April 20, 2008

Bryce on the Ethanol Explosion

Robert bryce has emerged as a prominent critic of the bush regime’s push for a dramatic increase in biofuel crops to reduce america’s dependence on arab oil production. In a recent article he’s argued the explosion in ethanol production is both wrong and immoral. Wrong because "no matter how much of U.S. or world grain is diverted to make motor fuel, it will never make a large dent in global oil needs." (Robert Bryce ‘The Mandates Aren't Just Wrong, They're Immoral: The Ethanol Apologists’ http://www.counterpunch.com/bryce04172008.html April 17, 2008). And immoral because it is driving up world grain prices thereby pushing more of the world’s poor toward starvation.

But there is one criticism that bryce avoids about the massive expansion of biofuel crops: that it is highly destructive of the Earth’s life support system and thus the stability of the Earth’s climate. The reason for this omission is his agnosticism over global warming. "When it comes to the science of global climate change, I'm an agnostic. Again, I no longer care much about the science. To me, the central question, and the one that few are willing to discuss in depth, is: Then what?" (Robert Bryce ‘Beyond Group Think on Climate Change: If More CO2 is Bad ... Then What?’ http://www.counterpunch.org/bryce02082008.html February 8/10, 2008). Bryce’s limited criticisms of biofuel expansion leads to distortions in his analysis.

Bryce argues that the expansion of biofuel crops is reducing food crops and thus driving up global food prices. However, he recognizes that food prices are not rising solely because of biofuels, "Several factors are driving food prices higher including growing global grain demand, crop failures in other countries, rising energy prices, and the weak dollar." (Robert Bryce ‘The Mandates Aren't Just Wrong, They're Immoral: The Ethanol Apologists’ http://www.counterpunch.com/bryce04172008.html April 17, 2008).

There are three flaws in his analysis. Firstly, although he believes that biofuel crops are driving up food prices he doesn’t know exactly by how much. It may not be that significant. During the 1990s in both america and europe, agricultural surpluses led to the establishment of major set-aside schemes. Agricultural land was taken out of production and allowed to regenerate as natural areas. It is all too likely that when bush announcement his drive for energy independence much of this set aside land in america was reclaimed for biofuel production: the same is also likely to be true in europe. This would have had no impact on food prices.

Secondly, he mentions that crop failures contribute to the rise in food prices but given his agnosticism towards global warming he can’t blame this on anthropogenic climate change. And yet the probability is that the damage that humans are inflicting on the Earth’s life sustaining processes is a significant cause of climate instability and thus crop failures. The greater the damage that humans inflict on the planet’s life sustaining processes e.g. through the creation of monocultural biofuel plantations, the greater the climatic instability, the more widespread and intense the crop failures are likely to be. Thus the expansion of biofuel production will contribute to increasing levels of starvation amongst the world’s poor not merely, as bryce suggests, through reducing food production but also through increasing crop failures.

Thirdly, another factor which bryce ignores when looking at the causes of food price rises is the increasing growth of the Animal exploitation industry. The more prosperous that developing countries become, the more their middle classes imitate the appallingly self-destructive consumption habits of their counterparts in the developed world. As a consequence, increasing quantities of grains are being fed to increasing numbers of livestock Animals some of which might otherwise have been used to feed humans. The huge increase in global meat and dairy production must have had a significant impact on global grain prices and thus global poverty. If the biggest contributor to recent food price increases has been the dramatic rise in energy costs, the huge increases in meat and dairy production can’t be that far behind as the second biggest contributor. However, this is not a fact that bryce wishes to confront since to him it would smack of blaming the developing world for the rising cost of food and increasing global poverty. He fears this might tempt the developed world to try and deter the developing world from eating meat. It should also be pointed out that the Animal exploitation industry is the biggest contributor to the destruction of the Earth’s life sustaining processes and thus anthropogenic global warming which boosts crop failures further adding to food price increases and global starvation. The continuing expansion of the Animal exploitation industry will increasingly destabilize the climate which could eventually result in ecocide.

In a global laisser faire system, the rich increasingly eat grain intensive meat and dairy products whilst the poor starve because the grains that would nourish them are given to livestock Animals. The Animal exploitation industry not merely deprives the poor of the grains they need to survive, it triggers climate instabilities leading to increasing crop failures and thus increasing levels of global malnutrition. There is only one way of avoiding this double calamity and this is to ration out grains to each country around the world.

Bryce admits that the expansion in biofuel crops is not "the main factor in rising food prices" but continues to stress its infamy by suggesting it is "the one that could have been easily avoided". But is this really true? Is meat and dairy consumption unavoidable especially given its colossal negative impacts on human health? Just how tasty are meat and dairy products given the stench of global starvation? Just how attractive is the consumption of meat and dairy products given the prevalence of obesity in the developed world in stark contrast to the repulsiveness of increasing numbers of people wasting away from malnutrition?

Bryce provides figures to support his thesis that biofuel production is increasing food prices but a closer analysis of these figures suggests the Animal exploitation industry is making a bigger contribution. For example, he points out, "Since 2000, the amount of corn used to make ethanol has increased nearly six fold. By next year, according to the National Corn Growers Association, some 4 billion bushels of corn, about one-third of the expected crop, will be used to make motor fuel." If one third of corn is being used for biofuels then what is the other two-thirds being used for? It is more than likely that a significant proportion is being used for livestock feed.

Another example. "The USDA estimates that global grain demand will grow by 5.4 percent this year. Fully half of that growth will come from U.S. consumption of corn for ethanol." But how much of total corn production goes to feed livestock Animals?

If biofuel production goes on expanding at the rate it has since bush’s declaration of energy independence then it will come into increasing conflict with the global Animal exploitation industry which has also been expanding at a rapid rate. Competition between biofuels, the livestock industry, and the needs of human consumption, will drive up grain prices. More crop production will be devoted to feeding cars and livestock Animals leaving less for the world’s poor. As the world’s rich appropriate increasing amounts of grains for their high grain diets and their grain-powered cars, more people will find themselves driven into malnutrition and starvation. This competition for grains will not eventually stabilize into the modern day equivalent of the medieval world where the rich remain comfortable as long as they can suppress food riots. As the biofuel and the Animal exploitation industries increasingly destabilize the climate, crop failures will become common enough to threaten even the survival of the rich. Its true that the poor will starve first but, as the momentum of global warming quickens, the rich will also eventually succumb.

The conflict between crops for livestock Animals, cars, and humans, will be fought between various political forces. Those supporting crops for livestock Animals include a significant section of the world’s landowning elites and lobbyists for the Animal exploitation industry such as "‘Balanced Food and Fuel’, a Washington, DC-based coalition of eight associations that represent the meat, dairy, and egg producers" (Robert Bryce ‘The Mandates Aren't Just Wrong, They're Immoral: The Ethanol Apologists’ http://www.counterpunch.com/bryce04172008.html April 17, 2008). Those supporting crops for cars include the biofuel industry, reformist environmentalists, the car industry, and, in america, a rather surprising defender, the jewish lobby. It was the jewish lobby that initiated and publicized the idea of energy independence and had the political clout to pressure the bush regime into adopting extreme policies that might help to undermine arab oil producers but which were otherwise not in america’s national interests. The jewish lobby will help the biofuel industry to compete for grains against the Animal exploitation industry and the world’s poor. The world’s poor do not stand a chance against these major political powers.

Bryce’s focus on the biofuels industry for increasing food prices is inadequate and dangerous. He ignores the important critique of biofuels as contributing to climate instability and exacerbating global poverty because he’s a global warming agnostic. He fails to mention the critical role of the Animal exploitation industry in driving up food prices, causing climatic instability, crop failures and thus further global starvation. What is the point of condemning the biofuel industry when the Animal exploitation industry is causing exactly the same problems but on an even grander scale? If it is so wrong to feed grains to cars why is it not also wrong to feed so many grains to livestock Animals?

The Animal exploitation industry is far more dangerous morally, politically, and environmentally, than the biofuel industry. Even if the biofuel industry was aborted the huge expansion of the global Animal exploitation industry would continue driving up food prices, destabilizing the climate, and boosting global starvation. It is quite true that if the Animal exploitation industry was abolished then, hypothetically, the biofuel industry could grow to replace it so it is imperative to tackle both industries as if they are one and the same. The competition for grains will lead, with malthusian certainty, towards mass immizerization and perhaps even ecocide. The only solution to this is to replace global capitalism with a rationing system to share out resources fairly and sustainably. No rationing, no survival.

Bryce’s political stance is odd. He claims to be concerned about the world’s poor and yet firstly, he ignores the criticism that biofuels contribute to climate instability and thus crop failures which boost global starvation. Secondly, he refuses to take a stand against global warming because he believes policies to oppose it would allegedly harm the world’s poor and yet, by not making a stand, global warming is likely to continue getting worse thereby exacerbating the plight of the world’s poor. And, thirdly, he condemns biofuels for adding to global poverty and yet ignores a vastly larger industry causing exactly the same problems but on a correspondingly larger scale.

If bryce was as concerned about the world’s poor as he says he is, he wouldn’t focus exclusively on biofuels. He wouldn’t believe that abolishing the biofuel industry is going to achieve anything given the colossal damages being caused by the Animal exploitation industry. It is a waste of time condemning the biofuel industry without also condemning the Animal exploitation industry.

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