Posts tagged with: food or fuel

Blog author: lglinzak
posted by on Wednesday, July 6, 2011

The future of corn ethanol is up in the air, and while the Senate gave signs of repealing both the subsidy and the tariff on imported ethanol, the bill the repeal was attached to failed and Congress is back to square one in the ethanol debate. The uncertain future of corn ethanol has brought forth discussion on the possibility of importing sugar cane based ethanol from Brazil.

Before the U.S. begins importing ethanol from Brazil, a broad cost benefit analysis needs to be taken by the government to decide if it is actually a smart decision to begin importing and using sugar cane based ethanol from Brazil.

A concern of many critics of alternative fuels is whether or not alternative fuels can meet demand. According to the Energy Tribune, corn ethanol cannot meet U.S. demand whereas even the country turned all of its corn into ethanol only 6 percent of its total annual oil needs would be met.

This leaves ethanol supporters looking for another energy source to help close the gap. They may be looking no further than the sugar cane based ethanol produced in Brazil. However, even importing Brazilian ethanol will leave the U.S. looking for another energy resource.

In 2010 the U.S. consumed 138.6 billion gallons of gasoline and Brazil currently produces about 7.4 billion gallons of sugar cane based biofuels. Importing sugar cane based ethanol from Brazil while still consuming corn ethanol does not even get the U.S. close to meeting its energy demands especially when 75 percent of Brazil’s ethanol output is sold within its borders, and it experienced a shortage earlier this year.

And the simplistic answer to this problem, planting more sugar cane, may not be the best solution. The Brazilian government has been surprised by the deforestation of the Amazon rainforest. According to Brazil’s space research institute, deforestation of the Amazon rainforest increased from 103 sq km in March and April 2010 to 593 sq km during the same period this year. This surprised the Brazilian government which reported that deforestation had fallen to its lowest rate in 22 years when actually there was a 27 percent jump in deforestation from August 2010 to April 2011. The biggest rise in deforestation was in Mato Grosso, a state in Brazil, which produces more than a quarter of Brazil’s soybean harvest. However, what does that have to do with sugar cane causing deforestation?

A 2010 article by Foreign Policy explains how sugar cane based ethanol fosters “agricultural displacement” resulting in the deforestation of the rainforest:

Public officials declare that ethanol will not lead to deforestation in the Amazon or exacerbate climate change. They say that the particular soils and rainy weather characteristic of the rainforest are not suitable for the growth of sugar cane. Agriculture minister Reinhold Stephanes has been quoted as saying that “Cane does not exist in Amazonia.” In a withering blow to Stephanes’s credibility, however, authorities recently raided a sugar cane plantation in the state of Pará where 1,000 workers were laboring under appalling debt slavery conditions. In all, environmentalists claim, hundreds of thousands of acres of sugar cane have been planted in the Amazon.

Even if there are only a few cane plantations operating in the Amazon, ethanol may exert an indirect impact on the rainforest through a phenomenon known as “agricultural displacement.” Though the state of São Paulo is located far from the Amazon rainforest, the sugar cane there can drive other crops toward the agricultural frontier. In the state of São Paulo, sugar cane has been planted on former pastureland and this has pushed cattle into Mato Grosso. Hundreds of thousands of cattle are moving into the Amazon every year as a result of displacement by ethanol in the state of São Paulo alone, say environmentalists. This migration is becoming all the more likely since one can purchase 800 hectares of land in the Amazon for the price of just one hectare in São Paulo. Additionally, some soy plantations in the center of the country have been turned over to ethanol production, prompting concern among environmentalists that this will lead soy producers to move into the Amazon. And local observers say that sugar cane plantations are already pushing soy farmers and ranchers into the rainforest.

The same article by Foreign Policy states that sugar cane crops have also led to the deforestation in the Atlantic rainforest.

There are still many unintended consequences and factors the United States needs to take into account before importing sugar cane based ethanol. CNNMoney published an article stating that, “Some experts say the Brazilian formula gets even less gas mileage than its corn ethanol counterpart, which itself gets lower mileage generally than gasoline.” Furthermore, biofuels will have an adverse effect on food prices. According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which is the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization, biofuels will absorb 13 percent of global coarse grain production, 15 percent of vegetable oil, and some 30 percent of sugar by 2020. Again, what is more important, food or fuel? How are the poor and vulnerable expected to purchase food when it is being shipped to prosperous countries for fuel?

Just like corn based ethanol, sugar cane based ethanol also has its consequences. Experts continue to debate whether sugar cane based ethanol is a viable option. However, before jumping on the bandwagon, policy makers need to take a pragmatic approach when discussing the energy future of the U.S.