Saturday, May 24, 2008

Biofuels…What the hell’s goin’ on?

A series of media reports indicate that fuel produced from food crops to replace fossil oil is far from the panacea it was hoped to be. For example Guenter Verheugen, a vice president of the European Commission, stated recently that "It makes no sense to make car fuel from plants that ought to provide human and animal food." Indeed, the 'moral' question of diverting food and using fertile food-growing land to produce fuel, while 850 million people in the world today are hungry, is a cause for concern.

The explosion in demand for food crops to be converted into biodiesel and ethanol in America and Europe is backed by government subsidies and enticements. Farmers, of course, have no compunction in chasing higher returns for their produce so food prices will be driven up by the biofuel industry. General Motors (USA) are already creating fleets of vehicles designed to run on ethanol by 2012. four hundred million tonnes of food will burn as a fuel substitute each year by 2020…equivalent to the entire rice harvest of the world, or the complete American wheat crop.

The destruction of the world's remaining jungle, forest and native vegetation, especially in South America, Malaysia and Indonesia, to grow palm oil and other such crops is a further worry. A Western Australian biofuel company intends to convert 400,000 tonnes of wheat, the entire harvest of mid-west farmers, when they commence production in 2009.

Research indicates that these activities in changing land use will actually increase greenhouse emissions. Advocates of biofuels counter that this is not a factor because existing crops will be used for conversion to ethanol etc. but, of course, replacement sites will then be in need to grow food crops for those who are able to afford escaping starvation.

Australian government involvement in biodiesel is now showing signs of caution and restrain by encouraging investigations into non-food waste biofuel production, possibly from garbage and sewerage. Strange, then, that the only operating biodiesel company in Australia has ceased production, citing financial non-viability, crippling difficulties in securing contracts with major oil companies and a 50 percent price increase to obtain tallow, the animal abattoir waste that is the main ingredient for its biodiesel. What will happen to this waste now?

Despite having to repay over $7 million in government grants, this company now plans on moving to New Mexico (USA), enticed by government financial incentives there and a compulsory rule that makes all diesel fuel to have five percent biofuel content.

Most of our food–vegetables, root crops, fruit, fungi, spices and animal meats–originated in forests; nearly all our healthcare products– medicines, vaccines, drugs, ointments etc–are from forest plants; forests absorb carbon and noxious gases, control ground-water levels thereby preventing surface salinity; they transpire oxygen and moisture which attracts rainfall and thus play an instrumental part in the recycling of ocean water and preventing drought. And they keep rivers flowing. Yet it is said the 'surface has hardly been scratched' with regard to the treasures that forests still hold. But they are being destroyed, all in the name of profit.

RON STONE, Western Australia

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