Agribusiness: Extreme energy through crops yielding?

By Laura Muñoz Lopez – CAHR, University of York

In this brief discussion about agrifuels, the aim is to highlight that despite their consideration as a clean and renewable energy and a substitute for fossil fuels, the reality is that they have severe consequences for the environment. This entry argues that agrifuels can be conceptualized as a process of extreme energy, with implications not only for soil and biodiversity depletion, but also for economic and social rights.

Agri-industrial soya yields. Source: http://www.paraguaymipais.com.ar/

Agri-industrial soya yields. Source: http://www.paraguaymipais.com.ar/

Before going more in depth on the topic, an explanation of the rhetoric needs to be made. International peasants’ organizations point out how the epistemology of the biofuel concept results in an oppositional relationship between the two stems: bio– and –fuel. Bio, they argue, means ‘live’ and using it jointly with ‘fuel’ leads to a misunderstanding about the real characteristics of these fuels. They indicate that the concept of agrifuels highlights better the real nature of this type of energy. Agri- relates these products with large-scale industrial agriculture that are commodities for the global market; whereas bio– relates with small scale biofuels for local use, often very sustainable. By acknowledging the fact that peasants are the most entitled to talk about agriculture and its products, and the fact that concepts and rhetoric has an impact on discourses, this entry follows the peasants’ movement terminology.

Once this preliminary clarification is made, a few words devoted to the types, products and relevance of this kind of energy would be pertinent. Agrifuels have been considered as a substitute for fossil fuels – oil and gas mainly – arguing that they are a ‘renewable and clean energy’ with no impact on the environment, creating new economic opportunities and a positive effect on the development of rural and impoverished regions of the world. Such assertions and the increasing threat of depletion of fossil fuels have attracted a lot of research and debate over agrifuels in life and social sciences.

From a life science point of view, agrifuel energy derives from biomass (raw materials) created from crops, animal fats, cooking oils and cellulose from the paper industry. Biomass produces two kinds of products: liquid agrifuel and agrigas. These products tend to be used as transportation fuel, gas or even as substitute for plastic in manufactures. ‘First generation’ agrifuels are more economically pervasive due to the fact that they are also food products such as soya, corn, sugar or palm oil. The agrifuel industry influences food prices causing negative impact on people. That is why life science researchers have come up with subsequent generations of agrifuels, which still necessitate agriculture derivatives but avoid edible crops (Awudu and Zhang, 2012; Mwakaje, 2012).

The core component of the second generation of agrifuels is cellulose which can be found in wood waste, industrial waste or grasses such as tropical Miscanthus or Jatropha. Third generation agrifuels are composed of algae derivatives. Both generations have been considered less controversial due to the fact that they do not compete with food markets and therefore they do not influence the evolution of food prices. However, the environmental impact of these agrifuels is still high due to the adverse effects for the soil and the biodiversity.

Agrifuels also necessitate land. Land is paramount for the development of this kind of energy and this is also the reason why it is considered unfavourable, especially taking into account the agriculture methods and technology employed. It is far from clear that agrifuels are renewable and that may reduce the carbon emissions to the atmosphere. The expansion of soya, sugar cane, palm oil, corn and cellulose trees is the major cause of deforestation, accounting for the 70-90% of it. Moreover, the new yields are high extensions of monoculture, substituting the more diverse and natural uses of the soil, having a negative impact on biodiversity (GRAIN, 2011).

This fact is aggravated because of the industrial agriculture techniques. This kind of agriculture method considers that with chemical fertilizers the capacity of the soil to keep its fertility is unlimited, a fact that has been proven wrong. Researchers have pointed out that yielded soils have lost 30 to 70% of their organic materials during the 20th century, whereas pastures have lost 50%, which contributed to draughts and floods and has decreased productivity (GRAIN, 2011).

Considering ‘extreme energy’ as a process that ‘steadily increases extraction effort’ (Lloyd-Davies, on this website) agrifuel energy should be conceptualized as an example of this kind of energy that is subjected to deficiency as fossil fuels. Due to the depletion of soil properties and its consequences for carbon emissions it is not arguable that agrifuels are renewable or clean using industrial agriculture techniques. Today carbon emissions from agriculture account for the 11 to 15% of the global amount and industrial agriculture is enhancing this figure in countries such as Brazil or the USA that are leaders in agrifuel production (GRAIN, 2011).

‘Extreme energy’ is not only a process that has an environmental effect, it also has a negative social  impact because it is ‘strongly correlated with damage to both society and the environment’ (Lloyd-Davies, on this website). From this perspective, social science research on agrifuels’ economic and social consequences has been carried out and may continue to produce research in the years to come due to its repercussion on perpetuating global inequalities.

It has been argued that agrifuels are an opportunity for economic development in impoverished areas that are mainly rural, but in many cases the urgency of land for this industry results in opaque process of land acquisition and economic development policies, excluding those more affected by poverty of this ‘opportunity’. This has direct implications for the right to an adequate food, to housing and to development of such people, affecting civil and political rights as well.

Mwakaje (2012) has conducted research on Tanzania agrifuels’ development plans highlighting that despite the fact that the country could become one of the main producers of this energy, the development plans rely on vertical integration industries agreed between the government and international agribusiness companies. Deals between these two parties avoid the decision making capacities of locals about their future and their land and exclude them from agriculture. Vertical integration does not support local farmers or the creation of a more high value-added industry for agrifuel production in African countries, but it intends to apply industrial agriculture techniques such as large-scale mechanized farms, chemical fertilizers and genetically modified seeds. The process of vertical integration involves exporting the raw material to be processed in foreign countries, which might result in a null or negative impact for rural areas (Mwakaje, 2012).

Agrifuels have been considered as a ‘crime against humanity’ by the former UN Rapporteur on the right to food and agribusiness as the ‘end of the peasantry’. The environmental and social impacts of them may lead us to a rethink of agrifuels as clean and renewable, and their yielding industrial techniques as unsustainable for the environment. The loss of biodiversity and the erosion of the soils due to chemical fertilizers increase the carbon emissions to the atmosphere, making industrial agriculture contribute to global warming. Despite the fact that many have argued that there is no other solution due to fossil fuel depletion and food availability constraints, peasants’ movements argue that it is possible to return to the soils their lost organic properties and meet productivity targets. In order to achieve environmentally and socially sustainable agrifuels one needs to implement small and ecological agriculture techniques which not only promote local markets but also embrace trade.

References:

Awudu, I., and Zhang, J. (2012). Uncertainties and sustainability concepts in biofuel supply chain management: A review. Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews, 16(2), 1359–1368.

GRAIN. (2011). El Gran Robo de Los Alimentos. Barcelona: Icaria Editorial.

Lloyd-Davies, E. (2013). Defining “extreme energy”: A process not a category. Extreme Energy Initiative. Retrieved October 07, 2013, from http://extremeenergy.org/2013/07/25/defining-extreme-energy-a-process-not-a-category/

Mwakaje, A. G. (2012). Can Tanzania realise rural development through biofuel plantations? Insights from the study in Rufiji District. Energy for Sustainable Development, 16(2012), 320–327.

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