September 23, 2014

Biofuels: What could be wrong with fuel made from corn?

By Emma Peterson

Biofuels are one of the most popular alternative energy sources in the oil market today. This fuel comes from different crops like corn, cassava, jatropha, sugar cane, and palm oil, and can be mixed with petroleum oil to make it a cleaner burning fuel. Another benefit is that it’s renewable: we can always plant more corn! All of this sounds great. We can slowly transition from oil to biofuels, and while the cost is slightly higher, compared to the price of fuel cells or hydrogen power, biofuels are a great economic option.

So why are environmentalists and human rights organizations trying desperately to stop it? There are several reasons. First, biofuels are becoming more and more popular. The EU has stated that by 2020, they want 9% of all their transportation fuel coming from biofuels (ActionAidUSA). This increase in demand has created an increase in biofuel crop prices, which is now making products like corn more expensive for the developing countries that grow them. This is increasing the issue of poverty in many of these countries that are already suffering. These poor farmers are now being pushed off their farming land by biofuel producers. Corporations are now taking away their livelihood, adding to the problem of poverty and hunger that plagues nations like Kenya and Tanzania. Currently there is such a rush to prevent climate change and find alternatives to oil that the international community is not creating any guidelines or lists of rights for workers involved in this trade. They are thinking only of profits, and the common farmer is being left behind.

The other problem is environmental. In order to keep up with the demand for biofuel crops, companies are cutting down or burning forests and grasslands in order to make room for more farms. This also involves forcing farmers to start producing biofuel crops, and moving the food crops in its place elsewhere. Brazil is one of the biggest producers of biofuels (along with the United States), and they are cutting down parts of their rainforest to create more space for farming. The pictures of this devastation are shocking. Images or burned trees and smoke billowing into the sky show how serious and pressing this issue is.

All of this deforestation is adding more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. In addition, the fertilizers used in these fields are made with fossil fuels, and the machinery used to harvest crops emit carbon dioxide, so biofuels are actually adding to the carbon problem and increasing the effects of global warming. What was supposed to be a solution to this problem is nothing more than another cause of global climate change.

According to ActionAid, because of pressure from biofuel producers the issue of biofuels has been removed from the agenda of the G20 Convention taking place later this year. The focus will instead be on the global financial crisis. In June at the last conference, a report was put together by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, the OECD, the World Bank, IMF, and the World Food Programme that recommended all governments remove subsidies and mandates on biofuel production, because the production of these fuels were adding to the issue of global warming.

This mistake in carbon emissions clearly shows that we need to take a more cautious approach to alternative fuels. By rushing to produce crops for biofuel and biodiesel, these corporations have been advertising their “green” ways, while secretly adding more carbon into the atmosphere as well as forcing farmers off their land, and raising the price of food crops. We need to hold our governments and our corporations accountable for the work they are doing, and while alternative energy sources are needed, we can’t compromise the Earth we are trying to protect in the process.

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Comments

  1. I really liked your post. I agree that attempts to create alternative fuel need to be done carefully as to not disrupt current corn prices, especially when many countries depend on corn to survive. A country not mentioned in the post is Mexico. Because of our desire to make biofuels and the US subsidy given to corn ethanol, U.S. farmers were able to sell corn for less than it cost Mexican farmers to grow it. Corn flooded Mexico’s border driving farmers off their land and out of work. Many went to work wherever they could including sweat shops to support their families. Just another unintended consequence of our alternative energy search.

  2. The EU is trying a similar thing, but they diversify. They even use waste in order to produce energy. In countries like Austria solar energy is very popular. It is interesting to see how alternative energy might affect European markets. Great article!

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