Saturday, September 28, 2013

[Biofuelwatch] Biofuelwatch UK September Newsletter - with invite to public meeting on biomass in London

This is the September edition of our monthly Biofuelwatch UK newsletter, with details of recent news from bioenergy campaigns. Please let us know if you would like more information about particular campaign issues/news or if you'd like to find out about getting involved in any relevant campaigns. If you are looking for news about biomass campaigning in the US, then please see
1) Public meeting: A Burning Issue – biomass and its impacts on forests and communities, London, 29th October.  The public meeting will coincide with the launch of our new report, The Chain of Destruction
2) Outcome of the European Parliament's vote on biofuels on 11th September;
3) Reflections on why RWE closed Tilbury while Drax is forging ahead with coal-to-biomass conversion
1. Public Meeting: A Burning Issue – biomass and its impacts on forests and communities
On Tuesday, 29th October, 7-9pm, Biofuelwatch we will be holding a free public meeting: "A Burning Issue – biomass and its impacts on forests and communities", at the Lumen Centre in London (see for venue details).  Spaces are limited, so please email us to reserve a place (
Speakers from Brazil and the US will present first-hand experience of the impacts of the UK's biomass policies on forests and people in their countries.  This includes a presentation about the first ever case study published anywhere in the world about a land-grab for tree plantations specifically to grow wood to burn in our power stations (in Maranhão, Brazil).  Those presentations will be followed by evidence about the impacts of biomass power stations on UK communities, especially on air quality and public health.
Winnie Overbeek, Coordinator of the World Rainforest Movement, will give a presentation about the impacts of eucalyptus plantations for wood pellet production in the Brazilian state of Maranhão on communities and Cerrado forests.  Those plantations are being established by the Brazilian pulp and paper company Suzano Papel e Celulose, which has entered into a Memorandum of Understanding with UK biomass company MGT Power.  MGT plans to build two large biomass power stations in the north-east of England and already has planning permission for one of them. 
Scot Quaranda from the US conservation NGO Dogwood Alliance will speak about the impacts of pellet production by Drax's supplier Enviva on southern US forests – including on remnants of highly biodiverse wetland forests.
Sophie Bastable from Biofuelwatch will summarise key impacts of biomass power stations on communities in the UK, especially on air quality and public health.  We hope to also have a speaker from one of the affected UK communities.
The event coincides with the launch of a new report by Biofuelwatch, called Biomass: The Chain of Destruction.  This will include an investigative report of biomass plantations in Maranhão, Brazil by World Rainforest Movement and CEPEDES (Center for Study and Research for the Development of the Southern Bahia Region).  It will also include testimonies from Dogwood Alliance and from several community groups affected by UK biomass power stations.
2) Outcome of the European Parliament's vote on biofuels on 11th September:
Many thanks to everyone who wrote to their MEPs before the vote.  Sadly, despite large numbers of people across many European countries having urged their MEPs to vote for meaningful curbs to EU biofuels demand, the outcome of the vote was extremely disappointing.
By a narrow margin, MEPs voted for a 6% cap on biofuels from land-based biofuels – up from a 5% proposal by the European Commission, and up from a current 4.5%.  ActionAid have calculated that a 6% cap would mean burning enough food to feed 200 million people.

Furthermore, the European Parliament voted to only take Indirect Land Use Change impacts into account from 2020 when calculating spurious 'greenhouse gas savings' from biofuels, and only under one of the two directives that promote biofuels use.  Bizarrely, the whole abysmal compromise will now simply go back to yet another vote in spring 2014.  See here for an analysis by Kenneth Richter of Friends of the Earth .
Clearly, this outcome was largely due to intense industry lobbying, as analysed in this article by Corporate Europe Observatory: .
3) Reflections on why RWE closed Tilbury B while Drax is forging ahead with coal-to-biomass conversion
As reported in our last newsletter, RWE have closed down Tilbury B, so far the world's biggest biomass power station, despite having invested large amounts of funds into the power station conversion.  Yet Drax is forging ahead with an even more ambitious conversion project.  Given that both are operating in the same political context and under the same subsidies rules. In an article published on the Global Forest Coalition's blog, we explore the possible reasons behind the two apparently contradictory decisions and what the ramifications may be for forests:

Our conclusions of course are to some degree speculative – after all, RWE are hardly likely to tell us exactly why they pulled the plug on their biggest biomass investment to date.  However, they are based on publicly available information about the type of wood that can be burned in coal power station boilers as well as evidence about Drax's wood pellet sourcing from investigations by Dogwood Alliance and NRDC.  The closure of Tilbury B without is without doubt good news for forests.  Yet if our conclusions are right, the implications of Drax and others going ahead with coal-to-biomass conversions could be even more devastating for North American forests than previously thought. 
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Tuesday, September 24, 2013

[biofuelwatch] (September 2013) ANTI-BIOMASS CAMPAIGN CALL RECORDING & NOTES: “A Pediatrician's Perspective on Air Pollution and Children" (w/ Dr. Norma Kreilein)

ANTI-BIOMASS CAMPAIGN CALL RECORDING & NOTES: "A Pediatrician's Perspective on Air Pollution and Children" (September 2013)

Thursday, September 5, 2013 at 3pm EST

Topic: ��A Pediatrician's Perspective on Air Pollution and Children"��- We discuss the human health impacts of biomass incineration and other forms of industrial air pollution, with a focus on our nation's most vulnerable population: our children.

Guest speaker:��Dr. Norma Kreilein, MD, Fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics��

Josh Schlossberg
Anti-Biomass Incineration Campaign, Energy Justice Network

Find Energy Justice Network on Facebook and Twitter

"Compromise is often necessary, but it ought not to originate with environmental leaders. Our role is to hold fast to what we believe is right, to fight for it, to find allies, and to adduce all possible arguments for our cause. If we cannot find enough vigor in us or our friends to win, then let someone else propose the compromise, which we must then work hard to coax our way. We thus become a nucleus around which activists can build and function." -- David Brower


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[biofuelwatch] Biofuels Company Granted $4M from DOE after Hosting Obama at Fundraiser

Green company granted $4M from DOE after financier hosts Obama at DSCC fundraiser

- by Lachlan Markay, September 20, 2013. Source: The Washington Free Beacon

[Read "Cellulosic Ethanol: A Bio-Fool's Errand" to learn more about the biofuels company LanzaTech.]

The Department of Energy recently awarded a multi-million dollar contract to a green energy company financed by a major Democratic Party fundraiser and supporter of President Obama.

The $4,000,000 award for biofuel company LanzaTech came just months after one of its chief financiers and public advocates hosted the president at his Portola Valley home for a $32,400-a-head fundraiser for the Democratic Party... [READ MORE]

Josh Schlossberg
Anti-Biomass Incineration Campaign, Energy Justice Network

Find Energy Justice Network on Facebook and Twitter

"Compromise is often necessary, but it ought not to originate with environmental leaders. Our role is to hold fast to what we believe is right, to fight for it, to find allies, and to adduce all possible arguments for our cause. If we cannot find enough vigor in us or our friends to win, then let someone else propose the compromise, which we must then work hard to coax our way. We thus become a nucleus around which activists can build and function." -- David Brower

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[biofuelwatch] INTERVIEW-Alarm in Argentina at over-planting of soy

* Too much soy planting, not enough corn, threatens soils

* Fertilizer group sees 2013/14 soy area at 18 mln hectares

* Con area seen at 4.5 mln hectares, wheat at nearly 4 mln

* World grain prices hit by fat crop production expectations

By Hugh Bronstein

BUENOS AIRES, Sept 20 (Reuters) - Argentina is planting too much soy and depleting soils that need crop rotation to keep their nutrients, the head of the country's fertilizer industry chamber told Reuters on Friday, raising an alarm in the world's No. 1 soyoil and soymeal exporter.

The oilseed will dominate Argentina's key farm sector again this season followed by corn and wheat, according to fertilizer sales showing growers intend to plant the country's three main crops in proportions similar to the previous year.

Lower quality soils cause lower crop yields and in turn lower farm profits and government revenue. Locked out of the international capital markets since its 2002 sovereign default, the Argentine government depends on agricultural tax revenue to fund President Cristina Fernandez's expansive social programs.

"Argentina is in a critical situation in terms of lack of crop rotation and soil sustainability," said Maria Fernanda Gonzalez Sanjuan, head of the Fertilizar chamber. The group represents 27 companies that produce, import and sell fertilizers in the South American grains powerhouse.

"Growers are planting too much soy because they want to reduce their risks," she added. "Soybeans are more resistant to bad weather and government policies in Argentina also favor soy over corn or wheat, both of which are subject to export limits."

Farmers complain that the limits, which can be raised and lowered through the year, kill competition among buyers and make crop planning impossible.

Thirty-six percent of Argentina's total 2.8 million tonnes in fertilizer sales this year have been for soybeans, equal to the proportion dedicated to the oilseed in the 2012/13 season, according to Fertilizar.

Argentina is the world's No. 3 supplier of soybeans and corn, and a big wheat seller, at a time of hearty global output estimates that are weighing on the price of all three crops.


Chicago corn futures are down 34 percent this year. Wheat is down 16 percent and soy 6 percent. Falling global prices have made Argentine farmers ever more keen to cut risk by focusing on weather-resistant soy. Recent dryness in the Pampas farm belt has added to the jitters and pushed some farmers away from corn.

Fertilizar expects Argentine farmers to plant 18.31 million hectares with soybeans in the upcoming 2013/14 season, down 3 percent from 2012/13. Wheat is already planted for Argentina's 2013/14 season. Corn is going into the ground this month and next with soy to follow in November.

The chamber's projections are based on fertilizer sales and a survey of the seeding intentions of about 1,200 growers.

Corn growers account for 28 percent of Argentine fertilizer sales so far this year, down a touch from 29 percent in the previous season, Fertilizar said. The group expects 4.47 million hectares to be planted with commercial use corn this year, up 2 percent from 2012/13.

The agriculture ministry expects Argentine farmers to plant 2013/14 corn on 5.7 million hectares, having changed its measuring criteria in May to include corn used for animal feed.

Wheat fertilizer account for 20 percent for 20 percent of overall sales this year, just higher than 19 percent in 2012/13.

Fertilizar sees an 8 percent jump in 2013/14 wheat area to 3.95 million hectares. The government sees 2013/14 wheat area at 3.4 million hectares, down from its previous 3.9 million-hectare forecast and the 3.16 million hectares planted with wheat in 2012/13, according to agriculture ministry data.

Demand for wheat has soared in Argentina after the government approved abundant amounts of the grain to be exported based on optimistic 2012/13 production forecasts, leaving little in the country to be milled into bread.

Fernandez, re-elected in 2011 on promises of increasing government's role in the economy, uses export curbs on wheat and corn to ensure ample domestic food supplies. The policy, widely criticized by farmers, backfired this year due to inaccurate early season crop estimates.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has forecast Argentina crop production at a downwardly-revised 26 million tonnes of corn in the 2013/14 crop year, 12 million tonnes of wheat and 53.5 million tonnes of soy.

Soybean exports are not curbed in Argentina, but they are taxed at 35 percent. The farm sector generally disagrees with Fernandez's policies, which include heavy foreign exchange controls and a passive approach to inflation, clocked by private economists at 25 percent, on of the highest rates in the world.

The threat of soil depletion in a major food supplier such as Argentina meanwhile risks robbing world consumers of crop yield growth. Global food demand is expected to double by 2050, according to the United Nations. (Editing by Andrew Hay)


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[biofuelwatch] The Great Soy Expansion: Brazilian Land Grabs in Eastern Bolivia

The Great Soy Expansion: Brazilian Land Grabs in Eastern Bolivia
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Written by Miguel Urioste F. de C.,   
Sunday, 22 September 2013 11:01

Photo by Sam Beebe, EcotrustThis article is an excerpt from Food First's Land & Sovereignty Series. Click here to download the full report.


In the last two decades, the best agricultural lands in Bolivia have been put into commercial production by large-scale producers closely linked to foreign investors, particularly Brazilians. Foreigners now control more than one million hectares of prime agricultural and ranching lands in Bolivia, primarily in the eastern lowland department of Santa Cruz, an important agro-export region dominated by transnational corporations.

While the initial migration of Brazilian investors to Bolivia began in the 1980s, Bolivian liberalization policies in the 1990s facilitated access to inexpensive and fertile lands. The department of Santa Cruz has been the primary target for Brazilian investors, where they achieved a much higher profit margin than in Brazil because of the low price of land; the low price and easy convertibility of the US dollar as the currency of transaction; and the extremely low rate of taxation on land and exports. State subsidies and the "freezing" of the price of diesel for the last two decades were also central to the expansion of the agricultural frontier in Santa Cruz.


Since 1990, the area of cultivation in Santa Cruz has expanded from slightly over 400,000 hectares to more than two million hectares in 2011. Since 2005, a new round of Brazilian land investments in Santa Cruz has emerged, this time for ranching. There are currently approximately seven million head of cattle in Bolivia, three million (or 40 percent) of which are located in Santa Cruz. Pressure is mounting to expand both soybean production and ranching operations into forested areas.


According to the Regulatory Agency for the Social Control of Forests and Lands, 3.3 million hectares of forest have been illegally deforested in Bolivia between 1996 and 2009 alone. The environmental degradation of the eastern lowlands has caused several micro-climatic changes in the region, increasing water stress. In the Santa Cruz province of Velasco, water is often controlled by cattle ranchers who dam brooks to water their cattle. Indigenous farming communities living downstream claim that their streams no longer run except in very wet years, leaving them without water.


Despite President Evo Morales' political discourse against the latifundio (large landholdings), the state has not done much to hinder foreign direct investment in land. And foreign agribusiness has found ways to circumvent existing regulations, influence political power within Bolivia, and tap into longstanding discrimination against indigenous people in the name of regional development.

Existing regulations regarding land rights and titling in Bolivia—including the Law of Community Reorientation of Agrarian Reform of 2006 and the new constitution of 2009— permit the free sale and purchase of lands between private parties, irrespective of their nationality as long as the area does not exceed 5,000 hectares. However, in order to bypass regulations and obtain bank loans (which require a proven permanent presence in the country) many of Brazilians have married Bolivian citizens or created companies through associations of Bolivian citizens that (for the most part) exist only on paper.


Foreign investors also benefit from underlying forms of regionalism and discrimination that are pervasive in Bolivia. For example, Bolivian and Brazilian large-scale producers in the eastern lowlands have a kind of "ethnic pact" which identifies indigenous (Quechua and Aymara) peasant settlers from the highlands as their common enemy. Peasants are blamed for various social ills, including cocaine production and narco-trafficking; deforestation; and indiscriminate "slash and burn" agriculture.


These negative perceptions—particularly among the middle classes of Santa Cruz—are mirrored by a favorable view of foreigners. Indeed, the foreign presence in Santa Cruz is highly regarded and even sought-out as a means of making lands more "productive" and attracting capital, technology, employment, market knowledge, inputs and genetically modified seeds.


Foreign control over land and resources for industrial agriculture and ranching is also undermining regional and national food security. Despite increased agricultural production in the eastern lowlands—and the Morales administration's attempts to promote greater domestic food production—Bolivia's food supply remains precarious. The country imported a record $1.1 billion in food between 2006-2010 (over 600,000 tons in 2009 alone). While food imports maintain domestic price stability and satisfy the increasing urban demand, they discourage domestic production, in particular, that of smallholder farmers.


Meanwhile, the great majority of the profits obtained by foreigners in the commercial soy and ranching sectors are repatriated to their country of origin—particularly Brazil and Argentina—while little is reinvested in Bolivia. The benefits of the great soy expansion in Bolivia are concentrated in the hands of a small population of mostly foreign agrarian elites, with substantial environmental and social costs and arguably few benefits to the country.

Miguel Urioste F. de C. is Senior Researcher at Fundación Tierra


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[biofuelwatch] Brazil: Female chief leads re-occupation of ancestral land

Brazil: Female chief leads re-occupation of ancestral land after her three children die 18 September 2013

The Guarani Apy Ka'y community has returned to its ancestral land currently occupied by a sugar cane plantation, amidst threats of death by gunmen.
The Guarani Apy Ka'y community has returned to its ancestral land currently occupied by a sugar cane plantation, amidst threats of death by gunmen.
© Tonico Benites/Survival

Guarani Indians have carried out a courageous 'retomada' (re-occupation) of the sugar cane plantation that has taken over their ancestral land. The group is led by a female chief who has seen her husband and three of her children die on the roadside where they have lived for ten years.

Their roadside camp was mysteriously destroyed in a fire last month and gunmen threatened to kill them. The same camp was torched by gunmen in 2009.

In a statement released on Monday, Damiana Cavanha, the leader of the Apy Ka'y community, said, 'We decided to reoccupy part of our traditional land where there is a well of good water and a bit of remaining forest.

'We decided to return to the land where three of our children, who were run over and torn apart by vehicles belonging to the ranches, are buried; where two leaders who were assassinated by gunmen employed by the ranchers, and where a 70 year old shaman who died from inhaling pesticides sprayed from a crop-spraying plane, are also buried.'

Damiana, leader of Apy Ka'y community, stands by the remains of their camp after it was destroyed by fire.
Damiana, leader of Apy Ka'y community, stands by the remains of their camp after it was destroyed by fire.
© Spensy Pimentel/Survival

This is the fourth time the Apy Ka'y community has re-occupied its 'tekoha' (ancestral land) in Brazil's Mato Grosso do Sul state since ranchers moved in almost 15 years ago. Every time the Guarani returned, the ranchers evicted them by force and the community has been living by the side of the road in squalid and perilous conditions for the last ten years.

The Apy Ka'y Guarani are now at great risk. They have already received three death threats and say that an attempt was made to poison their water supply after the re-occupation on Sunday.

The ranch that has taken over their land is now employing a notorious security firm to intimidate the Indians. Public Prosecutors in Brazil have described the firm, Gaspem, as a 'private militia', and called for it to be closed down.

A 2009 report on the community's treatment for the Public Prosecutor's office concluded, 'it is no exaggeration to talk of genocide.'

Damiana added in the statement, 'Faced with the threat of death, the loss of our relatives and so much suffering and pain, we decided for the fourth time to reoccupy our land, Apy Ka'y, on 15 September 2013.

'We have decided to fight and die for our land.'

The Guarani had lived by the side of a highway for ten years.
The Guarani had lived by the side of a highway for ten years.
© Paul Patrick Borhaug

The situation of the Apy Ka'y is not unusual for the Guarani in Brazil, who are becoming increasingly desperate as they suffer violent attacks at the hands of ranchers occupying their ancestral land.

Disillusioned by the government's slow progress in demarcating their land, several Guarani communities have carried out retomadas in recent years.

Survival's Director Stephen Corry said today, 'The government's failure to restore land to the Guarani is shameful and illegal, and has been catastrophic for the Indians. President Rousseff is clearly in thrall to the agricultural lobby, which is immensely powerful and influential, and seems prepared to simply ignore her obligations under the law. In these circumstances, it isn't surprising that the Guarani are taking matters into their own hands. They desperately need support, or they are likely to be evicted and attacked yet again.'

Note to editors:

- Download the community's full statement (English translation, pdf, 50 kB)


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[biofuelwatch] Yet another UN report calls for support to peasant farming and agroecology

Yet another UN report calls for support to peasant farming and agroecology: it's time for action

GRAIN | La Vía Campesina | ETC Group | 23 September 2013 | Other publications

Media release
23 September 2013

La Via Campesina, GRAIN and ETC welcome a new UNCTAD report which states that farming in rich and poor nations alike should shift from monoculture towards greater varieties of crops, reduced use of fertilizers and other inputs, greater support for small-scale farmers, and more locally focused production and consumption of food. More than 60 international experts contributed to the report, launched last week.

UNCTAD's 2013 Trade and Environment Report ("Wake up before it is too late: make agriculture truly sustainable now for food security in a changing climate") states that monoculture and industrial farming methods are not providing sufficient affordable food where it is needed, while causing mounting and unsustainable environmental damage.

This is the line of argument that Via Campesina, GRAIN and the ETC group have been advocating for over twenty years. They contributed chapters to the UNCTAD report and have now created a joint partnership to advance agroecology and peasant farming as alternatives.

Over the past few years, we have seen a steady flow of high level reports from the UN system and development agencies arguing in favour of small farmers and agroecology. International recognition that this is the way to solve the food and climate crisis is clearly building, but this has not been translated into real action on the ground where peasant farmers increasingly face marginalisation and oppression.

"Long before the release of this report, small farmers around the world were already convinced that we absolutely need a diversified agriculture to guarantee a balanced local food production, the protection of people's livelihoods and the respect of nature. To achieve this goal, the protection of the huge variety of local seeds and farmers' rights to use them is paramount. As small farmers, we are struggling to preserve our own indigenous seeds and knowledge of farming systems," said Elizabeth Mpofu, general coordinator of La Via Campesina.

Evidence is mounting that the industrial food system is not only failing to feed the world, but also responsible for some of the planet's most pressing social and environmental crises. "The industrial food system is directly responsible for around half of all global greenhouse gas emissions, as we showed in our contribution to the UNCTAD report," says Henk Hobbelink of GRAIN. "We cannot solve the climate crisis without confronting the industrial food system and the corporations behind it. We should be turning to peasant based agroecology instead."

Pat Mooney of the ETC group adds: "The corporate food chain uses about 70-80% of the world's arable land to produce just 30-40% of the food we eat. In the process peasant farmers, the real food producers, get thrown off their land and tremendous environmental harm is done. This is clearly not the way to feed the world"

It is time to translate policy documents into real action and governments at all levels (from local authorities to international bodies) are responsible for taking the right decisions in this regard. We call upon the international community to join us in the struggle for food sovereignty, to resist the corporate control of our food system, and to support peasant farmers and other small scale food producers to feed the world.

For more information:

Elizabeth Mpofu, La Vía Campesina, +263772443716,

Henk Hobbelink, GRAIN, +34 933011381,

Pat Mooney, ETC Group, +1 6132412267,



* Via Campesina is the global movement of peasant farmers struggling for food sovereignty. GRAIN and ETC Group are international organisations that fight the industrial food system and support peasant based alternatives. They have joined forces in a partnership to advance peasant based agroecology.

* UNCTAD is the United Nation's Conference on Trade and Development. The 2013 Trade and Environment Report can be downloaded from:


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Friday, September 20, 2013

[biofuelwatch] International Day of Action Targets Monoculture Tree Plantations – Ban on Genetically Engineered Trees Demanded

International Day of Action Targets Monoculture Tree Plantations – Ban on Genetically Engineered Trees Demanded


New York, US -  On 21 September, the International Day of Action against Monoculture Tree Plantations [1], organizations, forest dependent communities, and Indigenous Peoples from around the globe will denounce industrial tree plantations due to their devastating social and ecological impacts. 

Global Justice Ecology Project, Global Forest Coalition, Campaign to STOP Genetically Engineered Trees, and Biofuelwatch are joining the International Day of Action against industrial tree plantations by demanding an immediate ban on the release of all genetically engineered (GE) trees, including outdoor field trials.

In May of this year, Global Justice Ecology Project (GJEP), the Campaign to STOP GE Trees and several local groups organized the largest protest in history against genetically engineered trees during the International Tree Biotechnology 2013 Conference in Asheville, NC (US). Inside and outside of the conference, activists engaged in loud and lively protests throughout the week with several arrested, throwing the conference into total confusion. The protests focused on highlighting the threats of invasive, flammable and water depleting GE eucalyptus trees.

The front line of the struggle against GE trees right now is the US Southeast, where industry has requested government permission to develop plantations containing millions of genetically engineered eucalyptus trees. In response, GJEP and the Campaign to STOP GE Trees are coordinating a three-week organizing tour at the end of October that will travel to campuses and communities throughout the states threatened by the development of GE eucalyptus plantations. The goal of the tour is to educate and organize grassroots and campus groups about the threats posed by GE trees to build informed opposition throughout the region.

In addition to GE eucalyptus trees, the Campaign is beginning to address the problem of GE American Chestnut trees. "We are very concerned about the rapid emergence of genetically engineered American Chestnut trees which are being genetically engineered for disease resistance to supposedly restore the species to its traditional range," stated Anne Petermann, Coordinator of the international Campaign to STOP GE Trees and Executive Director of Global Justice Ecology Project.

Petermann continued, "In reality, American Chestnuts, are being used to try to convince a highly skeptical public about the value of GE trees. If American Chestnuts are approved, they will be the gateway tree, opening the floodgates for the commercialization of other dangerous GE trees."

Simone Lovera, Executive Director of the Global Forest Coalition states, "If genetically engineered trees are approved in the US, it will serve as a green light for other countries, like Brazil and Paraguay, to legalize GE trees for use in plantations. This will reinforce existing negative social and ecological impacts of industrial tree plantations and force many indigenous peoples and peasants off their land."

GE trees are being promoted as a supposedly "sustainable" feedstock for fuel production. But wood-based bioenergy is already driving a massive new demand for timber, and escalating land grabs and the logging of native forests.

Dr. Rachel Smolker of Biofuelwatch explains the ramifications, "If unchallenged, the massive demand for wood to feed bioenergy production threatens to consume remaining biodiverse ecosystems. Some models project that all remaining native forests, grasslands and most other ecosystems worldwide could be converted to bioenergy plantations by 2065. [3] Successfully mitigating climate change will require protecting, not obliterating, remaining intact ecosystems. And GE trees and bioenergy are a step in exactly the wrong direction."

Notes to Editors:

1] The International Day of Action against Monoculture Tree Plantations emerged from a meeting organized by the World Rainforest Movement in Brazil in 2004 of communities fighting the expansion of industrial eucalyptus plantations due to their devastating social and ecological impacts.

The main aim of this coordinated day of action is to support the struggles of local communities in defense of their territories, food sovereignty, forest conservation, natural medicine as well as traditional values, customs and economies. The organizers say this coordinated day of action is critical for communities just beginning to confront companies that seek to enter their territories, and that knowing more about the struggles of other communities serves as an inspiration for their struggles.

2] Fact Sheet on Genetically Engineered Trees 

3] The Implications of Limiting CO2 Concentrations for Agriculture, Land Use, Land-use Change Emissions and Bioenergy, Wise et. al. 2009


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[biofuelwatch] Biochar: Black Gold or Just Another Snake Oil Scheme?

Biochar: Black Gold or Just Another Snake Oil Scheme?

There's little basis for claims that biochar could solve our energy, food, and climate woes

In an interview with Naomi Klein, published in the Autumn 2013 issue of Earth Island Journal, she referred to the American fondness for "win-win solutions." I had to giggle, having on many occasions sat in on industry-led events, where the speakers, wildly animated, blather on about their latest "win-win-win" technofix, certain to resolve everything that ails humanity, from climate change to poverty, to deforestation to toxic pollution to nuclear waste. Who could be against such hopeful, all-in-one miracle cures?  Perhaps only the skeptics who know the smell of snake oil. Which, I guess, includes me.  

I came to such deep skepticism not by nature but from years of experience. One formative experience has been following the hype around biochar. Biochar enthusiasts are a hopeful bunch. They claim that charred biomass will be a win for climate, a win for soils and crop yields, hence a win against hunger and poverty, and a win for renewable energy generation. They are convinced that burning "biomass," that is, trees, crop residues, animal manure or what have you, (some even advocate burning garbage or tires), could solve our energy, food, and climate woes.

Right away, there is good reason to be skeptical. Burning anything at all seems an unlikely cure for an overheating planet. No matter how it is done, or what is burned, combustion creates pollution — air pollution, particulates, ashes, various toxins and soot, the second largest warming agent after C02. Nonetheless, there are many who embrace biochar and specifically advocate burning things under oxygen starved conditions, via process called pyrolysis, to maximize the production of charred residues. Biochar, they claim, is "black gold."


The first key "win" of biochar, proponents say, is that if buried in the ground, the char, which consists largely of carbon, will more or less permanently "sequester" that carbon and therefore help to cleanse the atmosphere. In an article published in the journal, Nature, some of the leading biochar enthusiasts claimed that it could offset global greenhouse gas emissions by a whopping 12 percent annually. All that would be required is collecting most forest and agriculture residues and animal manures from across the globe, as well as converting over half a billion hectares (an area larger than India) of land to producing dedicated burnable crops. After collecting it, the biomass would be transported to pyrolysis facilities, burned, then the char would be collected and transported back around the globe where it would be tilled and buried into soils over millions of acres. Year after year.  

The problem with this idea isn't just the massive scale of the project, for which there seems little social or political will. It is even more fundamental: There is really little basis for assuming that biochar carbon really will store carbon reliably in soils. A Biofuelwatch review of peer-reviewed field trials as of 2011 showed some remarkably unimpressive results. We only looked at peer-reviewed field trials in order to distinguish clearly between hype and actual results, and to discern how biochar acts in the real world, with living biodiverse soils, rather than sterile, laboratory conditions. 

Field trails proved rare; only five such studies were found, which between them tested biochar on 11 different combinations of soil and vegetation. In only three cases did biochar result in any additional carbon sequestration. In most cases, there was either no measurable difference in soil carbon, or even a reduction in soil carbon. These results from short-term studies —none spanned more than four years — fly in the face of repeated claims that biochar will sequester carbon in soils for tens, hundreds or even thousands of years.

More recently, two important reviews (you can read them here and here) of soil carbon showed that the stability of soil carbon is not so much determined by the molecular structure of the carbon itself, but rather by surrounding soil ecosystem properties. That makes reliable carbon storage very difficult to predict or assume.

Win number two, biochar enthusiasts claim, is that biochar will also improve the quality of the soil and hence improve crop yields, thereby help reduce desertification, deforestation, hunger, and poverty. Again, Biofuelwatch's review of peer reviewed field trials showed unimpressive and erratic results. Since then, a recent synthesis review of impact on crop yields found that in half of published studies, there was either no effect whatsoever on crop yields, or biochar actually reduced yields.

The third win, according to advocates, is generating renewable electricity and heat during pyrolysis. But so far, virtually all biochar has been produced without doing so. That's because pyrolysis is difficult to control and remains largely unproven for commercial application. Another reason is the inherent trade off: If you want more biochar less biomass will be converted to heat and power, and vice versa.

None of these trial results have dampened the hopes of biochar enthusiasts, who still see wins everywhere they look. They continue to promote biochar as a means to reduce fertilizer demand, agricultural runoff, clean up waste water, reclaim mine sites, and offset fossil fuel pollution. Some have even advocated feeding it to cows to make them emit less gas, and one company even claims that biochar will make it possible for consumers to reduce greenhouse gas emissions even while driving big gas-guzzling cars. (see below).

In her Journal interview Klein also spoke about climate geoengineering, which she referred to as a proverbial "escape hatch" providing a way to avoid the consequences of our failure to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. This is indeed one of the most perilous hazards of the geoengineering mindset. Widespread doubts about geoengineering have resulted in a push to accept "more benign" technologies, including large-scale biochar and bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS). Both biochar and BECCS require burning lots of biomass — trees and crops, as well as municipal solid waste. Staggering quantities would have to be harvested and burned to have any measureable impact on the global atmosphere. Studies have shown that capturing just one billion tonnes of carbon per year would require conversion of up to 990 million hectares of land to plantations. The consequences for land, water, soils, biodiversity, would very likely render the treatment worse than the disease.
What is already painfully evident is that demand for biomass, even at the current smaller scale is already stripping Earth of her remaining biodiverse ecosystems, and replacing them with industrial, chemically-dependent monoculture deserts.

Another article in the Journal's recent issue, "Modified Stands," talks about the push for genetically engineered trees. The impetus behind GE trees is a projected dramatic increase in demand for wood, in large part for bioenergy. This demand is a result of subsidies and supports for renewable energy that fail to distinguish between the kind of renewable energy that requires constant inputs of fuel (wood etc) and combustion, and the kind that does not. The lion's share of subsidies and supports has gone to bioenergy, including biofuels and biomass burning for electricity, which can conveniently be done 24/7 in coal plants, or stand alone facilities. Windmills and solar panels are more fussy, expensive, and their production cycles are intermittent.

To get a sense of the scale and impact of using bioenergy, consider that in the United Kingdom alone, current and proposed biomass burning for energy would require over 80 million tons of wood, more than eight times the amount of wood produced for all purposes domestically. There is now an expanding international trade in wood chips and pellets to satisfy this voracious demand from the UK and other European countries. Tree plantations and native forests in the southeastern United States and Canada are being cut, pelletized and shipped to Europe to be burned as "renewable energy." The wood pellet industry is booming, and fast growing monoculture plantations — which could soon include GE trees, are in great demand.   

Biochar enthusiasts usually insist they won't cut forests or convert ecosystems to provide burnable biomass. Just like the biomass electricity industry, they prefer to talk about burning "wastes and residues." But there is no such thing as "waste" in a forest ecosystem — all is recycled, via decay, to support regeneration and regrowth. In many places, definitions of waste have been expanded to include virtually any wood that is not valued as sawlogs, so timber harvests are more intense and destructive. In agriculture, there are often better options for residues, such as compost, mulch, animal fodder, and bedding. In any case, industrial forestry and agriculture practices have already wreaked havoc on ecosystems. Creating a market for the waste products of unsustainable practices hardly seems a step in the right direction.

So far, biochar has not gained the subsidies and investments needed to scale it up commercially. Biochar advocates initially worked to gain funding from carbon markets, arguing that biochar could "offset" fossil fuel pollution, but with the recent decline of global carbon markets they have largely retreated seeking carbon financing. Instead, they are now pushing biochar as a niche product for small-scale and organic farmers.

The good news is that most small-scale farmers are closely attuned to what works on their farms and will judge for themselves. The bad news is that they are largely unaware that they are to some extent being used to promote an eventual massive scale-up of the  biochar industry.

In 2008-09, for example, a high-profile biochar project in Cameroon run by Biochar Fund, a Belgian nonprofit, promised to alleviate poverty and improve nutritional status of poor farmers by improving crop yields. The farmers donated land and labor, and were told they would be compensated with finance from carbon markets. The first set of trials were proclaimed wildly successful without any independent verification. Then the trials were abandoned without even informing the farmers. Biochar Fund moved on and was granted funds for yet another set of trials in Congo. This time the claim was that biochar would enable slash and burn agriculturalists to do less slashing and burning because the soils would be enriched with biochar. So far, there are no reports of the status of those trials. (Read Biofuelwatch's investigative report about the Cameroon project here.)

Just as with biomass electricity, biochar enthusiasts claim that burning biomass is "carbon neutral" – that the carbon released during combustion will be reabsorbed by new trees or crops. This claim has been soundly and repeatedly refuted. Trees take years to regrow, assuming that they even do so. Cutting natural forests for biomass electricity, or biochar, or any other use results in a massive "carbon debt" that can take decades or even centuries to repay (i.e. for an equivalent amount of carbon to be reabsorbed in new tree growth). Biochar advocates continue to cling to the carbon neutral myth nonetheless. In fact, they take it a step further. Burying the carbon char in soils, they say, will permanently store some of the carbon, so regrowth will absorb additional (not just replacement) carbon. This, they say, makes it carbon negative.

This misguided logic is what lies behind claims by companies like Cool Planet that consumers can clean the atmosphere by driving more. The California-based biofuel and biochar company seeks to make transportation fuels from wood, which they say is "carbon neutral," and then bury the char residue from their production process, thus renderning the entire process "carbon negative." By Cool Planet's logic, driving more could actually reduce carbon emissions. That kind of "win" has an especially outstanding appeal. Cool Planet has won significant corporate backing from BP, ConocoPhillips, General Electric, and Google among others, and is now looking at opening two new facilities in Louisiana.  

The logical conclusion for biomass electricity or biochar, from a purely carbon accounting perspective is that we should burn things that grow faster and therefore incur a shorter "carbon debt." GE eucalyptus perhaps?  Clearly it is not very helpful to reduce the whole affair of climate change to counting carbon molecules. Forests, soils, ecosystems all are far more than agglomerations of carbon. They are intricate, multidimensional, interconnected, and complex beyond our imaginings and hence beyond our ability to measure, manipulate, and control.

The reductionist mindset that carbon accountants engage with is a dead end that only serves to blind us to the full scope and range of Earth as a whole. It fails to see that this planet is more than the sum of its parts. If we are really serious about preserving life on Earth, we will have to relearn how to envision the whole, embrace humility in the face of our ignorance about how life-supporting earth systems work. No amount of biochar, no climate geoengineering tricks, no technofixes or markets or "private sector engagement" or fancy carbon accounting will be a "win win win" for us. By far the winning strategy would be to allow Earth to restore, regenerate and recover, on her own terms.

Rachel Smolker
Rachel Smolker is codirector of Biofuelwatch and a climate justice activist. She has a Ph.D. in biology from the University of Michigan, and worked previously as a field zoologist. 


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