Is there any evidence that demand for ethanol and other biofuels in the west is causing lasting environmental damage to third world countries.

Furthermore is this demand also taking away valuable fertile land that would otherwise be used for food production. The idea is that greedy developers are starving their own people by purchasing cheap farm land to be used for biofuels, this in turn drives up the prices of food due to lack of supply.

Here is an example article.

  • if biofuels are increasing food prices that has an ambiguous effect in developing countries. high food prices = better profit for farmers who are unable to compete against subsidized grain imported from the us/eu. Apr 13 '11 at 10:47
  • @justin - but wouldn't higher domestic prices be a problem? From what I heard (it's rumored) farmers have sold their land to corporations to develop biofuels, so farmers aren't going to see the benefit of higher prices.
    – going
    Apr 13 '11 at 22:10

There absolutely is evidence that biofuel production adversely affects the environment. For example, Brazil is losing vast amounts of rainforest that is clearcut and burned to plant biofuel crops [2]. It has also been shown that, in the third world, biofuel combustion for heating, cooking, etc., results in 17% of the carbon dioxide and 50% of the carbon monoxide emissions that fossil fuel use does [1]:

The emissions of CO from biofuel use in the developing world, 156 Tg, are about 50% of the estimated global CO emissions from fossil fuel use and industry. The emission of 0.9 Pg C (as CO2) from burning of biofuels and field residues together is small, but nonnegligible when compared with the emissions of CO2 from fossil fuel use and industry, 5.3 Pg C. [1]

In the US, corn and switchgrass biofuel production by fermentation to ethanol increases carbon emissions significantly:

By using a worldwide agricultural model to estimate emissions from land-use change, we found that corn-based ethanol, instead of producing a 20% savings, nearly doubles greenhouse emissions over 30 years and increases greenhouse gases for 167 years. Biofuels from switchgrass, if grown on U.S. corn lands, increase emissions by 50%. [3]


  1. http://www.agu.org/pubs/crossref/2003/2002GB001952.shtml
  2. http://www.reuters.com/article/2007/04/18/environment-biofuels-forests-dc-idUSL1755907420070418
  3. Use of U.S. Croplands for Biofuels Increases Greenhouse Gases Through Emissions from Land-Use Change. T Searchinger, et al. Science 29 February 2008: 319 (5867), 1238-1240.[DOI:10.1126/science.1151861]
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    Isn't biofuel consumption carbon-neutral? You grow it, and it takes carbon from the air. You burn it, and it goes back. The only net CO2 increases would be in the processing. Apr 15 '11 at 12:44
  • The research I posted says exactly the opposite of that. The processing includes the water, fuel, etc. required to grow the crops as well as to run the biodiesel plants in the case of biodiesel production, and in the third world where biofuel is simply burned for heat and energy, the forests aren't being replanted and even if they were it would take time to grow back. With that view of carbon neutrality every process is carbon-neutral, since there isn't any more carbon being made or destroyed it's just being converted back into carbon dioxide. Those papers go into this in detail.
    – tak
    Apr 15 '11 at 22:05
  • There's a difference between taking carbon that's sitting inertly in the ground and burning it, or burning something recently grown, particularly if it's been grown for the purposes of burning. The practice may be far from carbon-neutral, but if I grow a tree and then burn it I've not affected the CO2 content of the atmosphere. Apr 18 '11 at 13:50
  • @David Thornley: Absolutely true, but that's not the case in either of these examples. In the case of biofuel being burned for heat in the third world, the fuel isn't being planted for that purpose, nor is it being replanted after (for the most part). In the case of biofuel being fermented from food crops, forests are being cut down for this purpose (e.g. Brazil), and a significant amount of energy is being expended in the production of the crops. In any case, the point of the matter is that biofuel is not the answer to fossil fuels.
    – tak
    Apr 18 '11 at 19:42

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