Fuelish Choices, Uncut

In spring 2011, I received an invitation from the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy to participate in a fact-finding mission to Brazil as part of a dialogue aimed at untangling contentious questions about the effect of biofuels on global land use change, known (in the insider jargon of policy wonks) as the indirect land use change or “ILUC”—pronounced “eye-luck”—effect of biofuels.

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.

The developed world’s obsession with ILUC

What exactly is ILUC, and why is it so important? Put bluntly, ILUC is a reframing of the long-standing “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 CO2 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.

Penalizing biofuels producers for ILUC-related carbon emissions is seen as an expedient way for regulators of the biofuels industry to account for and even mitigate the risk of unintended land clearing around the globe caused by excessive biofuels expansion.

Regulators in the U.S. have so far been convinced of the need to include carbon emissions from ILUC in their regulations governing the “low carbon fuel standard” (the LCFS being promulgated in California) and the federal renewable fuel standard (the RFS2 being promulgated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency). And the European Union will soon consider similar options for its renewable fuel efforts, which have run into a series of unexpected twists and turns, both economic and environmental.

What cleaner, neater way could there be to address the thorny issue of global land use than through the single metric of greenhouse gas emissions? If only life were that simple.

Brazil—the ILUC poster child

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. So I can think of no better way to initiate open and honest dialogue about ILUC than to bring a collection of U.S. environmental nongovernmental organizations, agronomists, economists, farmers and biofuels entrepreneurs to one of the hot spots of biofuels development and agricultural expansion.

“ILUC? That’s the least of our worries.”

It is only a slight exaggeration to say that the typical reaction we got from Brazilians we talked to was that the ILUC debate over biofuels was a minor—if not a non—issue in Brazil. I was struck by the stark contrast between what I now see as the sterile policy and analytical arguments I have witnessed in the U.S. and the EU about the greenhouse gas impacts of ILUC and the harsh reality of the 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 politics of Brazilian biofuels

By politics, I don’t mean the kind of horse trading we have come to associate with U.S. special interest politics. I mean real politics. There is a deep political divide that the Brazilian biofuels industry faces. In simple terms, you might call it “the big guy versus the little guy.” It’s politics with a distinctly populist tinge. Activists and academics we spoke with made no bones about it. Biofuels—to them—are a tool for expanding “agribusiness”—an epithet they apply with disdain and distrust.

A case in point: Farm union members we met with refused to refer to sugarcane ethanol as biofuels. As a matter of principle, they refer to biodiesel and ethanol as “agri-fuels.” To most of us this may seem like a meaningless distinction. But in Latin America and in Europe, “bio” implies “organic” or otherwise sustainable products. For many Brazilian activists, the economic, health and environmental damage and the injustice that they associate with agribusiness (aka agri-fuels) renders the use of the term “bio” in connection with these fuels perverse.

Haves and Have Nots

When we looked at the growth of Brazilian agriculture in the Mato Grosso region, 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 undergo the kind the consolidation that has already happened here in the U.S.

To be sure, Brazil suffers from a tremendous disparity in wealth. And these inequities have a long history. There is a legacy of the landless in Mato Grosso—many of whom are indigenous peoples from southern Brazil transported to that region decades ago and left to struggle in the wilderness on their own by the military dictatorship in response to an uprising that the government could not quell. In an effort to right the wrongs of the past, labor groups have pushed to establish small (one hectare or less), 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 by government and business leaders over the past three or four decades based on technology-driven, capital intensive large-scale production.

We visited one of these small farms, sitting right next door to a large commercial farm in Mato Grosso. Union members and the families who are working these small farms have banded together in co-ops in order to seek a return to a more equitable agrarian economy that is not only environmentally more responsible, but also puts land ownership back where they feel it belongs: among the impoverished and landless families of the country.

These people are not armchair environmentalists or “do-gooders.” Rightly or wrongly, they are putting in the kind of sweat equity that is motivated by years of frustration and deprivation.

When I asked the farmer who owned the small plot of land we visited why he left his life as a paid worker on a large farm to take on the risky and more physically demanding life of what is for now subsistence farming, he answered quietly but firmly—dignity and a sense of control over his own life. Hard to argue with that.

Environmental stewardship—an ongoing struggle

It is easy for the developed countries to look at the precious natural resources of Brazil and demand that they not be exploited. But few countries have struggled as much as Brazil has to balance their economic welfare with the long-term stewardship of their vast natural endowments.

Don’t get me wrong. Brazil (like most countries) has a mixed record when it comes to achieving this balance. Its policies have swung from one extreme to the other, at first aggressively promoting land clearing and then creating and strengthening a forest code that set some of the most stringent requirements for land stewardship that any country has ever enacted. Consider how U.S. farmers today would react if they were told they had keep a substantial percentage (up to 80 percent in the Amazon) of their land in native vegetation. We’d have a riot—or at least a Washington lobbyist food fight—of unprecedented proportions on our hands.

For all their faults and missteps, the Brazilians are at least trying. Indeed, I would suggest that the growing interest in biofuels, concern over ILUC and the call for truly sustainable biofuels development have heightened Brazil’s awareness of the importance of protecting its natural resources. Brazil’s biofuels industry is among the leaders in promoting sustainable management of the country’s resources.

But I don’t want to give too much credit to the biofuels industry for Brazil’s awareness. Beyond international pressure, all the necessary motivation can be found right in the country’s own backyard, as we found when we traveled to the Pantanal. Even the most oblivious of observers could not fail to be struck by the wonder and uniqueness of this unparalleled wetland paradise.

The ethic of sustainable development

Few people really get the meaning of sustainable development. The Brazilians are struggling to understand it and to live it. The political landscape in Brazil contains all the elements needed to address the problem (and the opportunity) of sustainable development, which E.O. Wilson described as the need “... to expand resources and improve quality of life for as many people as heedless population growth forces upon Earth, and do it with minimal prosthetic dependence.” Wilson’s ethical notion of sustainable development is right at home in the holistic environmental, social and technical aspects of the lively debate we found in Brazil.

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.

Unanswered questions

Brazil has demonstrated how a developing country can apply technology, capital, economy of scale and focused public/private R&D to revolutionize its agricultural sector and improve quality of life for many of its people. This industrial model of agriculture has been promoted by the Brazilian biofuels industry and at the same time helped the Brazilian biofuels industry become the success it is today. But is the country achieving all of the goals of a sustainable and just system for food and fuel production? Is the labor union-supported approach of land redistribution and family-scale farms a workable model with the potential to meet growing demand for food and fuel and genuinely improve the quality of life—in the ethical sense of those words—for all of its people? 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?

Finally, as we look back on the rapid expansion of agriculture in Brazil, is it even reasonable to suggest that this expansion is being caused or significantly exacerbated by U.S. biofuels policy? Or is the explosive growth of agriculture primarily a result of a deliberate, focused and successful domestic policy aimed at making Brazil a global agricultural powerhouse?

The most powerful observation we made in Brazil may seem like the most obvious one. In the debate about the value of biofuels, we have been missing the bigger question—how to transform agriculture so that it can maximize its contribution to sustainable development. In other words, how to achieve sustainable agriculture.

Dialogue—the road forward for biofuels

At the start of this essay, I criticized ILUC for its one-dimensional take on the problem of sustainable biofuels. But what I love about the debate on ILUC here in the U.S. and elsewhere 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.

The road forward for biofuels will take us on the kind of journey started by my friends at IATP, involving the earnest exploration and honest dialogue that our rather diverse group experienced by going out into the world and using that perspective to better understand each other’s point of view as we continue our own struggle toward sustainable biofuels.


JOHN SHEEHAN is science director for the Institute on the Environment’s Initiative for Renewable Energy and the Environment.

John Sheehan



Slide Show: IATP Fact Finding Mission

View the slide show of Mato Grosso in the Momentum Fall 2011 Scientist's Soapbox article.


Read the Momentum Article

Read the original article that appeared in the Momentum print magazine.