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An Agricultural Crime Against Humanity

Biofuels could kill more people than the Iraq war.

First published in November 2007, by George Monbiot: journalist, author, academic and environmental and political activist, United Kingdom

Jatropha plantation

It doesn’t get madder than this. Swaziland is in the grip of a famine and receiving emergency food aid. Forty per cent of its people are facing acute food shortages. So what has the government decided to export? Biofuel made from one of its staple crops, cassava(1). The government has allocated several thousand hectares of farmland to ethanol production in the county of Lavumisa, which happens to be the place worst hit by drought(2). It would surely be quicker and more humane to refine the Swazi people and put them in our tanks. Doubtless a team of development consultants is already doing the sums.

This is one of many examples of a trade described last month by Jean Ziegler, the UN’s special rapporteur, as “a crime against humanity”(3). Ziegler took up the call first made by this column for a five-year moratorium on all government targets and incentives for biofuel(4): the trade should be frozen until second-generation fuels – made from wood or straw or waste – become commercially available. Otherwise the superior purchasing power of drivers in the rich world means that they will snatch food from people’s mouths. Run your car on virgin biofuel and other people will starve.

Even the International Monetary Fund, always ready to immolate the poor on the altar of business, now warns that using food to produce biofuels “might further strain already tight supplies of arable land and water all over the world, thereby pushing food prices up even further.”(5) This week the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation will announce the lowest global food reserves in 25 years, threatening what it calls “a very serious crisis”(6). Even when the price of food was low, 850 million people went hungry because they could not afford to buy it. With every increment in the price of flour or grain, several million more are pushed below the breadline.

The cost of rice has risen by 20% over the past year, maize by 50%, wheat by 100%(7). Biofuels aren’t entirely to blame – by taking land out of food production they exacerbate the effects of bad harvests and rising demand – but almost all the major agencies are now warning against expansion. And almost all the major governments are ignoring them.

They turn away because biofuels offer a means of avoiding hard political choices. They create the impression that governments can cut carbon emissions and – as Ruth Kelly, the British transport secretary, announced last week(8) – keep expanding the transport networks. New figures show that British drivers puttered past the 500 billion kilometre mark for the first time last year(9). But it doesn’t matter: we just have to change the fuel we use. No one has to be confronted. The demands of the motoring lobby and the business groups clamouring for new infrastructure can be met. The people being pushed off their land remain unheard.

In principle, burning biofuels merely releases the carbon they accumulated when they were growing. Even when you take into account the energy costs of harvesting, refining and transporting the fuel, they produce less net carbon than petroleum products. The law the British government passed a fortnight ago – by 2010, 5% of our road transport fuel must come from crops(10) – will, it claims, save between 700,000 and 800,000 tonnes of carbon a year(11). It derives this figure by framing the question carefully. If you count only the immediate carbon costs of planting and processing biofuels, they appear to reduce greenhouse gases. When you look at the total impacts, you find that they cause more warming than petroleum.

A recent study by the Nobel laureate Paul Crutzen shows that the official estimates have ignored the contribution of nitrogen fertilisers. They generate a greenhouse gas – nitrous oxide – which is 296 times as powerful as CO2. These emissions alone ensure that ethanol from maize causes between 0.9 and 1.5 times as much warming as petrol, while rapeseed oil (the source of over 80% of the world’s biodiesel) generates 1-1.7 times the impact of diesel(12). This is before you account for the changes in land use.

A paper published in Science three months ago suggests that protecting uncultivated land saves, over 30 years, between two and nine times the carbon emissions you might avoid by ploughing it and planting biofuels(13). Last year the research group LMC International estimated that if the British and European target of a 5% contribution from biofuels were to be adopted by the rest of the world, the global acreage of cultivated land would expand by 15%(14). That means the end of most tropical forests. It might also cause runaway climate change.

The British government says it will strive to ensure that “only the most sustainable biofuels” will be used in the UK(15). It has no means of enforcing this aim – it admits that if it tried to impose a binding standard it would break world trade rules(16). But even if “sustainability” could be enforced, what exactly does it mean? You could, for example, ban palm oil from new plantations. This is the most destructive kind of biofuel, driving deforestation in Malaysia and Indonesia. But the ban would change nothing. As Carl Bek-Nielsen, vice chairman of Malaysia’s United Plantations Bhd, remarked, “even if it is another oil that goes into biodiesel, that other oil then needs to be replaced. Either way, there’s going to be a vacuum and palm oil can fill that vacuum.”(17) The knock-on effects cause the destruction you are trying to avoid. The only sustainable biofuel is recycled waste oil, but the available volumes are tiny(18).

At this point the biofuels industry starts shouting “jatropha!” It is not yet a swear word, but it soon will be. Jatropha is a tough weed with oily seeds that grows in the tropics. This summer Bob Geldof, who never misses an opportunity to promote simplistic solutions to complex problems, arrived in Swaziland in the role of “special adviser” to a biofuels firm. Because it can grow on marginal land, jatropha, he claimed, is a “life-changing” plant, which will offer jobs, cash crops and economic power to African smallholders(19).

Yes, it can grow on poor land and be cultivated by smallholders. But it can also grow on fertile land and be cultivated by largeholders. If there is one blindingly obvious fact about biofuel it’s that it is not a smallholder crop. It is an internationally-traded commodity which travels well and can be stored indefinitely, with no premium for local or organic produce. Already the Indian government is planning 14m hectares of jatropha plantations(20). In August the first riots took place among the peasant farmers being driven off the land to make way for them(21).

If the governments promoting biofuels do not reverse their policies, the humanitarian impact will be greater than that of the Iraq war. Millions will be displaced, hundreds of millions more could go hungry. This crime against humanity is a complex one, but that neither lessens nor excuses it. If people starve because of biofuels, Ruth Kelly and her peers will have killed them. Like all such crimes it is perpetrated by cowards, attacking the weak to avoid confronting the strong.


  1. IRIN Africa, 25th October 2007. Swaziland: Food or biofuel seems to be the question.
  2. Energy Current, 29th October 2007. Swaziland joins biofuel drive despite mounting food crisis.
  3. Grant Ferrett, 27th October 2007. Biofuels ‘crime against humanity’. BBC Online.
  4. George Monbiot, 27th March 2007. A Lethal Solution. The Guardian.
  5. Valerie Mercer-Blackman, Hossein Samiei, and Kevin Cheng, 17th October 2007. Biofuel Demand Pushes Up Food Prices. IMF Research Department.
  6. Jacques Diouf, quoted by John Vidal, 3rd November 2007. Global food crisis looms as climate change and fuel shortages bite. The Guardian.
  7. John Vidal, 3rd November 2007. Global food crisis looms as climate change and fuel shortages bite. The Guardian.
  8. Department for Transport, October 2007. Towards a Sustainable Transport System:
    Supporting Economic Growth in a Low Carbon World.
  9. Department for Transport, 2007. Transport Statistics Great Britain 2007. Table 7.1. Road traffic by type of vehicle: 1949-2006
  10. HM Government, 2007. The Renewable Transport Fuel Obligations Order 2007.
  11. Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, October 2007. Biofuels – risks and opportunities, p4.
  12. PJ Crutzen, AR Mosier, KA Smith and W Winiwarter, 1 August 2007. N2O release from agro-biofuel production negates global warming reduction by replacing fossil fuels. Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics Discussions 7, pp11191–11205.
  13. Renton Righelato and Dominick V. Spracklen, 17th August 2007. Carbon Mitigation by Biofuels or by Saving and Restoring Forests? Science Vol 317, p902. doi 10.1126/science.1141361.
  14. AFP, 17th October 2007. IMF concerned by impact of biofuels on food prices.
  15. Lord Bassam of Brighton, 29th March 2007. Parliamentary answer. Column WA310.
  16. Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, October 2007. Biofuels – risks and opportunities, p5.
  17. Benjamin Low, 24th February 2006. CPO Prices Seen Up In 06 As Biodiesel Fuels Demand
  18. You can see the calculations here:
  19. Helene Le Roux, 27th July 2007. Singer, songwriter and activist promotes green energy in Africa. Engineering News Online.
  20. John Vidal, ibid.
  21. Mark Olden, 25th October 2007. Observations on: biofuels. New Statesman.



  1. When was this article published? All of the references at the bottom of the article are dated 2007 or 2006.

  2. I wonder what David Blume’s “Alcohol Can Be a Gas!” would say to all this. I don’t know what the Swazilanders should do, but I’m looking forward to making my own ethanol one day soon.

  3. Another great example of the corporations using environmentalists (in this case permaculturalists) to spread negative propaganda about bio-fuels.

    I wonder what George Monbiot’s car runs on, hot air maybe? And what about PRI, what do you put in those big ole backhoes, cow farts perhaps?

    I find it contemptuous to preach about the harm caused by using renewable fuels whilst continuing to consume fossil fuels for your own transport needs.

  4. I see that DDG is a better animal food than grain. But what about the leftovers from rapeseed oil and jatropha? I remember I read that in old times when the farmers made their own line seed oil they pressed and dried the leftovers to cow cakes, which was a very important food for the cattle during the winter season.

    Maybe the leftovers from jatropha could be pressed to cakes and dried and stored for use in hard times, both for animals and humans?

    Have permaculture developed some guilds that include jatropha? I read recently that it is developed almost 3000 different mixtures of guilds, so I guess some may include jatropha. If not there must be made some. We cannot have these mono cultures shown in the picture!

  5. Martin,

    “I find it contemptuous to preach about the harm caused by using renewable fuels whilst continuing to consume fossil fuels for your own transport needs.”

    The important word in this sentence is “needs”. Permaculture is a lot about getting a good idea what one’s needs are. I don’t think, for example, Geoff or Bill “need to commute” 10 miles to work every day, by car – if they ever had to, they would re-locate.

    So, the key question indeed is: what are our needs? I’d guess that, if we just started to use fossil fuels for those uses where they bring a long term benefit (e.g. earthworks that lead to productive systems which work for hundreds of years; buildings with lifetimes of hundreds of years, etc.), and not for once-and-gone jobs, there would be more than plenty of the stuff around.

  6. @ Martin

    George Monbiot doesn’t own a car.

    Using fossil fuels to transition society into a non-fossil fuel world is a necessary evil due to the society we’ve built over the last century. We are presently in an acute position of vulnerabity, and must prepare for a future of very high energy prices, which translates to unaffordable food. Well designed earthworks are a small initial investment in time and energy that will provide tangible energy returns (by way of biomass/food/water) for as long as the sun shines and the rain falls.

    However, trying to persevere with this society as it now stands, rather than transition away from it, by planting vast monocultures in places where the people and the land are subsequently impoverished – just so a few elite can continue with the status quo, is quite another thing entirely. I trust you can see the difference.

  7. IMHO the real problem with biofuels is not the production of biofuels themselves, but rather the CENTRALIZATION of the same. Large multinationals attempt to apply the same production & logistics models that are presently practiced with commercial large-scale agriculture in general. Have one large production center connected to several distribution points in a dendritic pattern. A first-tier DP is connected to 3 second-tier DPs, of which each is connected to 5 third-tier DPs, etc.

    It is possible to produce biofuels in a manner consistent with permaculture principles, provided always that production and consumption are kept local, with only a surplus fraction sold for export – if it isn’t stored up for later use first. Export of goods from country A to country B is energy-consuming, so it is generally avoided in a permaculture-based economy. Usually, if any exportation occurs, it’s usually to a customer a few dozen Kms away.

    In addition, biofuel production should be an adjunct to the permaculture pattern of production & consumption, never a primary objective.

  8. It would be nice to hear more postitive stories about the thousands of people around the world using recycled vegetable oil for example, instead of pushing propaganda style news headlines (from the mainstream media) about monoculture palm plantations etc etc.

    The excellent magic Moringa tree from India can produce 1000 litres of oil per hectare per year, is edible and has many uses. Moringa and many other tree species, even the much hated oil palm can easily be designed into sustainable systems such as permaculture.

    “An Agricultural Crime Against Humanity”, pah! Sensationalism is what it is and it only serves to befuddle people with regard to the many benefits of growing, making and using renewable fuels.

    Less cut and paste from the Guardian and more solutions please!

  9. Martin,

    it all depends what we are talking about here. “Biofuels for essential uses” is one issue. The problem is the “Biofuels to keep our poorly designed and excessively energy-hungry present-day industrial systems going without major adjustments” idea.

    Or, let me phrase it like this: there is a very real danger that the “economic value” produced as measured in GDP-$ by a highly paid company executive taking a flight exceeds the “economic value” produced by a small Indian village. Now, let us suppose that the business activity this executive is involved in is basically inessential (say, related to launching a new sports car model) and would require as much biofuel-energy as it would need to feed the villagers for a year – quite conceivable. What may easily happen here is a kind-of disproportionation reaction: those with access to energy are economically so much more productive than those without that the former out-starve the latter. If such a situation arises, should the GDP-dollar be the yardstick to determine resource allocation? Before everybody now cries out “of course not”: please keep in mind that there are many far less clear-cut situations. How much bio-energy do we want to spend on running a hospital, say?

    Basically, this is a “scarce goods allocation problem” – hence, many economists would claim to be experts for questions of this type. The “free market” idea seems quite questionable, see above. But centralised bureaucratic state-directed economy does not work either. I see that quite a number of people seem to hate the latter idea so much that they would rather let villagers starve than even just consider anything that may smell even remotely like an instead-of-the-free-market idea.

    This is not a problem that has an easy solution. But what we can say with some certainty is that “importance of the service provided by that energy” should be an important factor: Pretty much all cultures developed sophisticated feedback mechanisms to keep destructively wasteful habits in check – except the “modern western” one, which has been re-programmed in a kind-of upside down way to cherish demonstrative wastefulness.

  10. Thomas,

    Your problem boils down to “other people aren’t spending their money how I think they should.” For a solution to this I would suggest either spending your own money or convincing others through peaceful persuasion how they ought to spend theirs. I don’t see how it’s a topic needing agonizing intellectual pondering.

    And not to defend demonstrative wastefulness, but that habit is not uniquely western or modern. History is filled with examples, only possible on a grand scale when egomaniacal tyrants get their boots on the necks of a lot of slaves, e.g. the pyramids of Egypt.

  11. JBob,

    So, again, let’s say we have an essential resource X and two players A and B who need some of it for their survival, and more of it to be productive. By being productive, they will gain more access to X.

    Now, if the productivity curve is concave over the range of all the X available, what will happen is that, in the long run, the player that initially has a little bit more of X will grow faster and eventually out-starve the other player.

    I take it this is “good”, because it is just a consequence of the basic beliefs of your religion of the free market?

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