees, grasses, waste etc.). Agrofuels are a false solution and a dangerous distraction and they must be halted.

Agrofuels are a “false solution”:

Many prominent voices in the United States, including President-elect Obama, have voiced support for the large-scale production of agrofuels as a central strategy for solving the problems of energy supply and global warming. A growing body of scientific evidence, however, indicates that this is a tragic misconception and that continued pursuit of agrofuels will aggravate severely rather than resolve the multiple and dire consequences of the climate, energy, food, economic and ecological crises we face. Like other dirty and dangerous technologies and devices being promoted by industry to supposedly address climate change—including “clean coal,” carbon capture and storage [CCS], coal gasification, nuclear power, carbon offset markets, and ocean fertilization—agrofuels are a distracting “false solution” promoted for their potential to reap profits rather than their capacity to address problems effectively. [1]

Agrofuels worsen climate change and poverty:

A growing body of literature from all levels of society is revealing that, when all impacts are considered, agrofuels create more, not less, greenhouse gas emissions; deplete soil and water resources; drive destruction of forests and other biodiverse ecosystems; result in expanded use of genetically engineered crops, toxic pesticides, and herbicides; and consolidate corporate control over access to land. While claims are made that agrofuels will benefit the rural poor, in reality, indigenous and smallholder farmers are increasingly displaced. Industrial agriculture and the destruction of biodiversity, two leading causes of global warming, will be further facilitated by agrofuels. [2]

Next generation “cellulosic” fuels will not resolve the problems:

With recognition of the role of agrofuels in driving up food prices, there has been increasing attention to the social and ecological costs of corn and sugar cane derived ethanol. In response, there is now a massive push to develop non-food, so-called cellulosic fuels based on claims that these new feedstocks (grasses, trees, and “waste” products) will not compete with food production and can be grown on “idle and marginal” lands. The incoming Obama Administration is clearly positioning to advocate strongly on this platform. [3] Unfortunately, these claims do not hold up to scrutiny.

An enormous additional demand for trees, grasses and other plants, edible or inedible, will not avert the problem of land-use competition. Land that could be used for food crops or biodiversity conservation will be increasingly diverted into energy production. Demand for land for both agriculture and timber is already intense and escalating globally as water, soil and biodiversity dwindle and the climate becomes increasingly unstable. [4]

The scale of demand cannot be met sustainably:

Virtually all of the proposed cellulosic feedstocks (including dedicated energy crops such as perennial grasses and fast growing or genetically engineered trees, agricultural and forestry “wastes and residues,” municipal wastes etc.) present serious ecological concerns on the scale required to maintain biorefinery operations and significantly contribute to US energy demands. Furthermore, renewable fuels targets in the US mandate the use of 15 billion gallons of corn ethanol per year, an amount that requires one third of the nation’s corn crop, and an additional 21 billion gallons a year of “advanced” agrofuels, the definition of which opens the possibility that demand will be met with foreign sources. The massive new demand for agrofuels is escalating deforestation and resulting in conversion of biodiverse and carbon-rich native forests and grasslands into biologically barren and carbon-poor industrial tree plantations and other crop monocultures. [5]

Land use changes resulting from industrial agriculture, including widespread deforestation, are major causes of climate change. Recent research finds that old growth forests sequester far more carbon than was previously estimated, (i.e. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change underestimated carbon stocks for temperate old growth forests by two-thirds). This means that deforestation has been a much larger causal factor in global warming than initially thought, and that intact natural forests are critical for sequestering carbon. It is imperative therefore that we protect remaining forests, grasslands and other carbon-rich ecosystems. [6]

The widespread application of biotechnology for agrofuel production, including genetically engineered (GE) feedstock crops such as GE grasses and GE trees, and plans to use synthetic biology and other genetic engineering techniques to alter and construct microbes, is an unacceptable and dangerous risk. [7]

Sustainability criteria cannot address the problems with agrofuels because they are incapable of addressing many complex and often indirect ecological and social impacts. Neither can they be implemented under globally diverse ecological, social and political situations. Similar efforts to develop criteria for soy, palm oil and timber, for example, have proven vastly inadequate. Finally, these efforts are based on the fundamental and flawed assumption that such massive demands can and should be met.

Agrofuels are not a renewable energy source:

While plants do re-grow, the soils, nutrients, minerals and water they require are in limited supply. The diverse and complex ecosystems that native plants belong to are also limited and not easily regenerated. Subsidies and incentives for renewable fuels should be focused on truly renewable options, like wind and solar energy. Instead, currently in the US close to three-quarters of tax credits and two-thirds of federal subsidies for renewable energy are being wrongly invested in agrofuels. [8]

Agrofuels are a disaster for people:

As governments, investors and corporations recognize the increasing demand for and profitability of land for food, fiber and now energy, we are witnessing a veritable tidal wave of land grabbing on a global scale. This is disastrous for rural and indigenous peoples who are increasingly being evicted or displaced. If tariffs currently limiting international agrofuel trade are diminished or eliminated, social and ecological damages will escalate.

Social movements around the world, including the international peasant movement, Via Campesina, call for “food and energy sovereignty.” Via Campesina, along with the independent International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD), a long-term independent assessment of agriculture involving over 400 scientists and diverse stakeholders, point to the key importance of a return to locally controlled, diverse, ecologically sensitive, and organic agriculture practices as vital to both addressing climate change and poverty. In demanding a halt to the insanity of agrofuel expansion, we stand in solidarity with peoples around the world who are resisting the loss and destruction of their lands, and with the wildlife and biodiversity being driven to extinction for corporate profit. [9]

Real solutions must be given a chance.

There are numerous better options for addressing climate change. These are generally proven, do not involve risky technologies, return control of resources to local inhabitants rather than profiting irresponsible corporations, and are more equitable. [10]

These include but are not limited to:

* A massive focus on improvements in energy efficiency, public transport and reduced levels of consumption within the United States (and other affluent countries);

* A rejection of industrial agribusiness and biotechnology and a return to locally adapted and community controlled diverse agricultural practices with the goal of feeding people, not automobiles, while conserving soil and water, maximizing carbon sequestration and protecting biodiversity;

* Repeal of the 36 billion gallon per year Renewable Fuel Standard biofuel target in the [2007] Energy Independence and Security Act.

* Support for indigenous land rights and community stewardship initiatives as the major focus of efforts to preserve biodiverse ecosystems and the implementation of free and prior informed consent from indigenous peoples with respect to projects proposed on their ancestral lands and territories.

* Reducing demand for forest products and aggressively protecting remaining native forests and grasslands;

* Rejection of coal and nuclear technologies, which are inherently toxic and dangerous;

* Scaling up of decentralized and unequivocally renewable and cleaner wind and solar energies;

* Leaving fossil fuels in the ground, where they cannot contribute to climate change;

* Rejection of ineffective market-based approaches that commodify the atmosphere, biodiversity, and humanity itself.

See the complete list of 40 organizations that have signed on to this letter, along with detailed notes and more than 30 supporting references at the Global Justice Ecology Project To add your group’s signature to this letter, e-mail your organization’s name, contact person and website address to:


[1] A recent comprehensive review of a variety of technologies proposed for addressing climate change, including wind, solar, nuclear, geothermal, tidal etc. found: “…cellulosic- and corn-E85 were ranked lowest overall and with respect to climate, air pollution, land use, wildlife damage, and chemical waste… biofuel options provide no certain benefit and the greatest negative impacts.” (MZ Jacobson, “Review of solutions to global warming, air pollution and energy security,” Energy and Environmental Science, December 2008)

Resources and information on false solutions involving coal, nuclear, incineration, biofuels, natural gas and more are available at Energy Justice Network. For information on ocean fertilization see ETC Group. For a review of climate geo-engineering technologies Biofuels Watch. [In contrast, the “Smart Choices for Biofuels” statement can be seen at the Worldwatch Institute.]

[2] Climate: According to recent studies, when all direct and indirect land use change emissions are accounted for, agrofuels produce from 17 to 420 times more greenhouse gas emissions than would be saved by avoided use of fossil fuel. Another study revealed that emissions of nitrous oxide from increasing fertilizer use for biofuel crops reduces or even cancels out gains from offsetting fossil fuel use with agrofuels. See:

Fargione, J., Hill, J., Tilman, D., Polasky, S., and Hawthorne, P., “Land clearing and the biofuel carbon debt,” Science, 319, 2008, pp. 1235-1238

Searchinger, T., Heimlich, R., Houghton, R. A., Fengxia Dong, Elobeid, A., Fabiosa, J., Tokgoz, S., Hayes, D., and Tun-Hsiang Yu, “Use of US croplands for biofuels increases greenhouse gases through emissions from land-use change,” Science, 319, 2008, pp. 1238-1240

P.J. Crutzen, A.R. Mosier, K.A. Smith, and W. Winiwarter, “N2O release from agro-biofuel production negates global warming reduction by replacing fossil fuels,” Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics 8(2): 389-95

People: Rural and indigenous peoples are increasingly displaced, often violently from their lands to make way for expanding industrial agriculture. Agrofuels are contributing to this.6,7 The global peasant farmers movement “Via Campesina” states: “small farmers feed the world, industrial agrofuels fuel hunger and poverty” (Jakarta, June 24, 2008: International Conference on Peasant Rights)

The UN FAO reported that food prices have pushed the number of starving to more than one billion, 14% of the human population. (“Nearly a Billion People Worldwide are Starving, UN Agency Warns”: Julian Borger and Juliette Jowitt. The Guardian, Dec 10 2008)

A leaked memo from the World Bank stated that 75% of the food price increase could be attributed to diversion of food crops into fuel production. (“Secret Report: Biofuels Caused Food Crisis: Internal World Bank study delivers blow to plant energy drive,” Guardian, July 3 2008. A. Chakrabortty)

The FAO stated that mandated targets may need to be reconsidered. Reports on the impacts of cane ethanol in Latin America paint a grim picture of oppression and destruction. (“Fuelling Destruction in Latin America: the real price of the drive for agrofuels,” Friends of the Earth International, September 2008)

[3] Obama, a long standing advocate of corn ethanol has stated that he will increase the renewable fuel standard from the current level at 36 bG/yr to 60 bG/yr. His cabinet appointments include 1) Tom Vilsack (Secretary of Agriculture), known for his advocacy on behalf of biotechnology and his close relationship with Monsanto and support for corn ethanol 2) Steven Chu (Secretary of Energy) who was instrumental in establishing agrofuels as the major focus of Lawrence Berkeley Labs (which he directs) and overseeing the establishment of the Energy Biosciences Institute, a $500 mil partnership involving UC Berkeley (a supposedly public educational institution) and BP, along with the Lawrence Berkeley labs, the goal of which is research and development of cellulosic fuel technologies. 3) Ken Salazar (Secretary of the Interior) has been a major proponent of flex-fuel car production and cellulosic fuel development. (“Obama, Vilsack and Salazar: The Ethanol Scammers’ Dream Team,” Energy Tribune, Dec. 29, 2008)

[4] As demands for food and bioenergy expand, enormous land grabbing is underway with countries, corporations and investors buying up large amounts of arable land in a scramble to gain access to dwindling and profitable resources. For example, Daewoo, a South Korean company is seeking to acquire a 99-year lease on a million hectares of Madagascar’s agricultural land, Kuwait is looking to acquire millions of hectares in Cambodia, and other investors are moving in on approximately 15 per cent of Laos’s agricultural land. (“Seized: The 2008 Land Grab for Food and Financial Security,” GRAIN)

Soil: In the US, some of the best agricultural soils occur in Iowa, but over the past century these have declined from an average of 18 to just 10 inches of depth over the past century due to erosion. Erosion rates exceeded soil regeneration rates on close to 30% of agricultural lands in the U.S. in 2001. This loss of topsoil and organic residues results in declining productivity. In an effort to stem the tide of erosion, the US Conservation Reserve Program was introduced in 1985 and paid farmers to plant lands sensitive to erosion with grass or tree cover protection and to use no-till farming, terracing and contour strip farming. These CRP lands are shrinking due to incentives to produce agrofuel feedstocks. Removal of “wastes and residues” from agricultural and forested lands for agrofuel production depletes soil organic matter and nutrients and increases erosion. (Wes Jackson and Wendell Berry, “A 50 year Farm Bill,” New York Times, Jan. 4 2009)

Water: Water resources in the US, including major irrigation sources such as the Oglalla aquifer and the Colorado river, are in decline. Agriculture is the largest use of freshwater, and biorefinery processes also require massive amounts of water. (“Water Implications of Biofuels Production in the United States,” October 2007 Report in Brief, at this site of The National Academies [PDF])

According to the International Water Management Institute (IWMI): freshwater usage worldwide has increased six-fold over the past 100 years, largely due to irrigation; water resources are dwindling; the price of water is predicted to double or triple over the coming two decades. Meanwhile, severe droughts are resulting in water shortages in Australia, India and South Central China. Droughts and ice melting at high altitudes are likely to result in declining water supplies in many regions of the world. (Peter McCornick, IWMI, “Demand For Biofuel Irrigation Worsens Global Water Crisis,” keynote address at “Linkages Between Energy and Water Management for Agriculture in Developing Countries,” Hyderabad, India, January 2007)

[5] According to biotechnology industry estimates, a moderately sized commercial-scale biorefinery using agricultural residues would require harvesting a minimum of 500,000 acres of cropland. Electricity production through the burning of wood is increasing rapidly and creating huge demands for trees. For example, Prenergy Power Limited, of London, England is planning a 350 megawatt power plant, which will be fueled by approximately 3 million tons per year of woodchips imported, in part from the US. Some bioenergy processes claim to utilize wastes and residues, but a recent industry market report stated: “…these operators, hungry for large volumes of wood, and frequently armed with government subsidies, are finding that the perceived overabundance of ‘waste wood’ in the nation’s forests is simply not there. As a result, the increased demand for more traditional forms of woodfiber has already triggered wood price spikes and cross-grade competition in the tightest markets.” Wood is under demand by expanding pulp and paper industry, timber products industry, rapidly growing chip and pellet production for heat and electricity, and now for liquid transportation fuels as well. This level of demand simply cannot be met sustainably. It is also driving the demand for faster-growing “designer” trees genetically engineered to enhance their ability to be transformed into energy. This in turn is threatening native forest ecosystems with genetic contamination. (RISI Wood Biomass Market Report)

[6] Deforestation in the Amazon is directly correlated with the market price of soy, a biofuel feedstock. When farmers in the US switched from soy to corn production to meet the demands for corn ethanol, the price of soy rose, and deforestation increased.18 The push for more land to grow energy crops has resulted in the elimination of set-aside lands in the EU and a reduction of CRP lands in the US The loss of these critical habitats is reducing pollinator and bird populations dramatically. (Kirchoff and J. Martin, “Americas Grasslands vanishing amid agricultural boom,” USA Today, April 25, 2008)

A recent long-term study of forest carbon in old growth temperate forest (AUS) found that carbon storage was far greater than previously assumed. The IPCC default values for example were one-third the value observed, highlighting the enormous impact of deforestation and the critical relevance to climate change of preserving forests. (“Green Carbon: The role of natural forests in carbon storage_Part 1. A green carbon account of Australia’s south-eastern Eucalypt forests, and policy implications,” Brendan G. Mackey, Heather Keith, Sandra L. Berry and David B. Lindenmayer, ANU Press, 2008)

[7] Agrofuels have become the major focus of biotechnology R&D. In addition to a suite of new GE feedstock developments, companies like Arborgen in the U.S. are developing GE tree varieties with 1) reduced lignin content 2) disease, insect and stress resistance, 3) fast growth, 4) cold tolerance, 5) modified oil content (jatropha and oil palm) and 6) sterility – all characteristics deemed profitable for agrofuel and pulp applications. Given that trees spread their pollen and seeds across huge distances and/or have many wild relatives in native forest ecosystems, cross contamination between GE trees and native trees is inevitable and entails unpredictable, potentially disastrous implications for forest ecosystems, wildlife and forest dependent human communities. (Petermann, A. and Tokar, B. 2007. Cellulosic fuels, GE trees and the contamination of native forests. In: R. Smolker, et al. The True Cost of Agrofuels: Impacts on Food, Forests, People and Climate,” Global Forest Coalition 2007 [PDF])

The newly emerging technique of “Synthetic Biology” is focused on developing microbes that can efficiently produce enzymes for fuel production. If genetic modification has raised biosafety concerns, those pale in comparison to the safety and ecological risks of synthetic organisms. Unlike earlier genetic engineering where genes are sourced from existing organisms, synthetic DNA sequences may have no known analogue in nature, and numerous pathways are combined. The consequences of contamination by such organisms are entirely unpredictable. Currently, the push for microbes for agrofuel production is driving the Synthetic Biology industry forward, making the ability to build dangerous and deadly microbes including bioweapons, cheaper, easier and harder to control. (Extreme Genetic Engineering: an introduction to synthetic biology. ETC Group)

[8] True renewables such as wind and solar are losing out in competition with agrofuels. Ethanol accounted for three-quarters of tax benefits and two-thirds of all federal subsidies provided for renewable energy sources in 2007. This amounted to $3 billion in tax credits in 2007, more than four times the $690 million made available to companies trying to expand all other forms of renewable energy, including solar, wind and geothermal power. It is estimated that by 2010, ethanol will cost taxpayers more than $5 billion a year—more than is spent on all US Department of Agriculture conservation programs to protect soil, water and wildlife habitat.

[9] Almost weekly new reports are made of abuses and violence in the context of land conflicts over the expansion of industrial monocultures and access to land and resources, and social movements working in resistance. Below are just a few of the more recent examples. See:

Civil Society Declaration at International Biofuels Conference in Sao Paolo, Brazil, November 2008 (PDF)

T. Phillips. Brazilian taskforce frees more than 4500 slaves after record number of raids on remote farms. The Guardian, January 3 2009

Tupinikim and Guarani peoples reconquer their lands, World Rainforest Movement bulletin: issue 122, September 2007

These include:

* The civil society organizations in Latin America who protested the International Biofuels Conference, demanding food and energy sovereignty;

* The recently freed “sugar slaves” working in Brazil’s ethanol industry;

* The indigenous peoples in the village of Suluk Bogkal, in Riau province in Sumatra who were fire bombed on December 18th 2008 when they resisted eviction from their lands to make way for a pulpwood plantation under Sinar Mas;

* The friends and families of Paraguayan smallholder farmers violently murdered when they resisted eviction to make way for the expansion of soy monoculture;

* The Tupinikim and Guarani in Brazil, who spent twenty years fighting to regain control of their ancestral lands which were taken over by the pulp industry for industrial eucalyptus plantations;

* The over one billion people now suffering from chronic undernourishment while food crops are diverted into fuel for automobiles;

* The diverse plants and animals moving precariously closer to extinction as their habitats are destroyed for conversion to agrofuel monocultures and industrial tree plantations

People’s access to land and the right to feed themselves is fundamental. Via Campesina along with many other social movements around the world call for food and energy sovereignty, not agrofuels. Numerous calls for moratoria have been made worldwide, including one from organizations in the US. (Agrofuel Moratorium Campaign, Biofuel Watch)

[10] A growing global alliance of individuals and organizations is demanding real solutions to climate change based on principles of justice and equity. This position is based on the understanding that the root causes of climate change are the same as the root causes of poverty and injustice. One cannot be addressed without the other and doing so is the only effective path towards a sustainable future. See:

Radical New Agenda Needed to Achieve Climate Justice: Climate Justice Now!” Poznan, December 2008

Patrick Bond, “From False to Real Solutions for Climate Change,” Monthly Review. June 1, 2008


Rachel Smolker is an independent research scientist, based in Hinesburg, Vermont. Brian Tokar is the director of the Institute for Social Ecology, based in Plainfield, Vermont.

This piece first appeared Feb. 25, in slightly different form, on Toward Freedom.

See also:

“Green Energy” Panacea or Just the Latest Hype?
by Brian Tokar, World War 4 Report, December 2006

From our Daily Report:

Obama USDA pick another “biofuel” booster
World War 4 Report, Dec. 18, 2008


Reprinted by World War 4 Report, March 1, 2009
Reprinting permissible with attribution