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Food, Forests and Fuel : From False to Real Solutions for the Climate Change


December 3 – 14, 2007 will see more than 10,000 representatives of Government and civil society gather in Bali for a meeting of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. This is the international treaty under which the Kyoto Protocol was negotiated. The Protocol expires in 2012, and Bali is supposed to begin negotiations on a post Kyoto framework.

In 2007, no one can deny that man-made climate change is taking place. However, the commitment to mitigate and help the vulnerable to adapt does not match the recognition of the disaster.

Mitigation requires material changes in production and consumption patterns. Globalisation has pushed production and consumption worldwide to higher carbon dioxide emissions. WTO rules of trade liberalization are in effect rules that force countries on a high emissions pathway. Similarly, World Bank lending for super highways and thermal power plant, industrial agriculture and corporate retail coerces countries to emit more greenhouse gases. And giant corporations such as Cargill and Walmart carry major responsibility in destroying local, sustainable economies and pushing society after society into dependence on an ecologically destructive global economy. Cargill is an important player in spreading soya cultivation in the Amazon, and palmoil plantations in the rainforest of Indonesia thus increasing emissions both by the burning of forests and destruction of the massive carbon sink in rainforests and peat lands. And Walmart’s model of long distance centralized trade is a recipe for increasing the carbon dioxide burden in the atmosphere.

The first step in mitigation requires a focus on real actions of real actors. Real actions are actions such as a shift from ecological farming and local food system. Real actors include global agribusiness, the WTO, the World Bank. Real actions involve destruction of rural economies with low emission to urban sprawl designed and planned by builders and construction companies. Real actions involve destruction of sustainable transport systems based on renewable energy and public transport to private automobiles. Real actors pushing this transition to non-sustainability in mobility are the oil companies and automobile corporations.

Kyoto totally avoided the material challenge of stopping activities that lead to higher emissions and the political challenge of regulation of the polluters and making the polluters pay in accordance with principles adopted at the Earth Summit in Rio. Instead, Kyoto put in place the mechanism of emissions trading which in effect rewarded the polluters by assigning them rights to the atmosphere and trading in these rights to pollute. Today, the emissions trading market has reached $ 30 billion and is expected to go up to $ 1 trillion. Carbon dioxide emissions continue to increase, while profits from "hot air" also increase. I call it "hot air" both because it is literally hot air leading to global warming and because it is metaphorically hot air, based on the fictitious economy of finance which has overtaken the real economy, both in size and in our perception. A casino economy has allowed corporations and their owners to multiply their wealth without limit, and without any relationship to the real world. Yet this hungry money then seeks to own the real resources of people – the land and the forests, the farms and the food, and turn them into cash. Unless we return to the real world, we will not find the solutions that will help mitigate climate change.

Another false solution to climate change is the promotion of biofuels based on corn and soya, palmoil and jatropha.

Biofuels, fuels from biomass, continue to be the most important energy source for the poor in the world. The ecological biodiverse farm is not just a source of food; it is a source of energy. Energy for cooking the food comes from the inedible biomass like cow dung cakes, stalks of millets and pulses, agro-forestry species on village wood lots. Managed sustainably, village commons have been a source of decentralized energy for centuries.

Industrial biofuels are not the fuels of the poor; they are the foods of the poor, transformed into heat, electricity, and transport. Liquid biofuels, in particular ethanol and bio-diesel, are one of the fastest growing sectors of production, driven by the search of alternatives to fossil fuels both to avoid the catastrophe of peak oil and to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. President Bush is trying to pass legislation to require the use of 35 billion gallons of biofuels by 2017. M. Alexander of the Sustainable Development Department of FAO has stated: "The gradual move away from oil has begun. Over the next 15 to 20 years we may see biofuels providing a full 25 per cent of the world’s energy needs."

Global production of biofuels alone has doubled in the last five years and will likely double again in the next four. Among countries that have enacted a new pro-biofuel policy in recent years are Argentina, Australia, Canada, China, Columbia, Ecuador, India, Indonesia, Malawi, Malaysia, Mexico, Mozambique, the Philippines, Senegal, South Africa, Thailand and Zambia.

There are two types of industrial biofuels – ethanol and biodiesel. Ethanol can be produced from products rich in saccharose such as sugarcane and molasses, substances rich in starch such as maize, barley and wheat. Ethanol is blended with petrol. Biodiesel is produced from vegetable only such as palm oil, soya oil, and rapeseed oil. Biodiesel is blended with diesel.

Representatives of organizations and social movements from Brazil, Bolivia, Costa Rica, Columbia, Guatemala and the Dominican Republic in a declaration titled "Full Tanks at the Cost of Empty Stomachs", wrote "The current model of production of bio-energy is sustained by the same elements that have always caused the oppression of our people’s appropriation of territory, of natural resources, and the labor force."

And Fidel Castro in an article titled "Food stuff as Imperial weapon: Biofuels and Global Hunger" has said:

More than three billion people are being condemned to a premature death from hunger and thirst.

The biofuel sector worldwide has grown rapidly. United states and Brazil have established ethanol industries and the European Union is also fast catching up to explore the potential market. Governments all over the world are encouraging biofuel production with favourable policies. United states is pushing the other third world nations of the world to go in for biofuel production so that their energy needs get met at the expense of plundering others resources.

Inevitably this massive increase in the demand for grains is going to come at the expense of the satisfaction of human needs, with poor people priced out of the food market. On February 28, the Brazilian Landless Workers Movement released a statement noting that "the expansion of the production of biofuels aggravates hunger in the world. We cannot maintain our tanks full while stomachs go empty."

The diversion of food for fuel has already increased the price of corn and soya. There have been riots in Mexico because of the price rise of tortillas. And this is just the beginning. Imagine the land needed for providing 25% of the oil from food.

One tonne of corn produces 413 litres of ethanol. 35 million gallons of ethanol requires 320 million tons of corn. The U.S. produced 280.2 million tons of corn in 2005. As a result of NAFTA, the U.S. made Mexico dependent on U.S. corn, and destroyed the small farms of Mexico. This was in fact the basis of the Zopatista uprising. As a result of corn being diverted to biofuels, prices of corn have increased in Mexico.

Industrial biofuels are being promoted as a source of renewable energy and as a means to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. However, there are two ecological reasons why converting crops like soya, corn and palm oil into liquid fuels can actually aggravate climate chaos and the CO2 burden.

Firstly, deforestation caused by expanding soya plantations and palm oil plantations is leading to increased CO2 emissions. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that 1.6 billion tons or 25 to 30 per cent of the greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere each year comes from deforestation. By 2022, biofuel plantations could destroy 98% of Indonesia’s rainforests.

According to Wetlands International, destruction of South East Asia pert lands for palm oil plantations is contributing to 8% of the global CO2 emissions. According to Delft Hydraulics, every tonne of palm oil results in 30 tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions or 10 times as much as petroleum producers. However, this additional burden on the atmosphere is treated as a clean development mechanism in the Kyoto Protocol for reducing emissions. Biofuels are thus contributing to the same global warming that they are supposed to reduce. (World Rainforest Bulletin No.112, Nov 2006, Page 22)

Further, the conversion of biomass to liquid fuel uses more fossil fuels than it substitutes.

One gallon of ethanol production requires 28,000 kcal. This provides 19,400 kcal of energy. Thus the energy efficiency is — 43%.

The U.S. will use 20% of its corn to produce 5 billion gallons of ethanol which will substitute 1% of oil use. If 100% of corn was used, only 7% of the total oil would be substituted. This is clearly not a solution either to peak oil or climate chaos. (David Pimental at IFG conference on "The Triple Crisis", London, Feb 23-25, 2007)

And it is a source of other crisis. 1700 gallons of water are used to produce a gallon of ethanol. Corn uses more nitrogen fertilizer, more insecticides, more herbicides than any other crop.

These false solutions will increase the climate crisis while aggravating and deepening inequality, hunger and poverty.

Real solutions exist which can mitigate climate change while reducing hunger and poverty.

According to the Stern Report, agriculture accounts for 14% emissions, land use (referring largely to deforestation) accounts for 18%, and transport accounts for 14%. The increasing transport of fresh food, which could be grown locally, is part of these 14% emissions.

Not all agricultural systems however contribute to greenhouse gas emissions. Industrial chemical agriculture, also called the Green Revolution when introduced in Third World countries, is the major source of three greenhouse gases – carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxide, and methane. Carbon dioxide is emitted from using fossil fuels for machines and pumping of ground water, and the production of chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Chemical fertilizers also emit nitrogen oxygen, which is 300 times more lethal than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas. And grain fed factory farming is a major source of methane. Studies indicate that a shift from grain fed to predominantly grass fed organic diet could reduce methane emission from livestock by upto 50%.

Ecological, organic agriculture reduces emissions both by reducing dependence on fossil fuels, chemical fertilizers and intensive feed, as well as absorbing more carbon in the soil. Our studies show an increase of carbon sequestration of upto 200% in biodiverse organic systems.

When "ecological and organic" is combined with "direct and local", emissions are further reduced by reducing energy use for "food miles", packaging and refrigeration of food. And local food systems will reduce the pressure to expand agriculture in the rainforests of Brazil and Indonesia. We could, with a timely transition reduce emissions, increase food security and food quality and improve the resilience of rural communities to deal with the impact of climate change. The transition from the industrial globalised food system being imposed by WTO, the World Bank and Global Agribusinesses to ecological and local food systems is both a mitigation and adaption strategy. It protects the poor and it protects the planet. The post-Kyoto framework must include ecological agriculture as a climate solution.

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