Return to Anti-Capitalism menu
Biofuels: The root of all evil?

Gearóid Ó Loingsigh

21 June 2009

This article originally appeared in Spanish in the Colombian newspaper Periferia 

There are many myths about biofuels: they are the source of all that is wrong with Colombian agriculture; that world hunger is due in large par to these crops and if were not for the biofuels everything in the Colombian countryside would be rosy and there would be no hunger in the world or least there would lower figure for malnutrition.  Nothing further from the truth.

In order to understand the role the biofuels play we must define them.  As their name indicates there are sources of energy that come from plants, in other words they are biomass turned into energy.  The bio tag on their name has nothing to do with a supposed ecological benefit, but rather the source of the energy, biomass, i.e. organic material that is produced in a biological process that is either spontaneous or artificial that can be used as source of energy.  Thus, we can see that it is not limited to one plant such as African palm but rather almost any plant could be used as a biofuel and what decides if it is used as such is quantity of sugar that can be extracted or the amount of oil that can be produced.  There are two types of biofuels, bioethanol which is a derivitive of sugar extracted from sugar cane, yucca, corn etc. and biodiesel which is produced from the fruit of African palm or jatropha, a plant which grows in arid regions and is being experimented with in Africa and Asia.

The argument is relation to these crops is that they have displaced the production of food crops and increased dependence on imported foodstuffs.  A quick look at the panorama of the African palm crops shows that in effect there is much more palm today than there was a few years ago.  In Colombia there are around 360,000 hectares of African palm in the country compared with some 127,000 in 1996.  Many of the new plantations are to be found in the Magdalena Medio region where thanks to USAID and the European Union these crops have displaced the food crops ( No xxx that the yanks and the Europeans did this through NGOs, especially through the Programme for Development and Peace in Magdalena Medio and its former supreme boss Francisco de Roux).  However, I continue to state that the biofuels are not the root of the problem.  In the case the sugar cane and the yucca one can see a similar increase, albeit more recent and these have also displaced food crops.

However,  these crops cannot be looked at out of context of the economic and agricultural model that has been imposed since at least 1992 when it occurred to the then president Cesar Gaviria bestow upon us the infamous economic aperture (and more then one legislative act that favoured the paramilitaries, something which is forgotten in the current debates on possible alliances for the elections in 2010).  Neither can one look at just one country.  To understand what is happening to Colombian agriculture we must have international points of reference as the problem is international it is not Latin and the destruction of Colombian agriculture is not new.

In the 1950s the US government with the aim of fighting communism and also of increasing its exports launched its food aid programme.  The Colombian government signed up to the programmed to receive Ďaidí in the form of wheat.  The national production of wheat collapsed never to recover.  So much so that today Colombia imports1,260,000 tonnes of wheat each year.  Although Colombia no longer receives that much food aid other countries in the region continue to be large receivers of this so called Ďaidí.  Between 2002 and 2006 the USA Ďdonatedí 2,000,000 tonnes of  cereals to the region.  The main Ďbeneficiariesí of the said aid were Bolivia, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Ecuador, Guatemala and Haití.  All of these countries are poor, but none of them are incapable of producing their own foodstuffs, especially cereals.  They donít do so due to a lack of political will and having turned their land over to other crops, amongst which are the biofuels but they are not the only ones.  For example in 1984 Guatemala exported 127,247 tonnes of green coffee (i.e. unprocessed and without value added) and 320, 934 tonnes of bananas.  By 2004 its exports of these crops had increased to 208,490  and 1,058,161 tonnes respectively.  An increase of 64% in the case of coffee and 800% in the case of bananas.  Most of this increase took place between 1994 and 2004 and almost in the same time period (1995-2005) Guatemala increased its imports of white corn from 1,841 tonnes to 54,716,833 tonnes.  But Guatemala only began its biofuels programme in 2002.  Without a doubt Guatemala will notice the effects of this programme but the damage to its agriculture was already done.

The problem is not one particular crop, such as African palm or sugar but rather a model of production.  In that sense one must understand the power relations in world agriculture.  It is not difficult to convince someone that the US has enormous power and that can be seen in conflicts around the world.  Anyone with a modicum of common sense can recognise the imperialist depredation in Iraq and that oil was the main motive for the invasion.  The US has no interest in bringing democracy to Iraq but rather in bringing the oil to the US.  With agriculture something similar takes place without tanks, bombings or torture.  They prefer in this case, corrupt oligarchies, bribes and trade threats.  It works and there is no shortage of lackeys along the lines of the Colombian ex Minister for Agriculture Felipe Arias who are willing to hand over the agricultural production to foreign interests, both US and European.

The USA dominates world agricultural production.   Three fifths of all land under crops are given over to the production of just eight crops, i.e. rice, cotton, wheat, corn, oats, barley, sorghum and soya.  The US is also responsible for 20% of all beef production in the world.  It accounts for 17% of world production of grains and its closest competitors are China with 18% and India with just over 10% (Colombia barely accounts for 0.19% of world production).  However, these two countries produce for their own internal consumption and not for exports like the USA, whose production is highly concentrated in the hands of a few companies such as Cargill whose assets in Venezuela were nationalised by the Chavez government.  These companies are at the same time beneficiaries of subsidies from the US and European governments.

The subsidies are not insignificant.  Between 1995 and 2004 just one company from the rice sector Rice Foods Inc. received 533 million dollars in subsidies.  In 2004 a German company Sudzucker Group received 94 million euros.  Amongst the largest beneficiaries of subsidies in Europe are the parasites of the English royal family and Banque Credit Agricole and even the likes of Nestlé.  Peasants and even many medium sized companies just cannot compete with such subsidies and the distribution networks controlled by these companies.  These companies can sell their products below cost and still make a juicy profit.  For example, Cargill can export its rice at 20% below cost and still make money.  Instead of fighting against this model, the Felipe Arias and Uribes of the world let themselves be co-opted and hand over the agricultural production of the country.

In the document Export Stake the current Colombian government one can see their vision for the Colombian countryside.  A countryside dedicated to agribusiness without peasants.  The said document draws up a list of 10 agricultural sectors that are considered to be a priority.  To nobodyís surprise the first sector is African palm.  However, the governmentís plan also includes, rubber, cocoa, wood, coffee and whatís more food crops such as asparagus, chilli peppers, broccoli and other vegetables.  The inclusion by the State of crops such as chilli peppers such tell us that the problem is not about which crop one grows but rather the model of production.  Every Colombian peasant has some cocoa or coffee.  They grow it for their own consumption or sale in the local/national market.  But under the Export Stake the government proposes to expand the cocoa and coffee crops.  However,  these food crops are not for the local market, not even the national market.  These crops are financed mainly by the European Union and the loans are given only to those peasants who have signed an agreement with a company that can market them, i.e. export them.  The government no longer gives loans for other crops.  Chilli peppers, onions, asparagus, cocoa etc. are displacing other food crops that are not sought by Europe or the USA.  At the end of the day the European or US consumer wants peppers, mango, freijoa, nuts etc, but does not care for yucca (except as a source of bioethanol).  The problem as can be seen is not the crop but rather the model of production the purpose of that production.


Haití is one of the poorest countries on the continent and a good example of what is in store.  The Haitian economy is the most liberalised i.e. given over to foreign capital.  In 1986-87 Haití abolished restrictions on import quotas for certain foodstuffs and in 1995 completely abolished custom tariffs on the majority of imported foodstuffs with the exception of corn.  Today, corn is the only foodstuff which does not come largely from abroad as the following table shows.
Product  % of imports in the national diet
Rice 64
Sugar 85
Flour 100
Milk  56
Chicken meta 75
Eggs  78

We should bear in mind that for the people of Haití chicken and eggs are like rice and yucca in many parts of Colombia.  Prior to 1986 Haiti was self sufficient in many products in the family basket.  What changed was state policy.  It placed a stake on the exporting of exotic products and the importation of food staples.  The country continues to be poor after such an unfortunate experiment but what we must remember is that there wasnít a single biofuel involved.  The biofuels came much later to Haití when the Brazilian lackey of imperialism Lula decided to expand his emporium to Haití setting up bioethanol processing plants giving rise to an increase in the land given over to sugar. In this, the poorest country in the region Lula gave them bioethanol plants to make gasoline for the yanks and taking the food from the mouths (thank you, comrade).  Haitíís problems have nothing to do with biofuels.


Mexico maybe a close example to the Colombian reality.  At the end of the day, Colombia is not Haití.  It is richer and the Colombian government has never defied Uncle Sam as Haití did in the 1990s (yes it is poor but with a little more dignity than the Colombian bourgeoisie who can only ever think about how to bend the knee).  Before the NAFTA free trade agreement with the US and Canada (lets not forget the Canadian who alongside the Europeans enjoy an unjustified good reputation) came into force Mexico was totally self sufficient in its staple foods.  But once NAFTA came into force the price of corn fell by 48% and tariffs were abolished costing the public exchequer two billion dollars in lost income.  Whilst in the 1980s for every 10 kilos of rice consumed in Mexico 1.7 kilos was imported by 1998 5.3 kilos for every ten was imported and 3.5 kilos in the case of wheat.  Ten years later the corn imports doubled and not a single biofuel to be seen, but rather a policy of specialisation in exotic crops within the framework of free trade.

The Biofuels

However, this does not mean that the biofuels do not play a role in the loss of food security and sovereignty, they do but is is just that, they are no more than one factor.  If there were no African palm the problem would be the same in nature only the crop would be different.  This doesnít mean that there is no problem with the biofuels, rather we must remember that it is the model that should the target of our fire.  In Colombia we have lived through coffee, cocoa and sisal bonanzas and now we have palm and sugar to produce fuel.  They are just the last links in a long chain of slavery of the countryside and as such links they are a serious concern.

Colombia has increased the amount of land given over to these crops but not it is not the only country to do so.  If the problem is with the model and not the crop, the model is to be found in many countries and Colombia is just one more example.  Though we must bear in mind that in the case of biofuels Colombia alongside Brazil is a leader in the sector and what is more is promoting the expansion of these crops throughout the region.  Colombia has donated biofuel processing plants to El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala.  Brazil has invested in plants in Haití and Guatemala in order to export tariff free to Europe.  There are no governments in Latin America that are opposed to the biofuels, not even Venezuela or Bolivia.  Ecuador passed a law in 2004 declaring biofuels to be in the national interest and had more than 205,000 hectares of palm and aims to increase it to 350,000 hect.  Colombia has some 360,000 hect. and aims to have around 3.5 million hect.  Without a doubt the biofuels are a very worrying factor in the food crisis, but no more than a factor.

All governments want to emulate the Mexican model and sign free trade agreements with the US and Europe (Colombia is currently negotiating a FTA with Europe).  However, the elites didnít wait till they had signed an agreement in order to implement the model.  In the 1980s Colombia enjoyed a self sufficiency in most of its foodstuffs, wheat being the notable exception.  By 1994, in the midst of the economic aperture, the country imported 1,043,524 tonnes of corn and in 2004 this figure had almost doubled to 1,909,354 tonnes.  In the case of wheat the imports increased from 849,457 to 1,265,783 tonnes in the same time period.  There was no need for a free trade agreement and in 1994 it was already importing massive amounts of food and although there was palm in the country there was not as much as there is now and what is more the palm that was grown for other industrial purposes such as plastics, cosmetics etc. and also as foodstuff.

The real problem is the neoliberal model and if it were not for the biofuels Colombia would specialise in other crops.  In the 1980s El Salvador and Guatemala specialised in melons and broccoli.  Without African palm Colombia would grow what Felipe Arias has proposed, chilli peppers, broccoli, onions, coffee, cocoa, rubber etc.  The biofuels are just one factor and the debate should focus on the model and not the crop so as not to repeat the experience with another crop as has been done where one bonanza is replaced with another.


Return to top of page