Different Shades of Green

Biofuels are made from either grain, sugar or vegetable oils–all important food products. There is increasing competition for feedstocks (food stocks?) between eating and energy. Rising prices for vegetable oil are forcing the world’s poor to ration every drop, or go without. Bakeries in the United States are being squeezed by higher shortening costs. And in Malaysia, brand-new factories built to convert vegetable oil into diesel fuel sit unused, their owners unable to afford the raw material. From India to Indiana, shortages and soaring prices for palm oil, soybean oil and any other type of vegetable oils are the latest, most striking example of a developing global problem: high food prices caused by energy-interventionism. The food price index of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, climbed 37 percent last year. That was on top of a 14 percent increase in 2006, and the trend has accelerated this winter. It is more worrisome for many than energy price increases.

The Sacramento Bee reports, based on the fellowship-sponsored reporting of Tom Knudson, that “where a rich rain forest once stood, storing carbon in its roots, branches, trunks and soil, vast fields of oil palms stretched across the landscape, displacing native people and leaving some of the world’s most majestic creatures – from Sumatran tigers to orangutans – without a home.”

“There is no greater curse for orangutans in Borneo and Sumatra than palm oil plantations,” said Biruté Galdikas, a primate scientist, who lives in Indonesia and in Los Angeles, home to her nonprofit group: Orangutan Foundation International. “People who buy palm oil have orangutan blood on their hands.”

So, along with food price increases and destruction of important habitat, comes an increase in CO2, an important greenhouse gas. One of the major rationales for developing biofuels was that their use would reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but that excuse seems questionable.

Some biofuel manufacturers claim to only buy palm oil from “sustainable” plantations, or ones that were not, just a short while ago, rain forest and orangutan habitat, but it is hard to imagine how to actually track shipments of palm oil from one plantation or another within a global trade—palm oil is a commodity just like petroleum and is globally traded. The overall production and consumption of oil is the main cause of the push to deforest vast tracts, not any single plantation. The claim that one can distinguish, by source, some biofuels from others, strikes me as the epitome of “greenwashing” and does little to reduce the overall demand for palm oil, which is driven by mandates for biofuel use; there is only so much palm oil–or other vegetable oils–that can be produced without encroaching on rainforest or other habitat, and the mandates are harmful.

Negative price and environmental impacts are not restricted to biofuels from palm oil, nor to just developing countries far away. Food price increases have already been noted that were caused here as a result of the corn-ethanol mandate in U.S. law and the associated 51 cents per gallon subsidy. That growing market has serious negative environmental impacts here at home, not least of which is heavy demand for water and changes to land use (e.g. from biologically diverse to monoculture.) And don’t even get me started on the threatened and endangered species’ kill-off from wind turbine development…

Nothing contained in this blog is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Pacific Research Institute or as an attempt to thwart or aid the passage of any legislation.

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