Biodiesel for the revolution? I DON'T THINK SO!

As biodiesel becomes increasingly popular, we need a sobering reality check about its “sustainability”. As a potential solution to the crisis of disappearing oil reserves and climate change, there is a lot more to the picture than dumpster diving french fry grease to run hippie buses. We are now at a point where there is more demand for biodiesel than can be provided by used cooking oil. “If the entire annual output of used vegetable oil were diverted into the fossil fuel market, it would last us 36 hours,” according to Alexis Ziegler. The specter of industrial agriculture growing acres of genetically engineered mono crops in order to continue to power inefficient large vehicles, is anything but green. While biodiesel is debatably less toxic and has less emissions than petroleum-based diesel when burned, can function in current diesel engines and is touted as a candidate to replace fossil fuels as the world’s primary energy source for transportation, a number of important questions still remain unexamined.

One critique often absent in the biodiesel argument is the fact that a biodiesel world does nothing to diminish car culture and its requisite problems. It would be wonderful if only public transportation was a candidate for biodiesel conversion — this at least could be sustainable. However, biodiesel fans, in their enthusiasm to convert all cars don’t seem to consider the fact that roads will continue to take over what little we have left of nature, and we will not be any further away from a society of isolating over-consumption. Sure, SUV’s and other huge gas guzzlers are terrible for the environment but is a biodiesel Hummer really that different?

Though studies show that some emissions are less for biodiesel than petrol diesel, biodiesel still does not burn clean. Also there is little consideration of the often inefficient, old, polluting engines that are burning the biodiesel. In addition, there is a lack of information about the quality of fuel being burned from numerous unregulated sources. Many can attest to bodily reactions from breathing the french fry stench spewing out of biodiesel powered trucks.

Same infrastructure: Agribusiness, Capitalism

One major question, we must ask ourselves in the current frenzy of biodiesel love is whether it is sustainable on a global level which means looking beyond whether the EPA considers biodiesel a hopeful way to mitigate global warming. What about the problems that no “green” car can solve such as traffic accidents, road rage, and destruction of wetlands in favor of freeways and parking lots.

Another big problem caused by biodiesel is that it sets up a competition for land use. Arable land that would otherwise have been used to grow food or left wild would instead be used to grow fuel.

While some believe biodiesel is a grassroots effort with a minimal audience, the truth is that agribusiness and capital already have plans to reap huge profits from the world’s intentions to “cure their oil addiction,” which not surprisingly include environmental degradation, exploitation of workers, and large scale production plants popping up in countries all over the world. ADM (Archer Daniels Midland), the world’s largest agricultural processors of soybeans and corn and the most prominent recipient of corporate welfare in recent US history, recently announced plans to build its first wholly owned biodiesel production facility in the US. According to ADM, the 50-million-gallon facility will be located in North Dakota and will use canola oil as its primary feed stock. ADM is already part owners of large biodiesel plants in Germany and Singapore.

Palm Oil and its path of destruction

Far uglier than the fact that biodiesel does nothing to change car culture is something that the biodiesel industry fails to mention in their marketing and promotion. While the European Union, the British and US government, and thousands of environmentalists imagine biodiesel as simply leftover vegetable oil or grease from McDonalds or even oil from algae growing in a pond, and enthusiasts continue to slap “Biodiesel for the Revolution” bumper stickers on their cars, they don’t realize that the major resource fueling the “revolution” will be at the expense of destroyed land and cheap labor from the palm oil industry in Southeast Asia.

There is increasing evidence and concern that the environmental impacts of palm oil include clearing rain forests to make room for large, new palm plantations and reducing habitat for threatened species such as the orangutan. What’s more, the resulting plantations are often run by agribusiness using low paid migrant workers destroying local and indigenous cultures.

The Malaysian government is refocusing the use of palm oil for production of biodiesel due to the growing demand for alternative fuel sources. The plants produce 100,000 tons of biodiesel annually and because Malaysia is the world’s largest producer of crude palm oil, they intend to make the most of its advantages.

According to George Biodet of the London Guardian, other new refineries are being built in the Malaysian Peninsula, Sarawak and Rotterdam. Two foreign consortiums – one German, one American – are setting up rival plants in Singapore. All of them will be making biodiesel from the same source: oil from palm trees. “The demand for biodiesel,” the Malaysian Star reports, “will come from the European Community … This fresh demand … would, at the very least, take up most of Malaysia’s crude palm oil inventories.” Why? Because it is cheaper than biodiesel made from any other crop.

Effects on Land Use

Some nations that have pondered transitioning fully to biofuels have found that doing so would require immense tracts of land if traditional crops are used. Analyzing the amount of biodiesel that can be produced per unit area of cultivated land, some have concluded that it is likely that the United States, with one of the highest per capita energy demands of any country, does not have enough arable land to fuel all of the nation’s vehicles. Other nations may be in better situations, although many regions cannot afford to divert land away from food production. “Abusing our precious croplands to grow corn for an energy-inefficient process that yields low-grade automobile fuel amounts to unsustainable, subsidized food burning” noted Cornell Scientist David Pimentel.

Industrial agriculture requires petroleum inputs in the form of fertilizers, pesticides, and fuel for tractors and transport. “American agriculture now invests three calories of fossil fuel for each calorie it produces. That is long before anyone considers putting those calories into a gas tank,” observes Pimentel. What about the long list of additional costs of industrial agriculture such as polluted runoff, topsoil loss, habitat loss, farm workers’ illnesses from pesticide exposure, ground water depletion, contamination of traditional crops from genetically engineered crops, unpredictable damage to natural ecosystems from genetically engineered organisms, loss of small family farms and arable land in general, consolidated control of our food supply by large corporations and so on. So while filling up your tank at Berkeley’s own Biofuel Oasis, which seasonally sells fuel from industrially grown and most likely genetically engineered, virgin soy oil, consider these ramifications.


Instead of repeating the same old patterns of unsustainable use and swapping one industrial fuel dependency for another, its time to move beyond the reformist preservation of car culture which stands behind the banner of biodiesel. Real solutions are needed that address our society’s tendency to use up one resource and move on to the next until the new crisis is upon us. We should all raise our eyebrows and wonder at the corporate vultures circling and G.W. Bush telling us to stop “our oil addiction”. Changes that reduce consumption are imperative; better fuel efficiencies, public transportatio
n, local lifestyles, walking, biking, e-commuting, local food productions and such offer a future of hope that biodiesel just can’t supply.