Health Supreme by Sepp Hasslberger

Networking For A Better Future - News and perspectives you may not find in the media

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November 23, 2004

Biodiesel Not Sustainable: Will Starve The Poor

The Guardian has published an article by Georges Monbiot which discusses the implications of widespread use of "biofuels", as advocated by several environmentalists. Biofuels are fuels grown as agricultural crops such as rape, soy, oilpalms, sunflowers or peanuts.

In his article, titled "Feeding Cars, Not People", Monbiot predicts that the use of agriculture for fuel production will have a disastrous impact on the food supply for the people of this world. Such use will cause "a global humanitarian disaster", says Monbiot, adding that "the market responds to money, not need. People who own cars have more money than people at risk of starvation. In a contest between their demand for fuel and poor people's demand for food, the car-owners win every time."

In a world where millions of people go hungry, it would indeed seem ridiculous to restrict food production by dedicating prime agricultural land to making fuels. There must be other alternatives and indeed many researchers in the "free energy" field will tell you that they have just the contraption to fit your need. That may well be, but when you ask where to buy it, more often than not you get a request for some additional funding and time to "iron out the last bugs". With oil running short, a serious look for alternative methods of energy production would really be in order.

One thing is for sure: biodiesel will not be the world wide solution it is promoted to be. Here's Monbiot's take on biofuels and their social implications:


Fuel for nought

The adoption of biofuels would be a humanitarian and environmental disaster

George Monbiot
Tuesday November 23, 2004
(Original in The Guardian)

If human beings were without sin, we would still live in an imperfect world. Adam Smith's notion that by pursuing his own interest, a man "frequently promotes that of ... society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it", and Karl Marx's picture of a society in which "the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all" are both mocked by one obvious constraint. The world is finite. This means that when one group of people pursues its own interests, it damages the interests of others.

It is hard to think of a better example than the current enthusiasm for biofuels. These are made from plant oils or crop wastes or wood, and can be used to run cars and buses and lorries. Burning them simply returns to the atmosphere the carbon that the plants extracted while they were growing. So switching from fossil fuels to biodiesel and bioalcohol is now being promoted as the solution to climate change.

Next month, the British government will have to set a target for the amount of transport fuel that will come from crops. The European Union wants 2% of the oil we use to be biodiesel by the end of next year, rising to 6% by 2010 and 20% by 2020. To try to meet these targets, the government has reduced the tax on biofuels by 20p a litre, while the EU is paying farmers an extra €45 a hectare to grow them.

Everyone seems happy about this. The farmers and the chemicals industry can develop new markets, the government can meet its commitments to cut carbon emissions, and environmentalists can celebrate the fact that plant fuels reduce local pollution as well as global warming. Unlike hydrogen fuel cells, biofuels can be deployed straightaway. This, in fact, was how Rudolf Diesel expected his invention to be used. When he demonstrated his engine at the World Exhibition in 1900, he ran it on peanut oil. "The use of vegetable oils for engine fuels may seem insignificant today," he predicted. "But such oils may become in course of time as important as petroleum." Some enthusiasts are predicting that if fossil fuel prices continue to rise, he will soon be proved right.

I hope not. Those who have been promoting these fuels are well-intentioned, but wrong. They are wrong because the world is finite. If biofuels take off, they will cause a global humanitarian disaster.

Used as they are today, on a very small scale, they do no harm. A few thousand greens in the United Kingdom are running their cars on used chip fat. But recycled cooking oils could supply only 100,000 tonnes of diesel a year in this country, equivalent to one 380th of our road transport fuel.

It might also be possible to turn crop wastes such as wheat stubble into alcohol for use in cars - the Observer ran an article about this on Sunday. I'd like to see the figures, but I find it hard to believe that we will be able to extract more energy than we use in transporting and processing straw. But the EU's plans, like those of all the enthusiasts for biolocomotion, depend on growing crops specifically for fuel. As soon as you examine the implications, you discover that the cure is as bad as the disease.

Road transport in the UK consumes 37.6m tonnes of petroleum products a year. The most productive oil crop that can be grown in this country is rape. The average yield is 3-3.5 tonnes per hectare. One tonne of rapeseed produces 415kg of biodiesel. So every hectare of arable land could provide 1.45 tonnes of transport fuel.

To run our cars and buses and lorries on biodiesel, in other words, would require 25.9m hectares. There are 5.7m in the UK. Even the EU's more modest target of 20% by 2020 would consume almost all our cropland.

If the same thing is to happen all over Europe, the impact on global food supply will be catastrophic: big enough to tip the global balance from net surplus to net deficit. If, as some environmentalists demand, it is to happen worldwide, then most of the arable surface of the planet will be deployed to produce food for cars, not people.

This prospect sounds, at first, ridiculous. Surely if there were unmet demand for food, the market would ensure that crops were used to feed people rather than vehicles? There is no basis for this assumption. The market responds to money, not need. People who own cars have more money than people at risk of starvation. In a contest between their demand for fuel and poor people's demand for food, the car-owners win every time. Something very much like this is happening already. Though 800 million people are permanently malnourished, the global increase in crop production is being used to feed animals: the number of livestock on earth has quintupled since 1950. The reason is that those who buy meat and dairy products have more purchasing power than those who buy only subsistence crops.

Green fuel is not just a humanitarian disaster; it is also an environmental disaster. Those who worry about the scale and intensity of today's agriculture should consider what farming will look like when it is run by the oil industry. Moreover, if we try to develop a market for rapeseed biodiesel in Europe, it will immediately develop into a market for palm oil and soya oil. Oilpalm can produce four times as much biodiesel per hectare as rape, and it is grown in places where labour is cheap. Planting it is already one of the world's major causes of tropical forest destruction. Soya has a lower oil yield than rape, but the oil is a by-product of the manufacture of animal feed. A new market for it will stimulate an industry that has already destroyed most of Brazil's cerrado (one of the world's most biodiverse environments) and much of its rainforest.

It is shocking to see how narrow the focus of some environmentalists can be. At a meeting in Paris last month, a group of scientists and greens studying abrupt climate change decided that Tony Blair's two big ideas - tackling global warming and helping Africa - could both be met by turning Africa into a biofuel production zone. This strategy, according to its convenor, "provides a sustainable development path for the many African countries that can produce biofuels cheaply". I know the definition of sustainable development has been changing, but I wasn't aware that it now encompasses mass starvation and the eradication of tropical forests. Last year, the British parliamentary committee on environment, food and rural affairs, which is supposed to specialise in joined-up thinking, examined every possible consequence of biofuel production - from rural incomes to skylark numbers - except the impact on food supply.

We need a solution to the global warming caused by cars, but this isn't it. If the production of biofuels is big enough to affect climate change, it will be big enough to cause global starvation.

See also:

The most destructive crop on earth is no solution to the energy crisis
By promoting biodiesel as a substitute, we have missed the fact that it is worse than the fossil-fuel burning it replaces
George Monbiot - Tuesday December 6, 2005

Producing ethanol and biodiesel from corn and other crops is not worth the energy
July 05, 2005 - Turning plants such as corn, soybeans and sunflowers into fuel uses much more energy than the resulting ethanol or biodiesel generates, according to a new Cornell University and University of California-Berkeley study. "There is just no energy benefit to using plant biomass for liquid fuel," says David Pimentel, professor of ecology and agriculture at Cornell. "These strategies are not sustainable."

Study: Ethanol Production Consumes Six Units Of Energy To Produce Just One

A Simpler, Cheaper Biodiesel Production Process
April 15, 2005 - Washington, D.C. [] A scientist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Agricultural Research Service (ARS) may have found a new way to remove a costly component of biodiesel production.

Backroom Tussling Over Biodiesel

Asia Pushes Ahead on Biofuel, Despite Cost
February 28, 2005 - SHANGHAI - Faced with too many crops and not enough oil, Asian governments are promoting biofuels as a way to cut costly fuel imports.

Are you ready for french-fried fuel?
Diesel engines can run on just about anything, including used cooking oil. An entire industry is emerging to provide brave 'biodiesel' pioneers with the ingredients for petroleum-free motoring.

Green diesel: New process makes fuel from plants
Reporting in the June 3 issue of the Journal Science, Steenbock Professor James Dumesic and colleagues detail a four-phase catalytic reactor in which corn and other biomass-derived carbohydrates can be converted to sulfur-free liquid alkanes resulting in an ideal additive for diesel transportation fuel.

All cars will run on 'biofuel' mix by 2010
The Times November 02, 2005
OIL companies are to be forced to add fuel made from crops such as oil seed rape and sugar cane to all petrol and diesel sold in Britain.

French Green Lobby Wary of Biofuel Benefits
January 12, 2006
PARIS - As France races to become Europe's top biofuels maker by 2010, the country's green lobby said on Wednesday that damage caused by intensive farming to produce them could outweigh the clean-burning benefits.

Volkswagen, Shell and Iogen to study feasibility of producing cellulose ethanol in Germany

The New Biofuel Republics
Poor developing nations are to feed the voracious appetites of rich countries for biofuels instead of their own hungry masses, and suffer the devastation of their natural forests and biodiversity. Dr. Elizabeth Bravo and Dr. Mae-Wan Ho

Biofuels: Biodevastation, Hunger & False Carbon Credits
Europe's thirst for biofuels is fuelling deforestation and food price hikes, exacerbated by a false accounting system that awards carbon credits to the carbon profligate nations. A mandatory certification scheme for biofuels is needed to protect the earth's most sensitive forest ecosystems, to stabilise climate and to safeguard our food security.

Biofuels Boom Raises Tough Questions
The problem is, ethanol really isn't ready for prime time. The only economical way to make ethanol right now is with corn, which means the burgeoning industry is literally eating America's lunch, not to mention its breakfast and dinner. And though ethanol from corn may have some minor benefits with regard to energy independence, most analysts conclude its environmental benefits are questionable at best.

Scientists Weigh Downside of Palm Oil
Marcel Silvius, a climate expert at Wetlands International in the Netherlands, led a team that compared the benefits of palm oil to the ecological harm from destroying virgin Asian rain forests to develop lucrative new plantations. His conclusion: "As a biofuel, it's a failure."

The four-year study found that 600 million tons of carbon dioxide seep into the air each year from the drained swamps. Another 1.4 billion tons go up in smoke from fires lit to clear rain forest for plantations - smoke that often shrouds Singapore and Malaysia in an impenetrable haze for weeks at a time. Together, those 2 billion tons of CO2 account for 8 percent of the world's fossil fuel emissions, the report said.

April 2007: If we want to save the planet, we need a five-year freeze on biofuels
It used to be a matter of good intentions gone awry. Now it is plain fraud. The governments using biofuel to tackle global warming know that it causes more harm than good. "In 2004 I warned, on these pages, that biofuels would set up a competition for food between cars and people. The people would necessarily lose: those who can afford to drive are richer than those who are in danger of starvation. It would also lead to the destruction of rainforests and other important habitats."

H2CAR could fuel entire U.S. transportation sector
A new process which combines carbon from biomass and hydrogen from wind or other renewable energy sources could supply the liquid hydrocarbons needed for transportation without over-use of land area to grow biomass instead of food - until we come upon a better idea that is.

U.N.: Food prices could offset biofuels benefits
Biofuels like ethanol can help reduce global warming and create jobs for the rural poor, but the benefits may be offset by serious environmental problems and increased food prices for the hungry, the United Nations concluded in its first major report on bioenergy.

Biofuels more harmful to humans than petrol and diesel, warn scientists
"The dialogue so far on biofuels has been pretty much focused on greenhouse gases alone," said David Tilman, a professor at the department of ecology, evolution and behaviour at the University of Minnesota. "And yet we felt there were many other impacts that were positive or negative not being included. We wanted to expand the analysis from greenhouse gases to at least one other item and we chose health impacts."

The health problems caused by conventional fuels are well studied and stem from soot particles and other pollution produced when they are burned. With biofuels, the problems are caused by particles given off during their growth and manufacture.

70 Percent More Energy Required to Make Ethanol than Actually is in Ethanol: Cornell
Neither increases in government subsidies to corn-based ethanol fuel nor hikes in the price of petroleum can overcome what one Cornell agricultural scientist calls a fundamental input-yield problem: It takes more energy to make ethanol from grain than the combustion of ethanol produces.

"Abusing our precious croplands to grow corn for an energy-inefficient process that yields low-grade automobile fuel amounts to unsustainable, subsidized food burning," said the Cornell professor in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.


posted by Sepp Hasslberger on Tuesday November 23 2004
updated on Sunday March 8 2009

URL of this article:


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Readers' Comments

According to the article, part of the problem is actually the government requirement for using biofuels. Wouldn't it be far better to actually let the market work to allocate scarce goods? The late great economist Julian Simon once bet his colleagues that the prices of major commodities would decline over time. And he was right. All these claims that the sky is falling, is mostly just hyperbole to justify more misguided government interventions. What about all the byproducts that can be used for fuel, from plants? Yes, I certainly wouldn't want Tony Blair mapping our energy future. They've done such a bang-up job with the wars. But the free market has shown time and again how efficient it is, and how it can find amazing uses for substances previously discarded as wastes. But the author does make a good point -- we should not get tied in to a single path for energy (like petroleum). Instead, diversify as much as possible, and try to maintain a level playing field so that all sources get their day in the sun. Then we can look forward to a cleaner, more abundant energy future -- with less likelihood of war.

Posted by: Visionaerie on November 25, 2004 02:21 AM


Surely Monbiot is jumping to sensational conclusions. Diverting used cooking oil and slaughterhouse residues from landfills hardly results in starvation. For a consideration of some of the economic, social, and environmental beneftis of biodiesel see Environment Canada -

Poverty and starvation are complex problems. Solving malnutrition is not so much a problem of production, but of distribution, and fair trade and purchasing power.
Surplus agricultural capacity in one part of the world does not result in the alleviation of poverty in other parts of the world.

Monbiot is doing everyone a disservice by slamming a option that may offer significant benefits.

Posted by: Tom Sepp on November 30, 2004 07:12 PM


But Tom, look at the article :

"recycled cooking oils could supply only 100,000 tonnes of diesel a year in this country, equivalent to one 380th of our road transport fuel."

The amount of fuel used is far greater than could be produced from cooking waste. You would still need vast amounts of land to grow enough rape/palmoil etc.
Now if it could come from sewage...

Posted by: Dan on January 5, 2005 01:35 PM


Ok... Lets suppose we go with your theory. There are still quite a few unanswered questions.

What good is it to feed starving people around the world using vast amounts fuel?

How does it help their local community to increase in population?

How are you going to grow the grain without fuel?

How are you going to transport the food without fuel?

I guess you decided that the market would take care of that...

Posted by: Ryan on February 24, 2005 05:14 AM


Hi Ryan,

thanks for your comment on the Biodiesel article.

My major doubt is the use of crops that could (and should) be used for food to run our technology. From what I heard so far, bio-fuel was made predominantly from corn and sugar cane, both "heavy feeders", which tend to deplete the soil they are grown on.

If there are waste products, or things that grow that are not food crops and can easily be converted into a diesel-like fuel, I have no bones with that.

Of course there is also much research into other technologies that do not rely on oil or substitutes that are similar.

However, if biodiesel can bridge the gap, can help while other technologies are developed and brought into use, why not.

Posted by: Sepp on February 24, 2005 03:26 PM


Ryan answers:

There are already two sources of vegetable oil from non-plant sources. As you probably already know, there is waste vegetable oil from restaurants, but mass produced biodiesel can also be made from algae, grown in the desert.

Please take a look at this wonderful article on the future of biodiesel:

My thoughts to this:

The article linked by Ryan compares biodiesel to hydrogen, arguing the side of biodiesel as being more simple to use (existing diesel engines) and being renewable, in that it can be made of plant matter. It would be CO2 neutral.

Hydrogen, it is argued, is much further away in application, more bulky to carry in a vehicle (it has lower energy density than comparable liquid fuels), it would necessitate an expensive infrastructure, and we would have to rely on other, primary, energy sources to obtain the hydrogen from water.

This assumes that hydrogen can only be centrally produced and is not amenable to an engineering solution, by which a comparatively small energy input can obtain large amounts of hydrogen from water. I challenge that assumption. Here is what I wrote today in an email to someone who asked:

There are various directions of research. Catalysts, biological agents, ultraviolet light, high frequency pulsing of the electrical current used in electrolysis are some of them. The idea is sound, the technology should be doable, but we seem to be held back by what you refer to as your "common sense filter". We are conditioned to think that energetic processes always have to equal out. In this case, the (false) assumption is that we need an equivalent energy input to split the water into hydrogen and oxygen as we will get out. This is not necessarily so. But I can't tell you at this point which of the various avenues for hydrogen production will win out and which will fizzle.

Conservation of energy does not necessarily mean that each process is energy neutral. There are possibilities to "hitch a ride" with smart use of conversions.

Perhaps the future is one of diversity. Why not have several solutions, where each one can contribute to lessening our dependency on oil. Let's at least start somewhere!

I just came across this interesting link:

GreenfFuel Technologies proposes to obtain Biodiesel through algae, feeding them with smokestack emissions.

Posted by: Sepp on February 26, 2005 06:18 PM


Yes the most important thing for producing biofuel is the energy and process costs. Recently our company has developed a novel and proprietary Biodiesel technology called "BIOBOOST". This new development has been commercialized in a 30,000 liter per day system in the Mid Western part of the US. The technology uses a new catalytic concept called "Electro-Chemical" method of performing Transesterification and Esterification of vegetable oils and animal fats simultaneously. "Electro-Chemical" catalysis use a specially designed electric field theory to initiate the free radical chain reaction of Triglycerides and alcohol into Ester. No other chemicals are used in the process to contaminate the fuel after reaction.
This means that high free fat oils can be processed without loosing them to acid stripping as per conventional acid/base catalyzed methods generally employed worldwide. In addition, the the process performs etherification of the glyeric molecule to produce built-in-additve of homegeous solution with a 100% yield after reaction. The process does not have any byproducts, hence no water washing after reaction to separate and the cost ratio to the yield is the highest in the world.The quality of the biodiesel is superb excellent in BTU value higher than # 2 diesel, reduction in NOX etc. and the cost of the biodiesel production is equal to # 2 diesel.Any body is interested to know more, can reach me at Atlanta Ga or via email.
Thank you and have a nice day.
A Baosman

Posted by: Dr. Ahmed Baosman on July 30, 2005 06:13 PM


Bio diesel from Jatropha Curcus is natures Substitute bio fuel. We are Manufacturers and Exporters of Bio Diesel Units in different quantities.

Bio Diesel - Jatropha curcas
Bio diesel from Jatropha Curcas is natures Substitute bio fuel. We are Manufacturers and Exporters of Bio Diesel Units in different quantities.

Posted by: Gilbert on January 16, 2006 02:18 PM


I'm glad to read this post, because some pertinent points have been raised, and some of them are indeed true...

However, as another commentator has pointed out, there are alternative feedstock, jatropha for instance, which can eliminate some of the problems'

Another exciting feedstock is algae, pl see more inputs on biodiesel from algae from

I think these types of feedstock could make biodiesel more sustainable

Ec @ IT & Software Online

Posted by: Ecacofonix on June 8, 2006 04:04 PM


"We are conditioned to think that energetic processes always have to equal out. In this case, the (false) assumption is that we need an equivalent energy input to split the water into hydrogen and oxygen as we will get out. This is not necessarily so."
This, my friend, I won't even comment on. If this is possible, we can actually replace Sun some day. :-)
Well, actually let me comment on it.
If that is possible, you will never have to fuel your car. You use hydrogen to produce energy, and you get water. You use x of that energy to produce equivalent hydrogen again from water, and remaining to power your car (or whatever). At the end, you still have same amount of hydrigen, and the cycle continues. No need ever to fuel your car.

Posted by: funvin on October 27, 2006 04:24 AM


Biodiesel & Ethanol, as they are produced today, are not sustainable. But as technologies improve (BioD from algae, Ethanol from Cellulose), they are promising to become sustainable. By buying BioD/Ethanol today, we are investing in these future technologies by encouraging research in these areas.
Ethanol makes sense in US cause US has unfairly high percent of gasoline (petroleum) cars. But you need flex fuel cars to run higher percent of ethanol, & that too can't go above E85. So you haven't eliminated the use of gas completely. I hope we have 100 ethanol capable engines soon. And most importantly, some E100 pumping stations too.
On the other hand, you can run B100 (yes, 100 biodiesel) in diesel cars today with no modification to the engine at all. Also, diesel engines convert ~40 of fuel energy to translation, while gas engines convert only ~25. Diesel engines are more efficient than gas engines cause unlike gas, diesel doesn't explode spontaneously, allowing for better compression ratios in the combustion chamber, and hence higher efficiency.
Biodiesel has a few pain points as well. B100 gels below 40F. So you have to use blends (diesel + biodiesel) in cold winters. Diesel and Biodiesel blend pretty well, and B20 will work almost everywhere, where regular diesel works.
I did considerable research before buying a car, and decided for diesel cause:
1. Better mileage (I get ~47 miles per gallon on B100 on free ways for my VW golf tdi)
2. Diesel engines last longer than gasoline engines cause they run at lower rpms.
3. There weren't any E85 pumps around my area, but a couple of biod pumps within 2 mile radius.
Hope this helps people in making sound decision.

Posted by: Vinay on October 27, 2006 04:50 AM


Here an exchange of emails that is relevant to this post...

If you would, please include the URL of our company in your directory listing at the PES Network. Thank You!

A. San Juan

- - -

... for inclusion of a link in the PES network, you will have to contact Sterling Allan.

I am personally not convinced that biodiesel is a viable solution to our energy needs, as it cuts into the production of foods, using agricultural land to grow the raw materials for the fuel, and I have said so in an article on my site...

(This article)

- - -

Thanks for the reply. I read the article and it was interesting, although I believe it is flawed.

I have lived in several poorer countries (I lived in Philippines for nearly 2 decades), and I believe the problem of starvation and malnutrition is not one of overall lack of food, BUT the inability of poor people to BUY food. It is a problem of distribution, not one of absolute lack. Most of the feedstock for biodiesel is in fact not staple foods (like rice), but plants like coconut, palm, etc.

The growing use of organic material for biofuels, and especially by cooperatives at the community level (as opposed to the large conglomerates) will not take away food from the table of these poor people, but in fact may help by providing a new income stream. For example, the market for coconuts has gotten into hard times recently, pushing many many poor people who depend on its harvest in to deeper poverty. However, the new use of coco biodiesel means there is a new market for coconut oil, which has created demand for these products and thus directly helps the people who plant and harvest these.

As another example, we are currently negotiating with an NGO in east asia to help them enable small cooperatives to use Jatropha as a biodiesel source. Jatropha is a plant that can live in very marginal unused land, and placing some higher value in it would help these people.

Anyways, just my 2 centavos.
(A. San Juan)

Posted by: Sepp on November 27, 2006 06:09 AM


An interesting article on the question of using potential foodstuffs such as corn for fuel production.

Biofuel Demand Could Send Shockwaves through World Economy
January 8, 2007
Esteemed environmental policy analyst Lester Brown of the Earth Policy Institute told reporters last week that Americans and the rest of the world are likely to see sharp increases in the price of corn, let alone the popular biofuel ethanol, due to errors in projections made by federal agriculture planners. "Because of inadequate data collection on the number of new [fuel ethanol distilleries] under construction, the quantity of grain that will be needed…has been vastly understated,â€?? said Brown.

Posted by: Sepp on January 28, 2007 01:58 PM


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