Food for thought. Or is it food for fuel?

The US and Brazil are the leading producers of ethanol fuel in the world.  In 2006, Brazil produced 52% of the world’s ethanol.   Both countries use their surplus food supply as fuel, however where the US relies on corn, Brazil relies in sugar cane.  Sugar cane is a much more efficient producer of ethanol than corn, and the left over cellulosic material can be also used to create power.  This makes it sustainable for them to continue to produce ethanol without drastically affecting the environment.

Brazil uses renewable fuels for 46% of their transportation needs.  Also, 90% of Brazil’s electricity comes from renewable sources (mainly hydroelectricity).  So, how were they able to do it and the US is lagging far behind on renewable production?  In 1975 during the energy crisis, Brazil was importing 80% of their fuel from foreign sources.  This caused the government to pass the National Alcohol Program which (1) required petrobras to purchase a required amount of ethanol, (2) provided $5 billion of low-interest loans to stimulate ethanol production, (3) provides subsidies that ensured ethanol price was 41% less than the price of gasoline, (4) required that all fuels must be E22 or higher.  In the 1980’s, when petroleum prices decreased, the Brazilian government still kept up with the ethanol project.  So now, over 30 years later, 70% of the new cars purchased are either flex fuel or pure ethanol prices.  Also, in 2006, Brazil became net energy independent.

However, this fuel may not be the end all answer.  It is still coming from a food source.  In the US, the increased production of ethanol based fuels has increased corn food prices.  Similarly, sugar prices have reached a 29 year high in 2009.  Since Brazil exports 41% of the world’s sugar needs, this price increase is likely based on a shortage of sugar supplies caused by increased ethanol production.   Also, is Brazil using slave labor to keep their rates low?  In 2007 the Brazilian government stepped in to save over 1000 slave laborers from a sugarcane plantation in the Amazon.   Finally, the increased production of sugar could have a negative impact on local ecosystems.

Overall, I’m not saying that ethanol is worse for the environment than gasoline, but it definitely has its drawbacks.  Brazil should be a role model to the US in terms of renewable energy, but they may also be the first to show the world the negative effects of farming fuel.

Sources:

http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/science/nature/7420770.stm

http://www.ren21.net/globalstatusreport/gsr4d.asp

http://www.agmrc.org/renewable_energy/agmrc_renewable_energy_newsletter.cfm/brazils_ethanol_industry__part_two?show=article&articleID=19

http://www.ers.usda.gov/Briefing/Sugar/sugarpdf/EthanolDemandSSS249.pdf

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One response to “Food for thought. Or is it food for fuel?

  1. Brazil isn’t the only place where the switch to biofuels causes concern. The European Union’s biofuel goals are seen as harmful to millions of impoverished people around the world. The EU goal that 10% of transportation fuel come from biofuels by 2020 is leading farmers in Europe to repurpose their land to grow the more profitable biofuels. Because European farmers cannot meet the demands of the goal, millions of hectares in developing countries have been converted to grow crops used as biofuels. A recent report by Al Jazeera says that by exporting crops for biofuels, millions could go hungry. In a 2008 article by the BBC, Oxfam says that green policies are not only making food prices around the globe rise, but the policies are hitting the poor the hardest. In this article, Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula de Silva is mentioned for his view on the opportunities biofuels provide poor countries. He believes the export biofuels offers developing countries a great opportunity to “claw their way out of poverty.”

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