[03/23/07] MST Informa #130: Bio-Energy for Whom? (an article from Sem Terra Magazine)

Food security, poor farmers, and environmental impact are not often discussed when talking about bio-fuels.

By Daniel Cassol

The discussion around clean, renewable energy production is not new, but now it has become more urgent, especially after the beginning of February when the Intergovernmental Panel of Climatic Changes released its report about global warming. Faced with such a distressing alarm, the world seems like it is facing the fact that it must changes its sources of energy, adopting alternative ways to produce the energy it consumes.

At a meeting in France, a group of scientists announced that the Earth's temperature could increase by four degrees in this century due to the increased concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere related to the use of fossil fuel. Currently, 80% of the world's energy source comes from fossil carbons, of which 36% comes from petroleum, 23% from coal, and 21% from natural gas.

In these times, one product is gaining more and more attention: bio-fuels. Energy production for use in transportation based on sugar cane or oily seeds, like soy, seems to be literally the salvation of agriculture. And Brazil is the likely hero, with 200 million hectares of fertile land, according to the National Plan of Agro-ergia, released by the federal government in 2006.

The principle argument used for betting on bio-fuels is that they are a renewable source of energy; that is, they don't drain the planet like petroleum does, for example. But in this case, are bio-fuels in fact an answer to the environmental collapse of the planet and an alternative for poor farmers, or are they part of the survival of agribusiness, and one that will generate environment impacts just as serious as fossil fuels? It is a debate for which there is little space, and few voices.

"Businesses and governments are waging an intense campaign to present bio-fuels as the alternative to combat climatic changes by substituting a part of petroleum consumption. But the real thought is not to abandon petroleum, nor change the standards of the consumption that produces global warming. Rather it is to bring together these forms of energy to create new sources of business, promoting and subsidizing the industrial production of plants to this end," writes Silvia Ribeiro, researcher for ETC**, in an article for the Mexican newspaper, La Jornada. She further writes that all of the businesses that produce genetically-modified seeds, companies like Syngenta, Monsanto, Dupont, Dow, Bayer and Basf, have investments in the production of bio-fuels, like ethanol and bio-diesel.

Capitalist Logic.

The signs that world capitalism has a strategic plan to conquer the market for agro-energy is becoming more clear. On January 31, 2007, in his State of the Union address to the Congress of the United States, President George Bush announced his goal of reducing the consumption of gasoline by 20% by the year 2017, and producing 132.4 billion liters of alternative fuels, principally ethanol made from corn. The subject of bio-fuels was also one of the principle topics discussed at the World Economic Forum in January, in Davos, Switzerland.

The movement of wealthy countries and big multinationals around this subject has made analysts and social movements view with reluctance the entrance of developing nations in the production of bio-fuels. The environmental impact created by monoculture, the exploitation of poor farmers and rural workers, and the threat to food production are on the list of concerns. In Brazil, agribusiness is betting on sugar cane, and soy, transgenic of course.

"There are no government programs with criteria or established directives in the area of production that point to a new agricultural model. Besides this, the bio-diesel program is being handed over to a group of private companies who want to buy the farmers' grains without adequately compensating rural communities. They are encouraging monoculture once again," criticized Brother Seraglio Borden, a leader of Via Campesina of Brazil, a group which brings together social movements from all over the world, like the MST and the Movement of Small Farmers.

In accord with the federal government's National Program for Production and Use of Bio-diesel, Brazil--beginning in 2008--will make obligatory a 2% addition of vegetable oil-based diesel in petroleum-based diesel. This percentage will increase to 5% in 2013. If the bio-diesel market with 2% is one billion liters per year, with 5% this demand will grow to 2.7 billions of liters per year. The stars of the Brazil government are soy, seen as a lifesaver for big producers of transgenic seeds, and the castor-oil plant, which theoretically would benefit family farming.

Concerning ethanol, Brazil will once again prioritize sugar cane production. It is estimated that production will increase 50% in relation to the current production of 460 tons, according to the Union of Sugar Cane Agro-industry of São Paulo.

A new Pro-Alcohol?

In sum, faced with the real opportunity to change the model of agricultural production, Brazil is entering into the production of bio-fuels by reinforcing unsustainable practices in environmental and social terms. The rush into bio-fuels is benefiting big companies and tossing small farmers aside, not to mention harming the cultivation of foods for local consumption.

“There is a risk of repeating the experience of Pro-Alcohol in Brazil. You have a clean fuel, produced in a dirty way, besides being environmentally unsustainable in the process of production and socially perverse in the way that it treats its workers,�? says Frei Sergio. Created in the 1970s, the National Alcohol Program gave incentives to small and medium sized farmers, to install their own alcohol distillers. For political reasons, such as that it remained illegal to use your own home-made alcohol as a fuel, the Pro-Alcohol program ended up benefiting only big producers, whose labor practices including using slave labor in their cane processing and their considerable environmental impacts.

Close to 30 years later, the same risks are in place. The sugar industry is excited about the possibility of opening the market for Brazillian ethanol in the United States. For his part, president Luíz Ignacio Lula da Silva announces that “we’ll eat good soy, and we’ll make bio-diesel from transgenic soy,�? signaling the priority that is being given to the big farmers and multinational grain companies. The creation of H-Bio, a mix of vegetable oil and petroleum developed by Petrobras, is another way to favor world agribusiness and the oil industry.

The federal government thinks, however, that the creation of the Social Fuel Seal will be a sort of safeguard for the family farm. The program proposes incentives to industries that obtain oil-seeds produced by small farmers. “We see farmers interested in going back to growing cotton, sunflower, peanuts, sesame, and other oil-seeds. That way, the farmers will not fall in the monoculture trap. If the government had launched a biodiesel program without this incentive for family farms, surely it would be made up only of soy, which is the biggest Brazillian oil-seed,�? remarked the executive director of energy development at Petrobras, Mozart Schmitt de Queiróz. Even still, projects along the lines of Social Fuel present problems, most of all for betting on the monoculture of the castor oil seed in the South and Northeast of the country. Another problem is the direct buying of grains from the farmers, placing them in the chain of production together with the big companies. The milk and tobacco industries have similar chains of production and frequently report cases of the economic exploitation of small farmers.

Diversifying production

The organizations of family farmers are approaching the emergence of bio-fuels with a high level of distrust, but they are also certain that this is where the strategic debate between two opposing models of production will stop. For organizations like La Via Campesina, certain basic requirements exist before the farmers will enter into the production of bio-fuels so that they can avoid falling into a trap. They want to prioritize food production, mix energy crops with other crops, and avoid systems of where they are integrated with big companies, instead of participating in as many stages of the production of bio-fuels as possible.

“The small properties owned by family farmers do not have any way of making themselves viable in the midst of the monoculture model. The big advantage of small farms is their system of diversified production, which belongs to their Agro-ecology model. It is important to be able to produce both bio-fuels and food. It is also fundamental to take advantage of the waste product left over after the extraction of oils. With these wastes, small farms could increase their production of eggs, milk, and meat, making the small farm systems of production even more viable,�? explains the agronomist Alexandre Borscheild, who works with Cooperbio, a biodiesel cooperative formed by farmers linked to La Via Campesina in the state of Rio Grande do Sul.

This is the direction that some projects created by branches of the Via Campesina in Brazil are going. Biodiesel will be made with multiple seeds, such as sunflower, peanut, and canola, whose residues will be used as animal feed or as organic fertilizer. Cooperatives of small farmers will be able to build their own seed-crushing facilities, sell the oil to companies, and keep the useful oil-seed waste products. “The conclusion that we are reaching is that the staple for the peasant farmer has to be oil-seeds that are perennial. In a small area, he will produce a large amount,�? explains Frei Sergião, citing the use of trees such as pinhão manso and the tungue, in the south, and dendê (palm oil), in the north. In the production of alcohol fuel, sugar cane can be accompanied by manioc and sweet potato. Just as with the making of biodiesel, the intention is to grow fuel crops mixed with food crops, and add value to the product before selling to the industries.

Transnationals vs small farmers

“The small farming system of production is more suitable because small farmers succeed in ensuring a very good combination between food and energy production, besides guaranteeing systems of polyculture, with products that can sustain the small farming production units. Large monoculture is not going to be efficient with sunflowers, castor-oil, peanuts, Barbados nuts, nor will they succeed in being efficient with the plants that have a large percentage of oil. Those plants adapt better to the small farming system. And small farming provides better conditions for resolving the equation between the production of energy and the production of food, Brother Sergio analyzes. In La Via Campesina leader’s opinion, Petrobras is one of the few channels within the federal government that opens the way for using the small farming method of agriculture in the production of biodiesel.

Mozart Queiroz pf Petrobras explains that the company acquires oil from the farmers and not seeds. “This motivates the cooperatives to set up their own extracting equipment. So family farming can keep a product and gain more value for their organization, managing a product that can be transformed into milk, eggs, meat. We are working to share the benefit of industrialization, for the farmer to be part of the chain of production at the extraction phase. At the same time, we are encouraging the growing of several oil-producing plants, trying to avoid monoculture,�? he says.

For the agronomist Alexandre Borscheid, the dispute between the market and the production model of bio-fuels has already begun and it looks like the field is wide open for the advance of the multinational agribusiness corporations. “If there is no intervention by the State to prioritize policies for family farming, the tendency is for the multinationals to take over this market, which promises to be very profitable. They are going to move into farm areas and this places family farming at risk. The farmers have to have autonomous production, with their own projects, in which they can ensure the production of liquid energy while preserving the production of food�?, he states.

The executive manager of Petrobras recognizes the risks of the race unleashed by the production of bio-fuels -- in the environmental impacts created by monoculture, in the damage to food sovereignty, and in the increase in economic exploitation of small farmers. According to him, before discussing these questions, humanity needs to rethink its model of energy consumption. “Even if the entire surface of the earth were used to produce bio-fuels, we would not succeed in keeping the consumption at the today’s level of fossil fuel consumption. It’s clear that it is urgent to rethink the world energy matrix�?, he concludes.

At the Forum on Food Sovereignty, which took place at the end of February in Mali, Africa, La Via Campesina International decided that the term “agro-fuels�? should be substituted for the term “bio-fuels�?. This is because the organization believes that the incentive for this type of fuel has led to the policies of monoculture (and not of small diversified production), threatening small farmers and food sovereignty. Since “bio�? means “life�? – the opposite of what is being practiced today, the group adopted the term “agro-fuel�?. La Via Campesina International, of which the MST is a part, brings together rural social movements from all over the world.

*Fossil fues:

There are three big types of fossil fuels: coal, oil, and natural gas. They were formed millions of years ago and result from a process of decomposition of plants and animals.

**Grupo ETC

International group that works with social movements, furnishing analyses and information about technologies of sustainable development.


The cooperative involves around 25 thousand families in 62 municipalities of the Northwest region of the state, producing 400 thousand liters of biofuels per day.