Getting Real About Biofuels

Today’s agrofuel industry is a different breed from the small farmers who produce biofuels responsibly and local biodiesel collectives that recycle spent cooking oil. Agribusiness, oil, energy and auto companies are rapidly consolidating control over the entire agrofuel sector. The power of these corporations is staggering: Archer Daniels Midland (ADM) lobbied the U.S. government for three decades to promote adding ethanol to gasoline, resulting in $2 billion of government subsidies—most of which has gone directly to ADM. Automakers like Ford and GM exploit a biofuels loophole in fuel economy regulations to avoid reducing vehicle oil consumption and tailpipe greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Can we afford to leave the fate of the planet in the hands of corporations that have historically shirked environmental responsibility?

Agrofuels are not low-emissions

Agrofuels are said to be green because they release fewer GHGs from the tailpipe and the power station, but that’s only part of the story. Emission reductions vanish over the lifecycle of agrofuels. Take palm oil—one of the cheapest and most popular sources for agrofuel. Taking into account the slash-and-burn deforestation and drainage of peat swamps that occurs to make way for palm oil plantations, as well as chemically intensive cultivation and energy-intensive refining and transcontinental shipping, palm oil is one of the worst fuel sources for the climate. In fact, Indonesia is the third-largest GHG emitter in the world (behind the U.S. and China), due largely to the destruction of forests to establish palm oil plantations. Clearly, replacing one fuel addiction with another is not the way to reduce GHG emissions. We need to address excessive fuel consumption.

Agrofuels drive deforestation

Agribusiness companies are rapidly expanding fuel crop plantations into the Amazon Rainforest and biodiverse tropical ecosystems throughout South America, Southeast Asia, the Pacific and Africa. Palm oil expansion is the primary cause of deforestation in Indonesia, where forests are disappearing at a rate of more than 2.8 million hectares a year—an area half the size of Belgium. In North America, logging companies like Weyerhaeuser are teaming up with oil companies like Chevron to convert forests into fuel.

Agrofuels are linked to human rights abuses

In order to make way for fuel crop plantations, the land rights of traditional and Indigenous communities are often violated. The encroachment of industrial plantations forces small family farmers to shift from subsistence to export-driven commodity farming, if they’re not pushed off their land entirely. Plantation workers face abuse, exploitation, and exposure to toxic pesticides. In Brazil, some soy and sugar cane farms "employ" debt peonage workers, who are essentially modern-day slaves.

Agrofuels pit food against fuel

Industrial agrofuel production requires dedicating huge swaths of land to fuel production and drives up the price of basic food crops as food production competes against fuel production for land, water and market resources. The further we go down the industrial agrofuels path, the more we’re setting up a competition between the U.S.’s oversized thirst for fuel and billions of people’s basic right to food.

There is a better way!

We can’t grow our way out of our oil addiction. We can build a people-led, renewable energy revolution by ensuring the right of peoples and communities to determine their own food and energy systems; protecting forests and other natural ecosystems; expanding mass transit; creating bike- and pedestrian-friendly cities; plugging vehicles into sustainable, renewable energy; halting the expansion of carbon-intensive industries; and reducing our energy consumption.

RAN is committed to being part of the solution, and we invite you to join us. Here’s what we’re doing:

Our Rainforest Agribusiness campaign is working with communities affected by the expansion of soy and palm oil plantations to hold the U.S. agribusiness sector accountable for the destructive role that the globalized food and biofuel systems have on forests, family farmers and our future.

Our Freedom From Oil campaign is challenging the auto industry to dramatically improve fuel efficiency and eliminate greenhouse gas emissions by phasing out the internal combustion engine and phasing in plug-in hybrid electric vehicles.

Our Global Finance Campaign is working to end the financing of industries that are causing climate change. We are currently working to get U.S. banks to divest from coal—the world’s most carbon-intensive industry—and to instead invest in sustainable energy solutions.

Our Old Growth campaign is working with Indigenous communities to protect remaining intact forests—one of our planet’s best defenses against global warming.

Take Action!

You can join the movement for real solutions to our dependence on oil. The corporate-led industrial agrofuels “revolution” is not inevitable; let’s work together for a better future!

  • Archer Daniels Midland (ADM) is the single largest promoter of agrofuels in the U.S. Click here to tell ADM CEO Patricia Woertz to stop pushing unsustainable industrial agrofuels.
  • U.S. automakers are touting agrofuels rather than making real progress on fuel efficiency. Click here to tell Ford and GM to stop distracting drivers with the false promise of agrofuels and start putting plugs on all cars that hit the road.

Do the math

  • Even if all cropland in the U.S. were used to grow corn and all the corn were used to make ethanol, we would not produce enough ethanol to replace our over-consumption of gasoline.
  • Every ton of palm oil produced results in 33 tons of carbon dioxide emissions—10 times more per ton than petroleum.
  • The corn required to make enough ethanol to fill a 25-gallon SUV tank could feed one person for a year.

Bioenergy Glossary

  • Biofuel (also called agrofuel) refers to any liquid fuel derived from plant material or biomass (agricultural waste, wood, municipal solid waste, etc.).
  • Ethanol is an alcohol-based fuel made by fermenting sugar derived from corn, sugar cane or wheat. Cellulosic ethanol is derived from wood, grasses or agricultural waste. Ethanol is usually blended with regular gasoline. It also fuels power plants.
  • Biodiesel is refined from plant oils or animal fats (including soybean, rapeseed and palm oil). It is used to replace petroleum diesel in vehicles and to fuel power plants.
  • Waste vegetable oil biodiesel is made from reclaimed waste restaurant grease that is filtered and then used in diesel engines.

Learn more by reading our white paper: Agrofuels Are Not Low Carbon.

Learn More

The average North American touches paper countless times a day. Yet the true environmental and social costs of these everyday products often go unnoticed.
Green tells a moving story about the corporate conversion of rainforests in Indonesia for palm oil, tropical wood and paper through the eyes of a dying orangutan - a victim of deforestation and resource exploitation. This film is a visual journey illustrating the impacts of land clearing, the effects of consumerism, the tragic loss of biodiversity and the other harsh realities that Indonesian rainforest destruction is inflicting upon endangered species like the orangutan.