U.S. Industrial Agriculture and Biofuel/Biomass Campaign

Apr 21, 2009

Strategy paper: Biomass for agrofuel and biochar from increased industrial plantations is suddenly being proposed as the universal answer to our climate and energy problems. But the world's land and forests are already past their carrying capacity, and terrestrial ecosystems, upon which all life depends, are crashing.

A broad strategy document including proposed activities and targets

By Rainforest Rescue

Securing world food security while maintaining operable global ecosystems may be one of the biggest challenges humanity faces this century. The history of agriculture and all it entails is the history of Earth's ecological diminishment. Much of the agriculture practiced globally today is industrial-style agriculture. Farms are often very large, highly specialized, and run like factories with large inputs of fossil fuels, pesticides and other chemicals, and synthetic fertilizers derived from oil.

Current industrial agriculture and its further intensification for biofuels, other types of biomass energy and biochar will lead to ecological disaster. Human clearance of forests for food, shelter and warmth was the first great human change of the face of the Earth and continues to this day.

Land degradation -- the decline in the quality of soil, water and vegetation -- is of profound importance. A new study finds that 24% of the Earth's land is degrading, some of it formerly quite productive. Old forest logging, biofuel and other industrial plantations, urban sprawl, climate change, water diversion and countless other methodical diminishments of intact natural ecosystems are to blame. Industrial agriculture impacts the environment in many ways. It uses huge amounts of water, energy, and chemicals, often with little regard to long-term adverse effects. And the environmental costs of agriculture are mounting. Irrigation systems are pumping water from reservoirs faster than they are being recharged. Toxic herbicides and insecticides are accumulating in ground and surface waters. Chemical fertilizers are running off the fields into water systems and oceans where they generate damaging blooms of oxygen-depleting microorganisms that disrupt ecosystems and kill fish. In addition, there are enormous indirect costs implicit in the high energy requirements of industrial agriculture.

This form of agriculture uses fossil fuels at many points: to run huge combines and harvesters, to produce and transport pesticides and fertilizers, and to refrigerate and transport perishable produce cross country and around the world. The use of fossil fuels contributes to global warming, which will exact a high price on agriculture and the rest of society through increased violent weather events, droughts and floods, and rising oceans. It is time to transform agriculture into a sustainable enterprise, one based on systems that can be employed for centuries -- not decades -- without undermining the resources on ecosystems upon which agricultural productivity depends. We must promote agriculture that is local; small-scale and family operated; biologically diverse; humane, and socially just. The ultimate goal of this campaign is to replace the industrial agriculture model with a new vision of organic agro-ecological farming and the natural world being in harmony to achieve global ecological sustainability.


We are concerned with America's growing ethanol industry, the implications it has in setting a precedent for additional biomass based energy, and the massive agricultural industrialization of the world's remaining rainforests and other natural wildlands this would require. It is clear that biofuels are not "renewable energy" given that soils, water, land and fertilizers are in limited supply.

The decision by the U.S. on whether to continue pursuit of liquid fuel and other forms of energy from food and terrestrial ecosystems will be of great importance to the well-being and survival of humanity and the Earth. Continued growth in the industrial production of biofuels will gravely intensify issues associated with industrial agriculture, and for relatively tiny energy outputs. In 2006, biofuels comprised just less than 1% of world's liquid fuels supply by volume and 0.6 % by transport distance. All renewable energies require land and this will compete with agriculture, forestry and urbanization. The U.S. is at the maximum use of prime cropland necessary for production, and the world has less than half the cropland per capita needed for an equitable, diverse diet (0.5ha).

The U.S. Congress passed the Renewable Fuel Standard as part of the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007. It requires the nation to produce 36 billion gallons of biofuels by 2022. At the moment, most of this comes from ethanol produced by corn, and in the future plans are to power vehicles from forests, oil crops such as oil palm and soya for biodiesel, and other biomass. Thankfully the ecological science and advocacy is raising reasonable questions regarding the sustainability of corn-based ethanol, soya and oil palm biodiesel, and even second generation industrial tree and grass plantation based biofuel and biochar production, given finite land, fertilizers and water; and in the face of exponential increases in population and demand for energy. Corn-based ethanol fuel is ranked at the bottom of alternative energy sources "with respect to climate, air pollution, land use, wildlife damage and chemical waste." And it is morally abhorrent that in a hungry, impoverished world, it diverts food from people to cars. Corn ethanol receives billions in subsidies despite conclusive science indicating its inefficient production provides little or no additional energy other than what is used for its production, and its ecological destructiveness in terms of land, water and climate. Early results from oil palm and soya for biodiesel are similar, as rainforests and indigenous cultures are being ravaged. Large scale biofuel production runs counter to urgently addressing climate change and threatens to cause more deforestation, hunger, human rights abuses, and degradation of soil and water.

So called "next generation" advanced fuels from non-food plants and plant parts, including forest biomass, will not resolve these problems. All industrially produced biofuel crops, edible or not, still require land, soil, water, fertilizer and other finite inputs. Biofuels based upon further expansion of unsustainable, industrial agriculture policies will intensify deforestation, toxic pollution and dependence upon fossil fuel based fertilizers worldwide. It is clear that industrial biofuels are not "renewable energy" given that soils, water, land and fertilizers are all in limited supply. All biofuels based upon industrial agricultural practices have indirect impacts upon land use elsewhere. This worsens climate change through further deforestation and the destruction of other soils and ecosystems, drives food prices up, forces more people worldwide into hunger and malnutrition, and decimates biodiversity and ecosystems.

Biomass Energy

Most biomass is burned for cooking and heating, but it can also be converted into electricity and liquid fuel. Humans already consume a large amount of the energy represented in annual biological growth. To try to do more is clearly unsustainable land use. One to one replacement of fossil fuels (coal, oil and natural gas) with fresh plant agrofuels is absolutely impossible for more than a few years. Trying will denude Earth and make a very different planet, hostile and uninhabitable to human life.

Ecological science indicates clearly that a continuous stable solution to human life cannot be maintained unless the global population of transport vehicles, livestock and humans are reduced. The last time humanity ran on living plant carbon was about 1760 and there were one billion people. Since the advent of the industrial revolution, population explosion and recent agricultural revolution, there are now seven times as many of us. We feed ourselves with huge fossil carbon inputs in addition to fresh plant carbon, minerals and soil. We are also mining fossil water and polluting surface water, aquifers, the oceans, and the atmosphere. It is estimated we could feed and fuel 2.2 billion people, but the additional 4.5 billion owe their existence to the Green Revolution. There exists a false popular notion that growth is synonymous with progress and that we can only further improve the human condition by increasing growth.

This is complete at odds with the physical limits of a finite Earth. Continuing on our recent course will lead to a complete and almost immediate crash of technically advanced societies and maybe all of humanity -- not much different that a colony of bacteria on a petri dish when its food runs out. Humans will wake up inside a toxic Earth dump with nowhere to go. The laws of physics, chemistry and biology say there can be no sustained net mass output from an ecosystem for more than a few years. Ecologically speaking, this assertion is based upon estimates of Net Primary Productivity (NPP) and Net Ecosystem Productivity (NEP). When plant materials are removed through logging or agriculture, nutrients that would have gone back to the soil are removed from the ecosystem. Eventually such soils become depleted and ecosystem productivity declines rapidly. Ancient forests that are allowed to grow have net ecosystem productivity of zero on average over the long term. To export biomass (mostly water, but also carbon, oxygen, hydrogen and a wide array of nutrients), an ecosystem must import equivalent quantities of these elements or it will irreversibly decline. These other nutrients are being provided for industrial agriculture through mining of ancient plant matter, water and earth minerals. Continuing with industrial agriculture intensified through agrofuel and biomass energy will doom humans, who are no longer integrated with ecosystems, to extinction by exhausting stocks of minerals, soils and clean water.

Protecting and regenerating forests, ecosystems and soils is the most important step we must take if we are to stabilize the global climate, not to mention other ecosystem benefits this would provide, including protecting future freshwater supplies and biodiversity conservation. Providing policy and financial incentives to use plant biomass for energy runs counter to the goal of protecting and regenerating ecosystems and thus threatens to greatly exacerbate global warming rather than mitigate it. Industrial tree plantations, such as those now covering much of the previously forested southeastern U.S. are ecologically depauperate and depend on large inputs of fertilizers and agrichemicals. Industrial monoculture of trees or other crops grown for energy are not “clean, renewable or sustainable”. Sustained harvesting of any biomass will require large inputs of nitrogen and other fertilizers; nitrogen fertilizer is a major cause of biodiversity decline and increasingly N2O emissions are recognized as a major contributor to climate change.


Industrial scale "biochar" is the latest dangerous planetary geoengineering proposal to save the Earth and humanity from climate change without personal sacrifice or social change. Biochar (charcoal) enthusiasts intend to burn biomass to produce and bury charcoal, in order to manipulate land use and the biosphere on a vast scale. As if the world's land, 25% of which is already becoming seriously degraded, does not have enough pressures from deforestation, industrial agriculture and sprawling human settlements. Biochar depends upon cooking wood and grasses to gain fuel from their volatile compounds, while the charcoal residue is buried in the soil.

The idea is based upon Amazonian indigenous practices, where highly fertile terras pretas (black soils) were created by burying charcoal over hundreds of years. Biochar and agrofuels are closely linked. Charcoal is a byproduct from a type of bioenergy production which can also be used to make second-generation agrofuels from wood, straw, and other plant fibers; and even burning toxic plastics and coal plant residues. Biochar advocates and agrofuel associates claim that the already depleted land base and terrestrial ecosystems will provide enough biomass to become a major source of the world's heating fuel, electricity, road transport and aviation fuels -- while providing enough charcoal to bury to appreciably mitigate climate change. Some propose that hundreds of millions of hectares of the Earth's surface be turned into industrial tree plantations to produce charcoal to bury, even claiming this biochar could absorb enough carbon to return to pre-industrial carbon dioxide levels.

This raises very important issues of land use, the sustainability of existing (much less further) industrial intensification of agriculture, appropriate and equitable uses of biomass, and land tenure for indigenous and other local peoples. It is claimed these new plantations can be created across "marginal" and "degraded" land in "which the occupants are not engaged in economic activity", meaning land used by subsistence farmers, pastoralists, hunters and gatherers and others not producing commodities for the mass market. The ecological concerns with the existing 100m hectares of industrial plantations established around the world are well known. Aside from destroying biodiversity, tree plantations have dried up river catchments, caused soil erosion when the land is ploughed for planting (meaning loss of soil carbon), exhausted nutrients, and pesticides have poisoned water and fisheries. Industrial agriculture continues to threaten the livelihoods of many communities, including indigenous peoples. Across the world, people are being thrown off their land, often by violent means, to create plantations.

In Closing

Biomass for agrofuel and biochar from increased industrial plantations is suddenly being proposed as the universal answer to our climate and energy problems. But the world's land and forests are already past their carrying capacity, and terrestrial ecosystems, upon which all life depends, are crashing. These ecological truths are being ignored. Biomass based climate and energy plans dependent upon further intensification of industrial agriculture are premature, almost certainly will be ecologically devastating, and no one knows if they will work. It is more likely they will continue the processes that are leading to global ecosystem collapse. It is clearly impossible for industrial agriculture and already depleted terrestrial ecosystems to meet the wood and crop needed to significantly reduce atmospheric carbon. After losing 80% of the world's natural and intact forest habitats, mostly to agriculture, few people stop to wonder how Earth can accommodate these additional demands upon plants' primary productivity and still produce food, preserve wild places and maintain ecosystems required to maintain a habitable Earth. As eight millennia of experience and the unfolding disaster of agrofuel clearly demonstrate, expansion of land-conversion by industrial agriculture strongly threatens biodiversity and ecosystems that play an essential role in stabilising and regulating the climate, and are necessary to ensure food and water security. Small-scale agro-ecological farming such as permaculture, and protection and restoration of natural ecosystems, are truly effective ways to use plants and terrestrial ecosystems to mitigate the impacts of climate change. And there may well be virtues in small scale, community based biochar operations. These proven carbon mitigation measures should be fully supported, not risky, unfounded industrial agricultural techniques promoted by vested commercial interests.

Campaign Activities

• Build and network definitive biofuel science and policy data to build the movement -- links, news, rss feeds. In so doing, help create a movement for positive agro-ecological food systems and a rejection of industrial agriculture including for biofuels, other biomass energy and for biochar.

• Take action online and help to facilitate rapid reaction, direct action against strategically chosen targets to promote a vision of no biomass for energy.

• Promote reform of industrial agriculture to agro-ecological systems such as permaculture, within the context of protecting and restoring adequate terrestrial systems necessary to maintain biodiversity, ecosystems and achieve global ecological sustainability.

Campaign Targets

• National Low Carbon Fuel Standard and Renewable Energy Standard promoting biofuel/bioenergy must be resisted

• Biomass must not be considered as a renewable energy source in the American Climate and Energy Security Act of 2009 (ACESA).

• Resist increased targets for biofuel, eliminate the blend increase and rollback the corn ethanol mandate.

• No energy from biomass campaign to oppose huge push towards wood for electricity and other direct burn uses.

• Oppose cellulosic biofuels because they are inefficient, and will compete with food production and lead to further land use pressures.

• Promote organic, permaculture, low impact agriculture and other agro-ecological systems to meet human food needs, including major reduction in meat consumption.

• Resist EPA efforts to water down implementation of Indirect Land Use Change ILUC in the Energy Independence and Security Act EISA and elsewhere.

• Campaign against ill-conceived, premature establishment of industrial biochar plantations.

• Stop biodiesel based upon oil palm and soya from becoming further established for planting and a market in the Americas, as it has been in Europe and Asia.

• Generally look for U.S. angles to oppose markets for plantation based tree and crop plantation products at the expense of rainforests in particular.

• Resist opening up public lands and forests in general for inappropriate "restoration", when it is really a euphemism for cutting for biomass utilization.

• Oppose Western Hemisphere Energy Pact which involves tying the Americas together in a pact which would "ensure stable supplies" and involves various infrastructure to jointly develop ethanol and other alternative fuels.

• Research and oppose bilateral and multilateral Free Trade Agreements with USA that are drivers to agrofuel expansion in some of the Latin American countries including IADB, The Integracion de la Infraestructura Regional Sudamericana and the Plan Mesoamerica.

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