By John Sheehan
In spring 2011, the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy invited me to participate in a fact-finding mission to Brazil as part of a dialogue on the indirect land use change effects of biofuels (known among policy wonks as “ILUC"). I jumped at the chance. For the past two years I have been caught up in the ongoing political and technical controversies that have swirled around this otherwise arcane concept. The invitation offered a chance to look at “ILUC on the ground,” as the organizers aptly called our adventure.
What exactly is ILUC, and why is it so important? Put bluntly, ILUC is a reframing of the “food versus fuel” debate that has dogged the U.S. biofuels industry from its earliest days.
OK. Now that I have offended just about everybody who has an opinion about biofuels or ILUC, let me explain.
The central question about biofuels is an ethical one: Can we afford to divert farmland from its primary role as a provider of food, feed and fiber to one of also being a provider of fuel? The iLUC debate transforms this question into a climate change issue: Can we afford to use land for fuel at the expense of plowing under natural, undeveloped and underutilized lands and releasing huge amounts of carbon dioxide now stored in their trees, plants, roots and soil into the atmosphere? It’s a clever way of turning an ethical debate into a “safer” and seemingly more tractable technical debate about carbon emissions. way of turning an ethical debate into a “safer” and seemingly more tractable technical one.
At the heart of this “new” ILUC debate is Brazil. Many environmentalists believe that expanding demand for biofuels will lead to the clearing of the Amazon as well as the large and valuable savanna ecosystems found in Brazil. I can think of no better way to inspire honest dialogue about ILUC than to bring environmentalists, academics, farmers and biofuels entrepreneurs to Brazil—one of the hot spots of biofuels development, agricultural expansion and deforestation.
In that setting, I was struck by the stark contrast between what I now see as the sterile policy debate about ILUC and the harsh reality of the serious questions Brazilians face when they think about biofuels. The ethanol and biodiesel industries in Brazil put into sharp focus much deeper social and environmental concerns.
The Brazilian biofuels industry faces a deep political divide. You might call it “the big guy versus the little guy.” For many activists in Brazil, biofuel is a tool for expanding “agribusiness”—an epithet they apply with disdain and distrust. In fact, union members and environmental activists we met with referred to sugarcane ethanol as “agri-fuel” rather than “biofuel.” The reason? In Latin America and Europe, “bio” implies “organic” or “sustainable.” For the activists, the economic, health and environmental damage and injustice they associate with agribusiness renders the use of the term “bio” in connection with agri-fuels perverse.
When we looked at the growth of Brazilian agriculture in the state of Mato Grosso, many of us saw a miraculous transformation from an impoverished and unproductive farm system to a highly productive contributor to the Brazilian economy. Many in Brazil see, instead, a pernicious continuation of the concentration of wealth and power as farms consolidate.
To be sure, Brazil suffers from a tremendous disparity in wealth. Labor groups have pushed to establish small family-owned and operated farms as a means of redistributing the land. Their vision of sustainable agriculture and biofuels is diametrically opposed to the vision promoted for the past four decades based on technology-driven, capital-intensive, large-scale production.
We visited a small farm co-op in Mato Grosso. The families working such farms seek a more equitable agrarian economy that is environmentally responsible and socially just. These people are not armchair environmentalists or “do-gooders.” They are motivated by years of frustration and deprivation. When I asked one small-farm owner why he left his life as a paid worker on a large farm for this more risky and physically demanding situation, he answered quietly but firmly—dignity and a sense of control over his own life. Hard to argue with that.
It’s easy for developed countries to demand that Brazil preserve its natural resources. But few countries have struggled to balance their economic welfare with stewardship of natural endowments as much as Brazil has. Don’t get me wrong. Brazilians (like all of us) have a mixed record when it comes to achieving this balance. But they are at least trying.
I would suggest that interest in biofuels has heightened Brazil’s awareness of the importance of protecting natural resources. But I don’t want to give too much credit to the biofuels industry. The people of Brazil value their natural endowments.
Few people really get the meaning of sustainable development. The Brazilians are struggling to understand it and to live it. We can learn a lot from their struggle to balance the ethical, social and technical demands of sustainable development and the role biofuels should play in it. Our experience in Brazil has reinforced for me the idea that ILUC is just one aspect of sustainable biofuels, which in turn is a challenge that is fully subsumed by the bigger challenge of sustainable agriculture.
Brazil has demonstrated how a developing country can apply technology, capital, economy of scale and focused research and development to revolutionize its agricultural sector and improve quality of life for many of its people. This industrial model of agriculture has made Brazilian biofuels a success. But is there a place for the small family farm model in improving the lot of Brazil’s people while meeting the global appetite for Brazil’s farm products? Which approach will best address the concerns about biofuels-driven clearing of land? Which will lead to the most environmentally friendly use of our land to meet food and fuel needs?
A firsthand look at Brazil tells me that we have been missing the bigger question about biofuels—how to transform agriculture so it can maximize its contribution to sustainable development. In other words, how to achieve sustainable agriculture.
I started out criticizing ILUC for its one-dimensional take on sustainable biofuels. But what I love about ILUC is how it has forced us to look beyond ourselves as individual nations and beyond the narrow perspective of the biofuels industry itself. Ten years ago, I could not have imagined a policy debate about biofuels that would so urgently focus on broader global implications. It represents real progress.
JOHN SHEEHAN is science director for the Institute on the Environment’s Initiative for Renewable Energy and the Environment.
Slide Show: IATP Fact Finding Mission
Scenes from a 10-day visit to Brazil exploring the diverse dimensions of land use and ethanol production. Photos courtesy of John Sheehan
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Last modified on January 23, 2012