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March 15th, 2010 (05:36 pm)

Eli Witek
CHEM 111

The Trouble With Biofuel

Biofuels are problematic not only because the process may use sources of food in a time when people go hungry, and may actually take more net energy to produce than traditional fuels (two common criticisms), but because, fatally, a handful of multinational corporations (in particular the biotech agriculture industry) have a monopoly over the market. The oligopoly controls the two main sources of the sugars necessary for the seemingly most viable biofuel, bioethanol: corn and sugarcane. Biotech agribusiness can patent plant genetic material-- i.e. seeds-- enabling a few huge companies to control all corn and sugarcane production, which has resulted in genetically modified monocultures that require pesticides and fossil fuel based fertilizers, conveniently made by the same handful of corporations.

Currently, according to the Erosion, Technology, and Concentration Group (which examines the socioeconomic effects of biotechnologies) three companies control 39% of the world market of seeds, and 44% of seeds under intellectual property: Monsanto, Dupont-Pioneer, and Syngenta. Monsanto alone controls 90% of all genetically modified seeds. According a Washington Post article published November 29th, 2009 they are responsible for 93% of all soybeans produced in the U.S. and 80% of all corn. Some perspective on corn production in the U.S. is necessary to fully understand why these statistics currently make biofuel a nightmare proposition.

Corn is in the particular position of being a steadily increasing crop that, paradoxically, farmers sell at a dollar less than what it costs them to grow. Farmers rely on government subsidies to make up the difference; the Farm Subsidy Database calculates “..Corn subsidies in United States totaled $56.2 billion from 1995-2006.” And yet, farmers are forced to squeeze more and more bushels of corn per acre than ever before, creating a flood of cheap corn, mostly from Monsanto’s GMO seeds.

Monsanto, a one-time manufacturer of napalm and Agent Orange, controls these GMO seeds, modified to withstand the insecticide Roundup that they manufacture. Farmers who once saved their seeds over generations now buy their seeds (and pesticides) from Monsanto. Those that do not are vulnerable to lawsuit for patent infringement from seeds that blow into their fields. Even if they have not violated any laws, Monsanto, who can afford it until the farmer is bankrupt, can indefinitely prolong a lawsuit.

The GMO corn and soybeans owned by Monsanto function as raw materials in an industrial food system that obscures what we eat from where it came from. As chronicled by authors like Michael Pollan (The Omnivores Dilemma) and Eric Schlosser (Fast Food Nation), the majority of surplus cheap corn is found in our food, where items are overly processed, allowing corporations like Cargill and Archer Daniels Midland to siphon away direct profit from the farmer, now less than 1% of the total U.S. population. The meat we eat is by virtue of corn: the industrial meat industry cost effectively feeds chickens and pigs corn as well as salmon and cows (grass eaters). The vast, seemingly irrational state of affairs has been underwritten by the U.S. government for the sake of private profit of agribusiness aristocracy. When the government subsidizes the farmer, they really enable increasing earnings and control for a few private businesses. The U.S. government also subsidizes the sale of ethanol, another boon to the companies.

One of the problems with conceptualizing the argument as food or biofuel is that the same corporations have a firm grip over both. Biofuels in this context are just another way agricultural corporations manipulate a demand for excess crops. The U.S. is the world’s largest producer of ethanol, mostly produced by corn. (Renewable Fuels Association) Clearly, Monsanto has good reason to be heavily invested in biofuel production. In 2007 they entered a 1.5 billion dollar partnership with the German company BASF Ag, the largest chemical company in the world, with the aim of expanding GMO crops to supply the increasing demand for biofuels. (Monsanto.com)

The push for corn as a source of biofuel is not because it is a green alternative, but because that is what the corporations want. Monsanto is just one example of powerful corporate interest (corn is just one example of biomass they are invested in): Syngenta, DuPont, Dow Chemical, Novartis, Tyson (who allied with oil company Conoco-Philips to produce biodiesel from animal fat) ConAgra, Cargill, Archer Daniels Midland, are just some of the predatory businesses that have converged on biofuel. Biomass as fuel is a problem in a capitalist and oligopolistic market, where powerful companies can patent plant material—patent biomass, essentially---and promote it as a green alternative in fuel to the detriment of people and the environment. Biofuel is touted in a redux of the environmental crisis in 20th century brought about by toxic chemicals and “a better living through chemistry” (DuPont’s one-time motto). Biofuel from bioengineering may seem like a plausible solution, but the leaders in biotechnology are the big corporations.

How actually green, how efficient is bioethanol? First of all, “…growing corn to produce ethanol, according to a 2007 study by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, consumes 200 times more water than the water used to process corn into ethanol.” (http://e360.yale.edu/content/feature.msp?id=2251) And according to Michael Pollan,

“…(Corn) consumes tremendous quantities of fossil fuel. Corn receives more synthetic fertilizer than any other crop, and that fertilizer is made from fossil fuels — mostly natural gas. Corn also receives more pesticide than any other crop, and most of that pesticide is made from petroleum.” (http://pollan.blogs.nytimes.com/2006/05/24/the-great-yellow-hope/#more-24)

The idea that growing crops out of fossil fuels which you can then make into biofuel to replace fossil fuels is an absurd proposition generated by our agricultural paradox: lots of corn that costs more to make than it is worth.

And are these GM crops even safe?

“In what is being described as the first ever and most comprehensive study of the effects of genetically modified foods on mammalian health, researchers have linked organ damage with consumption of Monsanto’s GM maize.” (http://foodfreedom.wordpress.com/2010/01/01/three-approved-gmos-linked-to-organ-damage/)

The consequences of monopoly control are by no means limited to the United States. The corporations are multinational, and have the ability to manipulate the global market with far-reaching impact. In a globalized context, corporations like Monsanto have undermined the self-sustainability of local economies. Weighing in on the food or fuel debate, Monsanto claims “…there is virtually no connection to biofuels and these unfortunate shortages around the globe” (Monsanto.com). But according to a leaked report from the World Bank, “…biofuels have forced world food prices up by 75%” (http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2008/jul/03/biofuels.renewableenergy). While, as Michael Pollan writes in The Omnivores Dilemma “…Since the Nixon administration, farmers in the United States have managed to produce 500 additional calories per person every day (up from 3,300, already substantially more than we need)” (103), the number of people who chronically go hungry has exceeded 1 billion. (U.N. World Food Programme) Food shortages, oil price spikes and biofuel demands have only benefited the corporations: the social justice non-governmental organization GRAIN reports “…for 2007, Cargill's profits increased 36%; Archer Daniels Midland's by 67 %; ConAgra by 30%; Bunge's by 49%; and Dreyfus's profits in the last quarter of 2007 grew by 77%. Monsanto's profits increase was 44% over 2006 and Dupont-Pioneer's 19%.” (http://alainet.org/active/23996)

Empirical science ignores the larger context of biofuel creation and is open to some degree of manipulation. Private biotech companies fund and present research as they see fit (which is why we hear about the energy efficiency of converting corn to ethanol, and not the extreme inefficiency in the process of growing corn). When agribusinesses successfully lobby the government to promote ethanol, they are bending public perception away from the very serious issues concerning the larger picture of biofuel production in the current situation; namely, biofuels will only benefit them.

Livejournal gets mad if I try and put in my works cited. So, sorry.


Posted by: ((Anonymous))
Posted at: March 25th, 2010 12:05 pm (UTC)
Important piece you wrote; getting web attention

I'm delighted you cited my work http://foodfreedom.wordpress.com/2010/01/01/three-approved-gmos-linked-to-organ-damage/

Hope you saw this piece of yours was also posted at Biofuels Watch:

keep on blogging!

~ Rady

Posted by: minnesotafarm.wordpress.com (ext_229197)
Posted at: March 26th, 2010 12:14 am (UTC)

Here on the farm we have a bit different opinion on some of your allegations.
A monoculture is an area that grows only one crop. Very little land grows only corn, and cannot for an extended time. I live in the corn soybean belt, two crops. Monocultures include such things as vineyards and orchards.
Biofuels use only the starch in corn. Starch we have more than enough of. The proteins are still there to use as feed sources.
The net energy to produce ethanol has dropped dramatically in the last 15 years. It is currently more energy efficient to produce ethanol than gasoline.
Genetically modified crops have allowed us to produce crops using less fuel, fertilizer, herbicides and water.
The little bit of "subsidy" I get from the government to grow corn amounts to less than one penny per bushel of production. If corn could not be grown with out this little bit of money we would all be in deep dodo.
Back when we saved our owned seed for corn, yields were about 50 bushels per acre, now they are closer to 200 bushels. Most of that increase was not from biotech advances.
The greatest user of fertilizers in the world is your lawn. Lawns get 10 times more fertilizer than corn.
Interestingly, the study that linked organ damage to GMO corn did not have a control study of non-GMO corn. Anything consumed in excess is not healthy. Too much water will kill you a lot faster than too much GMO corn.
Since fuel is a larger part of the cost of getting food to market than the actual cost of the food ingredients, I would bet on the rise in the cost of fuel to have had a larger effect on food prices than corn. Now that the price of corn has dropped by more than half, why have food prices not dropped.
The problem with hunger today is not what we produce, but where. We in the western world have the money to ship food from around the world. The poor of the world do not.
If growing corn was so inefficient, how come so much of it is grown. I have been able to continue to farm because of the nearby ethanol plant that has raised the price of corn in an historically low price area. Ethanol has made me more able to feed my family. Not government subsidies.
Michael Pollan in his books has admitted to farmers in our area that he made mistakes in his calculations. Mistakes that are critical to the whole book.
Who are you going to believe, a journalist and Berkley Professor, who based his whole book on the opinions of a few angry people, or the farmers who are actually in the trenches. Each American farmer now feeding 155 others, in the most efficient agricultural system the world has ever known.

Posted by: baptizemeinwine (baptizemeinwine)
Posted at: March 27th, 2010 03:17 pm (UTC)

I appreciate your comment. Here is a (almost) point by point response.

1. Corn/soybean belt = "According a Washington Post article published November 29th, 2009 they (Monsanto) are responsible for 93% of all soybeans produced in the U.S. and 80% of all corn."

2. A monoculture is not just one crop, but one species. The corn and soybeans fields planted from Monsanto seed are necessarily only one variety, one genetic line. In that sense they are monocultures (as opposed to displaying some genetic diversity).

3. I challenge your claim producing ethanol (I assume you mean corn ethanol) is more energy efficient than gasoline. Here is a well written article - http://www.climatecentral.org/library/climopedia/fossil_fuels_supply_about_80_of_the_energy_in_corn_ethanol

4. I do not know enough about our current subsidy system to speak with any authority.

5. That increase in yield was indeed from biotechnology. It was a result of hybridization, a form of genetic manipulation. Hybridization is perhaps the 'old' biotechnology, but it is still biotechnology. Corn yields jumped dramatically after farmers moved from selection to hybridization. http://plantandsoil.unl.edu/croptechnology2005/UserFiles/Image/siteImages/CornYieldGraphLG.gif Of course, other advances in agriculture helped increase yields. But my argument is not about yield increases, it's about how patenting biotechnology (hybridization really opened the way for this) has allowed corporations to take over agriculture for the benefit of private profit, and to the detriment of the rest of us.

6. I don't have a lawn. And I am not saying lawns don't suck too.

7. http://www.biolsci.org/v05p0706.htm This is a link to the study linking GMO corn with organ damage. In the 'Materials and Methods' section you can see the various control groups. Of course, the raw data itself was produced by Monsanto.

8. While you 'bet' fuel (going to assume you mean fossil fuel) is the culprit of food prices, the World Bank disagrees with you. I linked this article in the paper -- http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2008/jul/03/biofuels.renewableenergy

9. I would say the problem with hunger today is that a handful of people are very rich and so a whole lot of others are very poor. You almost said this yourself.

10. Ethanol may have made you more able to feed your family, but it has caused 100 million people to fall under the poverty line (another world bank figure). The immediate positive effect for the farmer when corn prices are raised (it would be nice if it didn't cost more to make than to sell in the first place) obscures the dangers of corporate control of crops, which I tried to make clear with my paper. I urge you to read Jack Kloppenburg's First the Seed, published in 1988.

11. Perhaps I should have avoided using Michael Pollan as a source, as it makes it too easy to dismiss a 'Berkley Professor' and chalk it all up to 'the opinions of a few angry people', as you say.

12. The efficiency of our agricultural system is obviously where we disagree.

Posted by: ((Anonymous))
Posted at: March 27th, 2010 11:00 pm (UTC)

Wonderful, No, I really mean it.
OK, We could quote studies all day, I know there has been something written to cover every possible outcome.
1) Yes, Monsanto does control certain processes that affect plant genetics. I don't find that bad. They have helped us increase our profits.
2) Corn and soybeans are different species, one a grass, one a legume. Two very different plants. We rotate them. We may have one crop one year, but we have another the next. I'd call it a bi-culture.
3) I would suggest you check up on the results of ethanol produced by the POET group. They've been leading the pack for over 10 years
5) Man has been messing with the corn plant for almost 10,000 years. There is nothing like it in the wild, yet it is still a grass. Monsanto's patents are running out soon. They made their profit. Since when is profit bad? I like making a profit.
7) Is a result suspect because of who paid for it? As far as I've seen the effect is not immediate, and is only produced at feeding rates far above any any that would happen.
8) Although the World Bank may say so, We on the farm were seeing something else. The World Bank was blaming the rise in food prices on corn and the rise in prices in corn due to the use of corn for ethanol production. Humans do not eat the kind of corn raised in the corn belt. It is used for industry and livestock feed. The effect of corns price going up doesn't hit the human food chain for 4 months in the case of poultry, 6 months in the case of pork and 2 years in the case of beef, all of those effects usually do take longer. The price of ethanol is set by what fuel companies will pay for it. As the price of gas goes up, oil companies buy more ethanol to reduce the price of gasoline. All of this says that if corn prices go up, it takes longer for the price of corn to affect the price of food than it does for the price of fuel. The price of corn just is a large enough part of the equation. Transportation is a much larger part of what you pay for food than is corn.
Farmers cannot set prices, we take what others will give us. If we cannot get enough for what we produce we quit growing it. Then the price goes up to encourage us to grow more. Prices go up for ethanol for the same reason. If the fuel companies don't want it they reduce the price they will pay. We were seeing the hand of oil and food buyers.
9) Yes, I agree. The problem is that all of the food flows to that money.
10) Wow, if it cost more to grow corn than I can sell it for, I must be losing money hand over fist, which I am not. Maybe you should check with some farm managers. They can give you the real cost of raising corn.
11) You're right, Michael Pollan is too easy. He has admitted that some of his first crucial calculations are wrong.
12) I think you should check with folks on the farm, not just one, a lot of them. Yes we can do better, but we're doing the best we can, and we are making enough to live comfortably thank you.
Sorry, I'm too close to this issue. I live it, I don't just read about it.

Posted by: minnesotafarm.wordpress.com (ext_229197)
Posted at: March 27th, 2010 11:00 pm (UTC)

Oops, In 8) it should say - The price of corn just is not a large enough part of the equation.

Posted by: ((Anonymous))
Posted at: March 30th, 2010 12:01 pm (UTC)
Read William Engdahl's "Seeds of Destruction"

I recommend this book - gives an expansive view over several decades.

It might make you question how and when to cite World Bank ... but always judiciously.

Posted by: baptizemeinwine (baptizemeinwine)
Posted at: March 30th, 2010 12:36 pm (UTC)
Re: Read William Engdahl's "Seeds of Destruction"

I am citing a leaked, confidential report. I have not read that book, but I have read plenty of reasons to be wary of the World Bank.

Here is a link to an article on the leaked report, written by William Engdahl-

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