The Seven Commandments of Mexican ethanol

Follow these rules and you will get social justice, a healthy environment and renewable energy. It's easy!

By Andrew Leonard
Published September 28, 2007 10:21PM (UTC)
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What is the perfect biofuel solution? Or is the very concept hopelessly utopian? Globalization and the Environment highlights an exploration of how one might go about constructing a sustainable ethanol economy that simultaneously serves the interests of social justice, the environment, and renewable energy, in the context of Mexico.

The overriding goal of author Ricardo Cantú in his delightfully titled "Ethanolomics: The Think-About's of the Mexican Ethanol Project" is to devise a strategy for improving the living standards of the rural poor in Mexico via an invigoration of the agricultural economy, without committing the major sin of inducing price hikes in food staples that will hurt the urban poor.


Achieving the desired balance will not be easy. As ground rules, Cantu provides a set of guidelines:

They are:

  • 1. Over the whole chain, the use of biomass should produce fewer emissions of greenhouse gases net than on average with fossil fuel.
  • 2. Production of biomass for energy must not endanger the food supply and other local applications (such as for medicines or building materials).
  • 3. Biomass production must not affect protected or vulnerable biodiversity and will, where possible, have to strengthen biodiversity.
  • 4. In the production and processing of biomass, the quality of soil, surface and ground water and air must be retained or even increased.
  • 5. The production of biomass must contribute towards local prosperity.
  • 6. The production of biomass must contribute towards the social well being of the employees and the local population.
  • 7. The overall ethanol production costs should be cheaper and more accessible than that of the fossil fuels, or at least the same level, excluding all the subsidies or tax benefits to the producers or distributors.

That's quite a checklist. Let's pick one absolutely not at random: The production of biomass must contribute towards local prosperity.

Cantú stresses that a key requirement of a biofuel economy in Mexico is that the farmers capture the rewards of their production. In other words, one wants to avoid a situation in which farmers sell their sugar cane or maize or sorghum at rock-bottom prices to middlemen who then grab all the upstream profits. Cantú envisions farmer cooperatives setting up their own ethanol mills, and dealing directly with distributors.


Such a model is not uncommon in the U.S., and there's no reason, in principle, it couldn't work in Mexico. But it would require strong government leadership.

Indeed, to achieve all the goals outlined above would require a tightly regulated market with significant government intervention: in other words, a direct repudiation of the kind of Washington Consensus policies of deregulation and privatization that the U.S. has been pushing on Latin America for decades.

Stuff that into your biofuel economy and smoke it.

Andrew Leonard

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

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Globalization How The World Works Latin America Mexico