Worldwatch's biofuel dream

A biofuel Shangri-La: Ecologically sustainable and socioeconomically just.

Published June 14, 2006 12:21AM (EDT)

If you've got a friend or family member who has recently asked you, "What's the deal with all this ethanol, biodiesel, switchgrass foofaraw?" here's some advice: Send them directly to the fresh-off-the-presses, 38-page executive summary of a new report on biofuels from the Worldwatch Institute. Tell them not to be scared by the imposing title: "Biofuels for Transportation: Global Potential and Implications for Sustainable Agriculture and Energy in the 21st Century." This is a good, clearly written introduction to the topic, with lots of nice charts and figures, and an excellent roundup of all the pertinent policy issues that intersect. But it's also more than that: in a world where corporatist, free-market ideology regularly runs amok, it is an unapologetic mandate for government action.

Make no mistake: Biofuels are booming. "Global fuel ethanol production more than doubled between 2000 and 2005, while production of biodiesel, starting from a much smaller base, expanded nearly fourfold." The charts documenting the growth curves point straight up, and there's little reason to think that's going to change. The challenge is managing and directing that growth in sustainable, socioeconomically equitable ways.

For the purposes of this blog, perhaps the most interesting aspect of the onrushing biofuel economy is its implications for international trade. One of the stickiest issues in the current Doha round of the World Trade Organization trade negotiations has been the question of agricultural subsidies that protect relatively rich farmers in the developed world at the expense of poor farmers in the developing world. The cultivation of crops for biofuels -- especially in tropical countries, where it is most energy-efficient to do so -- offers tremendous opportunities for the developing world, but not if developed countries continue to keep their walls up. As an example of how this works, all one has to do is look at the U.S. tariff on imported ethanol, which keeps out cheap Brazilian ethanol, converted from sugar cane, in order to protect Midwestern corn-based ethanol. But as biofuels become a bigger and bigger part of the global energy mix, artificial barriers may become hard to sustain. The potential is for a shifting of the balance of power away from the industrialized world and the oil states to a new generation of big biofuel producers. This will be fascinating to watch.

The Worldwatch authors wax eloquently about how correct government policies in combination with the right kind of trade liberalization could be a massive boon to poor farmers, provided that they actually get a slice of the real value of their crops. "Increased jobs and economic development for rural areas in both industrialized and developing countries is possible if governments put the appropriate policies in place and enforce them." But they also note that the players who stand to benefit the most from the biofuel bonanza are agribusinesses that have the infrastructure and capital in place to create economies of scale and invest in the new technologies necessary for efficient processing.

And that's where the Worldwatch harvest begins to wither on the vine. There's a great sense of potential opportunity underlying the "governments should do this and governments should do that" proposals in the report. But there's little overt recognition of the extent to which the Cargills and Archer Daniels Midlands and Monsantos and Syngentas already influence government policy and trade negotiation strategy. Where is it written that it is in their interest to promote small-scale farmer's cooperatives, or rigid restrictions on development that ensure biodiversity and ecological sustainability?

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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