Causes and effects of so-called biofuels. Alarm in the livestock sector

Causes and effects of so-called biofuels. Alarm in the livestock sector

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By Alfonso Raffin del Riego

Most experts agree that oil will run out in 40 years. Scientific reports on climate change indicate that the decisions we make right now will determine when the so-called "no return" occurs.

Causes of Biofuels

The consumption of fossil energy continues to increase in the US and Europe. It is reborn and explodes in the so-called emerging countries, where there are also more and more potential consumers. Economic growth is sustained by its consumption and the so-called welfare society as well.

Different economists and sociologists (Gubbert's Peak Theory) warn that this paradigm must be broken and alternatives must be sought before oil is reduced, otherwise the struggle for its possession will produce wars and slavery previously unknown. Some say they have already started (wars in Iraq and Angola, tensions in Iran, Nigeria, Venezuela).

The price of crude already reflects the lack of discoveries, the higher cost of its exploitation (deeper and heavier oil), the unstoppable consumption and the lack of alternatives in sight.

Most experts agree that oil will run out in 40 years. This is unpopular and expensive. Legislatures last 4 years, not 40.

A more oppressive problem than the previous one appears in the consciousness of the citizens. Scientific reports on climate change are increasingly pessimistic and indicate that the decisions we make right now will determine when the so-called "no return" occurs.

No return is that moment in which, even if we managed to stop all our greenhouse gas emissions, the chain processes would inevitably lead to the destruction of the planet.

In this complex crossword puzzle it would be difficult to determine when no return is reached, perhaps another degree centigrade more (we have already increased one), but what is clear is that when we discover the problem we all want forceful action and politicians offer it to us (to the letter).

Alternative energies are a solution, but most are costly to invest (wind and solar) or unpopular (nuclear). Biofuels break into the US and

Europe as the universal panacea to all problems:

  • They reduce dependence on fossil fuels and therefore on producing countries, whose power threatens the US (Venezuela and Iran) and Europe (Russia).
  • They keep the energy consumption infrastructures intact: gas stations, cars. This favors the survival of very important economic sectors for Europe and the US.
  • They maintain their own energy consumption, generator of economic growth and well-being (as we understand it) in the developed world.
  • They emit the same CO2, but from a plant that has consumed it before. This allows its emissions to be deducted from the total balance of a country, which is an enormous saving in the payment of the so-called carbon rights established by the Kyoto treaty.
  • They are a great catalyst for an agricultural sector in crisis and with difficulties to be protected from the pressure of the so-called group of 20 (led by Brazil).
  • They are an opportunity for developing countries with a huge external debt (difficult to collect).
  • They are a source of investment and business for all European and American biotechnology multinationals.

They are baptized as bio (a term reserved in Europe for organic agriculture), as green energy, as ecological gasoline. They are endowed with a wide level of subsidies to farmers (€ 40 / ha in CEE), to new factories and to research (€ 6,500 million in Spain). They are exempted from hydrocarbon taxes. National utilization targets are set and all gas station companies are obliged to a minimum mixing percentage (Royal Decree article 48, electricity law) with a fine of 30 million to fuel distributors that do not mix BC by a minimum of 1, 9% (in 2008), 3.4% (2009) and 5.83% (2010). Public transport uses and advertises them, Formula 1 predicts them, citizens embrace them.

Effects of biofuels in rural areas

The so-called green gold rush has begun to unleash its violence in some parts of the world. Europe and the US do not have enough land to meet their targets of 10% and 20% respectively and they necessarily need to import BC or the raw materials that generate them. Bioenergy companies are positioning themselves very quickly in Latin American, African and Asian countries for four reasons:

• Productivity in tropical climates is more than double

• Labor is cheaper

• Land is cheaper and accessible in large quantities

• Projects are carried out with fewer obstacles and more support, since the political will is more “manageable”.

The expansion of oil palm is being vertiginous in countries like Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand. We can expose the case of Malaysia, where 40 million indigenous people live in the tropical forest, who have seen that the palm has already eaten 20 million hectares and is transforming another 5 million at the moment. The palm also advances in Africa and South America.

In Colombia, some human rights organizations (Human Rights Everywhere, Belgische Coordinatie voor Colombia, Comision Intereclesial de Justicia y Paz) issue chilling reports: “Three million displaced by paramilitaries have abandoned 5 million hectares, leaving the former drug traffickers occupy them and use them to produce oil for export. They do so with resources from the Colombian government (financed by oil companies) that collects from its citizens and from development aid. Hundreds of resisters and whistleblowers have been killed ”.

FIAN International documents the complicity between agribusiness corporations, landowners and security forces in Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay and Indonesia. “The peasants who lived on the occupied lands do not have property titles. Their houses and crops are burned and their protests repressed ”.

In Argentina, soy has a new utility, biodiesel, and glyphosate spraying increases at unimaginable doses, generating respiratory and skin diseases and genetic alterations in rural communities. (Rural Reflection Group)

The working conditions in the sugar cane estates have been denounced by various organizations in Brazil (MST, Vital Civiles, Sindicato de

Rural Workers, Social Network, CPT). “Sugarcane occupies 6 million hectares of large properties in Brazil where 500 thousand salaried people work, but without a contract, they earn less than 1 euro per ton collected. 1,300 have died of exhaustion. They are hired from different and distant places, preventing their reorganization ”. It should be remembered that since 1980, 70 million Brazilians have fled to the fabelas of S. Paulo and Rio and filled prisons and brothels.

The difficult and risky denunciations of all these situations have been verified and exposed by the United Nations in its General Assembly with resolution 61/163.

Effects of biofuels on the environment

There is no doubt that the most discussed issue about the possible goodness of CBs is their ability to reduce CO2 emissions. Biofuel corporations and associations have promoted scientific studies that show that substituting ethanol and biodiesel for gasoline and diesel respectively reduces CO2 emissions by between 50% and 75% according to the studies. It must be taken into account that carbon is neither created nor destroyed and all that is emitted in the burning of a BC, was previously absorbed by a plant, is what is called neutral effect or zero balance. These studies discount the foreseeable emission of CO2 in the production of the crop and its transformation into BC, which initially indicates that the neutral effect is not such.

But "independent" researchers at Cornell Universities in New York (Pimentel) and Berkeley in California (Patzek) reach very different conclusions.

According to them, the studies carried out do not take into account all the hidden energies used. For example chemical fertilizers. One kilogram of nitrogen fertilizer requires 1.8 liters of diesel for its production. All the energy required for the manufacture and maintenance of the machinery (and not only for its movement) must be added, for the necessary irrigation in many cases, for the production and distribution of seeds, herbicides, etc. It also remains to account for a variable energy, but increasing, that of the transport of BC or their original materials, increasingly from the southern hemisphere to the north. In the best of cases, they deduce that to produce a calorie you need 1.29 with corn, 1.59 with wood, 1.27 with soybeans, and 2.18 with sunflower.

To understand BC in a global way, it is necessary to understand the Stern report, which is perhaps the most prestigious study carried out to date on the contribution of each actor to climate change.

The Stern report points out that deforestation and cultivation account for 18% of the origin of total greenhouse gas emissions. There is no such efficient system for capturing CO2 as the forest and the jungle. Although palm for biodiesel is clearly a jungle killer, the Brazilian government strives to show that this is not the case for ethanol made from sugarcane. However, Brazil continues to be the country that loses the most rainforest (3 million hectares per year). FAO blames extensive beef cattle and soybeans for the occupation of the Amazon and Cerrado forests respectively. And it is that the profitability and expansion of sugarcane in the center of the country (states of S. Paolo, Minas and Paraná) push cattle and soybeans to other territories. Brazil and the companies involved are willing to certify their innocence (BC of non-jungle land), but the data is overwhelming.

We must not forget that the proliferation of corn for ethanol in the US to the detriment of soybeans, increases its pressure throughout South America. In Bolivia, Paraguay, Argentina the landscape begins to be bleak.

Region of Santa Cruz (Bolivia). Satellite photo. Extension equivalent to 75% of Spain

We must also take into account the effects of land use and its transformation. In general, more carbon is conserved in the soil than in the vegetation itself. In the following diagram we see how the meadows of temperate climates and the forests of tropical ones are the ones that retain the most carbon. This carbon is very easily lost when it is felled or cultivated, volatilizing into the atmosphere in the form of CO2 and leaving the soil with a limited capacity to produce and therefore absorb CO2 and feed. In tropical climates the process is very fast and generally irreversible. Undressing the land and plowing it is an attack on the future. All BC are directly or indirectly taking forests or grasslands and require intensive work on the land.

Finally, a very important and little considered aspect is the effect that nitrous oxide derived from the use of fertilizers has on the atmosphere. This is a greenhouse gas 230 times higher than CO2. Its emissions are skyrocketing and already exceed all those produced by cows and other animal species in the form of methane.

Not only is the atmosphere a loser in this bad attempt to cure it. Water is consumed in astronomical quantities. On average, 1 cubic meter per kilogram of cereal is consumed in the world. In Spain, the average consumption for a hectare of corn is 6,400 m3, which can produce 3,500 kg of corn to feed 7 people a year or 1,400 liters of ethanol for a Spaniard to travel 20,000 km. This is the water consumed by an average of 100 Spaniards (the average in Spain is 60 m3 / year) or 500 Africans.

We must add 10-12 liters for the distillation of each liter of ethanol and 20-25 for the fermentation. Let us add the water contaminated by fertilizers (nitrates) and that which is not obtained due to the alteration of the normal rain regime due to the deforestation and desertification to which we have referred before.

The loss of biodiversity is an argument widely used by all environmental groups against the expansion of monocultures and monoraces, whether or not they are for BC. It is something that ranchers and farmers criticize, as market pressure forces them to look for the most productive crop and variety. But when the power of energy enters the agricultural world, the peasants cease to be the intermediaries between nature and the consumer. Its leading role is canceled. The well-known seed companies in consortium with energy companies are developing transgenic varieties that seek maximum yield in alcohol or oil at the cost of loss of nutrients. Soy or energetic corn will not feed people and livestock correctly, it is even studied that they are toxic for them and in this way the crops cannot be derived to other uses. The farmer must buy and sell to the consortium.

The ecological risk is the loss of varieties (owned by farmers today) that may be essential in the future to resist the threats of climate change.

When we talk about transgenic tree plantations for energy (2nd generation BC) tree specialists (Global Forest Coalition, World Rainforest Movement, Friends of the Siberian Forest…) cry out in terror: “their pollen travels hundreds of kilometers and pollutes natural forests, those that generate rainfall and biodiversity, replacing them with others that deplete groundwater and impoverish the soil in the microflora and fauna that retain carbon.

BCs often advertise improvements in the air quality of towns. This is a more serious issue than citizens imagine. In the main cities of the world, pollution is responsible for more deaths than traffic accidents.

In practically all Spanish cities the health indices are exceeded. Carbon monoxide, nitrous oxide and particles coming mainly from vehicles accelerate the end of respiratory and heart ailments, but also reduce the quality of life due to allergies and pneumonia and increase infant mortality. And not only in cities. North American (independent) studies assure that the emissions from the burning of BC increase the death rate. They also question the studies funded by interested companies.

We conclude with a logical statement that emerges from some ideologues against climate change. "Biofuels reduce the guilt of consumers, make them think that they no longer emit gases or that they are joining the cause against global warming; reduces the responsibility of those involved (automotive and energy industries); and it allows politicians to bet on a comfortable measure and leave the uncomfortable ones for years and politicians to come ”. They are the title of a film that could be called "A comfortable lie" that has a script and protagonists but does not have a producer.

Effects of biofuels on food production and prices

Malnutrition remains an unsolved problem. China and India, despite their enormous economic growth, have 150 and 200 million undernourished respectively. In most Sub-Saharan African countries, malnutrition affects more than 30% of the population and this percentage has no clear tendency to decrease, increasing the total number of hungry people with their high demographic growth. Statistics are always deceiving and we can consider the per capita caloric and protein income of a country acceptable, such as China, Brazil or Mexico, where in reality there is a very deficit and a surplus part of the population.

Not forgetting the nearly one billion hungry, for the other 5,000 human beings, until today, the Malthusian theories have not been fulfilled and we have managed to feed a population that continues to grow at a rate of 1.2%. This has been the result of two factors: the so-called green revolution and the increase in agricultural land.

The first has increased in a first phase the productivity of the land through greater energy expenditure (machinery), irrigation, fertilizers, new seeds, including transgenic ones. The increase in land productivity previously increased by 2% annually and now it only does so by 1% (FAO Statistics) thanks to the new lands of underdeveloped countries that join the green revolution, but those that have already done so in past decades they begin to show symptoms of depletion (salinity and loss of organic matter).

The increase in agricultural land is the sole result of deforestation in developing countries.

We can say that agriculture and livestock expand due to deforestation and contribute to desertification. Somehow we have overcome Malthus' prediction by borrowing the land and leaving a very difficult future for our children. Reducing the birth rate, optimizing protein consumption and production, and applying more sustainable agricultural practices are the only hope. Climate change works against it and the dedication of more farmland to produce energy means the total collapse of the system. There are no more credits.

Another example is the depletion of fish production. Its replacement by intensive aquaculture production from feed generates greater pressure on the land.

Most of the world's arable land is in a vulnerable or critical state of deterioration and it is expected that this, together with climate change, will lead to a drastic drop in productivity in the coming years. This will generate an uncontrolled increase in deforestation, which cannot be anything other than the result of the struggle for survival in the poorest countries.

The United States and Europe have been maintaining a policy since the 1970s that encourages the overproduction of cereals, meat and milk, financing the placement of their surpluses in the international market and guaranteeing the employment of their farmers and ranchers. This policy is very costly and highly criticized by third countries. The exchange of grain surpluses for less oil imports is just as expensive (subsidies to BC) but it solves the problems with “friendly” countries (Brazil, China, India, Argentina) and reduces the power of those that are not so much (Iran, Venezuela, Russia).

Corn is the best source that the US has for biofuels, its cars are not diesel engines, so they need ethanol and its climate does not allow the cultivation of sugarcane. With a stroke of the pen and with the coup of a subsidy, they have reduced their soybean cultivation to dedicate their land to growing corn.

This has caused an immediate effect of a rise in corn prices and then a rise in the price of soybeans. The price of corn stabilized after the fabulous campaign, but the price of soybeans continues to rise due to the less land dedicated to its cultivation due to the turn of the Bush administration.

The world's intensive livestock farming rests on soybeans and corn and the largest producer and exporter of both (USA) does not have more useful land for their cultivation. It is in this situation that the lands of South America suffer the push of soybeans, carrying the forests of the Cerrado and the Amazon through the middle. These lands are very vulnerable and a sustained maintenance of their productivity is not foreseeable. Already in the traditional Argentine soybean areas, after the arrival of transgenics, the increase in productivity has stopped.

The 2007 world cereal campaign has been a record, not only because of the largest land dedicated to its cultivation, but also because of the exceptional weather in North America, the European Union and Asia, and all this despite the drought in Australia (already endemic) and that of Russia-Ukraine. But consumption of biofuels is driving stocks to the lowest levels since the 1980s.

Experts consider that the next season may or may not be so good (climate change is known to all), they know that oil is rising (and with it the demand for cereals for BC) and they observe how the number of factories for them continues to increase, generating a consumption capacity much higher than the current one.

The price on the Chicago Stock Exchange (world reference market for soybeans and cereals) continues to rise and financial groups speculate while waiting for prices to skyrocket at the slightest accident. The bet is the purchase of the universal cereal, wheat. In other words, it is speculated that there will be a lack of the last thing that can be missing, bread.

Effects of biofuels on Spanish livestock.

It seems cynical, considering the social, environmental and human effects, to analyze the effects on certain economic sectors. But if one has to think about pressure groups that can stop this disastrous political decision, it is that of livestock and, specifically, Spanish livestock. Spain is a more livestock country (34% of final agricultural production) than cereal. The possible benefited sectors: cereals, beets and oilseeds, only account for 9%.

Spain is the second largest producer of meat in the EEC with 5 Million Tons, after Germany (6.7) and before France (4.5). It ranks 2nd in pigs, 3rd in poultry and 4th in beef. Some of these productions have been increased in recent years due to the modernization of farms and the best opportunity that in Spain had to apply animal excrement to the land. In countries such as the Netherlands, Denmark and Germany, a saturation of soil organic matter was taking place which, together with its humid climate, was causing the contamination of its groundwater with nitrates. The poverty in organic matter of the Iberian Peninsula and its dry climate has favored the expansion of the pig sector, which has gone from 1.8 million tons in 1990 to 3.2 million today.

Although intensive meat production has been an example of competitiveness and specialization both at an industrial and family level. Milk production has experienced a division of the productive model in a first phase, with a mixed system in semi-grazing in the Cantabrian Coast and intensive in dry Spain and in a second where the mixed family model enters into crisis and gives way to the intensive industrial.

The family farms that still remain on the Cantabrian Coast consume more feed per animal than those in the rest of the European Union and have much less land per cow. The intensive dairy model of dry Spain is comparable to that of California, with the exception that there are by-products and raw materials that must be massively imported here.

Spain imports 25% of barley, 60% of corn and 100% of the soy it consumes. The last one is used almost entirely for animal feed. Two thirds of the total consumption of cereals (30 million tons) are used for animal feed (20). The Spanish cereal production is extremely variable and can go from 23 Mll to 13 Mll, with which the deficit in cereals can go from 7 to 17 Mll tons (23% to 56%). Consider that of the 6.6 million hectares dedicated to cereal, 1.1 are irrigated, with enormous risks of water shortage, which would mainly affect corn, which is produced 94% irrigated.

Furthermore, there are 3.5 million hectares that are used every two or three years to produce cereals. They are fragile lands, where now the market and politics from Brussels stimulate their permanent cultivation, which can foreseeably generate a degradation and future drop in production.

Almost four fifths of feed raw material imports come from America and transportation costs are increased with the increase in the price of oil, making Spanish livestock less and less competitive.

The consumption of cereals for ethanol barely reaches 1.2 Mll tons and at current cereal prices, unless the price of oil shoots up or subsidies increase, its use will not increase. Cereals do not have the same efficiency as sugar cane and their price in Spain is at least that of America plus transport.

The problem for Spanish livestock is not the use of national farmland for biofuels, but that of American lands, with the consequent increase in the price of the commodities on which their livestock depends.

For the US and the EU to reach their biofuel targets of 10 and 20% respectively, the prices of commodities must at least double due to pressure from the earth and will make livestock farms in Spain unviable. Without the opening of markets, already with current tariffs, it will always be cheaper to import frozen meat and milk powder produced in the countries that produce corn and soybeans than to import this raw material, since, in the best of cases, 2 kilos of feed are needed to produce a chicken feed, and at worst, 10 kilos for a beef feed, going through the 4 necessary for 1 kilo of cheese or powdered milk.

This will not happen automatically, but it is foreseeable that family farms will close first, with fewer economies of scale, even those of cattle on the Cantabrian Coast, despite taking advantage of forage resources. If the use of biofuels were banned worldwide in the middle of this process, Spanish livestock would have remained in the hands of a few, possibly financial groups, which could easily be integrated into transformation and distribution chains, which reduces competition and increases consumer prices, in addition to reducing the variety in supply.

The second generation BCs will favor the massive plantation of eucalyptus trees throughout the Cantabrian coast, generating a lack of grass due to direct competition for the land and indirectly due to its effects on the aquifers. The degradation of the soil that the eucalyptus produces prevents the return to an ancient system of alternating crops with grazing.

The foreseeable evolution is the following:

  1. Production cost increase
  2. Impact on the global consumer
  3. Shrinking world consumption of animal products
  4. Loss of competitiveness of Spanish livestock
  5. Closure of many farms
  6. Loss of economies of scale in the livestock services sector (feed, processing, veterinarians)
  7. Loss of efficiency of the entire chain
  8. Closing more farms

It would be important to refer to the third point. The reduction in consumption will not only be derived from the increase in the price of meat, milk and eggs, but also from all other basic products. There is a double effect: increase in price and decrease in rent. The highest elasticities for both price and income are for meat and milk. In rural China, a 1% increase in the price of milk reduces consumption by 1.83% and that of beef by 0.5%. But if your income decreases (due to the cost of everything) by 1%, the decrease in consumption is 4.10%! and 0.45% respectively. For rice these values ​​are a decrease of only 0.10% if its price increases and increases !! 0.07% if the rent goes down. And it is that all emerging countries, where food accounts for more than 50% of family spending, will have to take refuge again in their traditional products.

There has been much speculation about which sectors may be less losers in livestock and that ruminants could take better advantage of the so-called DDG (dry distillery grains) residual from ethanol or glycerin from biodiesel than monogastric. This can be the case for countries like the US and Brazil, but never for an importing and small-producing country like Spain. They are expensive waste if they have to be dehydrated or transported and are only profitable when used on factory farms.

This phenomenon is triggering investment in livestock in North American financial sectors. Bait and milk farms of 10 to 30 thousand head are popping up throughout the corn belt, following the hectic pace of new ethanol plants. There is no doubt that they are new competitors to a European livestock with less and less protection towards the external market and that it only invests with its own resources.

What is the foreseeable evolution?

The great international lobbies are going to maintain current American politics whether they rule Democrats or Republicans. Countries like Argentina or Brazil are going to continue supporting the BC to attract foreign investment, reduce their debt and increase the price of their other export products.

Independent scientific reports on the environment, human rights reports and foreseeable famine situations will force the European Commission to rectify its policy. The sectors involved are already calculating when the unsustainability of the system may explode. The expected date would be 2010-2012, because until then the expansion of transgenics, the greater contribution of farmland (deforestation) and the reduction in the consumption of milk and meat will allow us to continue forward, although the safety of each crop has to be certified. Meanwhile, the arrival of second-generation BC, also called biomass, can be predicted.

Citizens will now applaud the use of previously useless plant remains (pruning branches, straw). Any expert knows that this is not enough even for bumper cars. Se sabe que los BC de segunda generación no son otra cosa que eucaliptos transgénicos que fácilmente puedan liberar su celulosa de la lignina y a través de enzimas se transforme en alcohol.

De esa situación solamente se puede esperar ocupación de la tierra para no alimentación, mayor pérdida de su capa orgánica, deforestación de flora autóctona, mayor predisposición a incendios, menor empleo rural, pérdida de biodiversidad, en definitiva, un agravamiento de lo anterior, pero con más difícil rectificación. Antes de volver a pararlo se argumentará que son árboles que nos dan energía y oxígeno. España, después de China, es el segundo mayor “reforestador” mundial, de eucaliptos. En la Cornisa Cantábrica sabemos que el eucalipto no tiene marcha atrás, y que nunca deja que la tierra que ocupa vuelva a ser un pasto o una huerta.

Tal vez consigamos parar todo esto mucho antes. Queda aquí mi humilde contribución y el deseo de obtener la vuestra. España es un país relevante en el escenario europeo y por el peso que tiene la ganadería podría ser el primero en establecer una moratoria a las disposiciones comunitarias, que a su vez fuera ejemplo a seguir por otros países.

Quedando EEUU en solitario las cosas serían muy diferentes. Difundir esta información es el primer paso, aunque puedan ser necesarias medidas de mayor presión.

* Alfonso Raffin del Riego es Director Mundial de Desarrollo Ganadero de Danone, Voluntario de Veterinarios sin Fronteras, Asociado de ANEMBE, miembro de G-TEMCAL y del Comité Organizador de Expoáviga. Grupo Iberoamericano de Estudio de Biocarburantes y Grupo de estudio de Bionegocios


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Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change

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