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US Biofuel Development Has World-Wide Consequences

You’ve heard the story of the butterfly in Asia that flapped its wings and caused a tsunami in North America? In our increasingly globalized world, every policy change is a butterfly wing flap that has the potential to create a chain reaction that can result in food shortages, a climate crisis, or a democratic revolution halfway around the planet. In the case of biofuel, the United States’ purported attempts to cut down on oil dependence and even help the environment are a direct cause of malnutrition in places like Guatemala, where MADRE partners with the Women Workers’ Committee in Barcenas and the Indigenous women of Muixil.

A recent New York Times article observed that:

With its corn-based diet and proximity to the United States, Central America has long been vulnerable to economic riptides related to the United States’ corn policy. Now that the United States is using 40 percent of its crop to make biofuel, it is not surprising that tortilla prices have doubled in Guatemala, which imports nearly half of its corn.

The result has been severe and widespread malnutrition, and an uprooted population as families move to find work.

This problem is not new, nor is it limited to Guatemala. “In a globalized world, the expansion of the biofuels industry has contributed to spikes in food prices and a shortage of land for food-based agriculture in poor corners of Asia, Africa and Latin America because the raw material is grown wherever it is cheapest,” says the New York Times. What long-term good might be done by moving away from fossil fuel dependency is countered by the immediate human suffering of the unexamined consequences of new kinds of consumption. Misael Gonzáles of C.U.C., a labor union for Guatemala’s farmers, noted in the same article, ‘These people don’t have enough to eat. They need food. They need land. They can’t eat biofuel, and they don’t drive cars.’”

One analysis the article cited found that corn, which constitutes a large part of the Guatemalan diet and is now prohibitively expensive, cutting some families monetary access by half, would be 17 percent cheaper if the United States did not incentivize biofuel consumption.

As MADRE warned in a 2007 statement:

If we don’t reduce the demand for energy by consuming less, we risk a scenario in which most of the Earth’s arable land will be dedicated to growing ‘fuel crops’ instead of food crops. Growing agro-fuels on a mass scale is already jacking up food prices, depleting soil and water supplies, destroying forests, and violating the rights of Indigenous and local people in areas newly designated as ‘biofuel plantations.’

The Earth itself is, in fact, a finite resource; in order to preserve it, we must address overall energy consumption as well as ways to make the forms of energy we do use more generally renewable.

More than five years ago, MADRE observed that, “We need to consume less, not just differently, and steer clear of solutions that would expand the reach-and all the pitfalls-of industrialized agriculture. Creative and practical solutions for meeting our energy requirements-including some local, sustainable agrofuel programs-are being developed around the world. We can support proposals for developing sustainable renewable energy sources, while recognizing the need to reduce overall consumption .” That need to reduce overall consumption has never been addressed, and the world’s population continues to expand, having recently exceeded 7 billion. The only sustainable solution remains to consume less and in better ways.