Chevy FlexFuel Avalanche  (Source: Turbo Diesel Register)
According to a U.N. expert biofuels represent a crime against mankind.

Jean Ziegler, the United Nations special reporter on the right to food and sociology professor at the University of Geneva and the University of the Sorbonne in Paris, stunned many Friday when he blasted biofuels.

Ziegler, who gave the remarks at a press conference at the U.N. headquarters in New York, posed dire predictions if the development of biofuels was to continue.  His remarks follow a Thursday presentation to the U.N. General Assembly's human rights committee on the dangers of biofuels.

He stated that blame for the record high price of some staple grain crops is directly attributable to biofuel initiatives.

This much is factually accurate it appears.  Between September 2006 and November 2006 corn prices rose 55 percent.  Corn prices are at record highs of over $3 USD per bushel.  The Wall Street Journal says this is largely due to the new industrial demand for corn for ethanol conversion.  This has caused food producers such as Tyson to struggle.

Ziegler ardently drove home this point at the press conference and stated that biofuels in their current state are not a good alternative to petroleum.  He said that he feared biofuels would bring more world hunger.  He stated that recklessly converting maize and sugar and other foodstuffs to biofuel was a "recipe for disaster."

In the U.S., the production of corn for ethanol has already overtaken its use for food, and President Bush has recently announced higher targets for the use in biofuels in U.S. vehicles. Wheat prices have more thandoubled in the past year, led by reduced cultivation of the grain.  Prices of meat and dairy staples have also risen, driven by higher foodstock prices for farm animals.

Ziegler pointed out that it takes 510 pounds of corn to produce 13 gallons of ethanol. That much corn could feed a child in Zambia or Mexico for a year, he said. He also stated that diverting arable land to cultivate crops to be used to produce biofuels or directly burned was a "crime against humanity."

''What has to be stopped is ... the growing catastrophe of the massacre [by] hunger in the world," Ziegler continued.

Ziegler requested that a five year worldwide ban on biofuel be put in place, to prevent such occurrences.

Ziegler stated that he is not entirely opposed to the idea of biofuels, just the current state of them.  He said that instituting a ban would allow for the development of technological advances that would allow conversion of waste materials such as corn cobs and banana leaves into fuel, as opposed to the crops themselves.

Such technologies may be possible, but the high starch and low sugar content of these biomaterials necessitates much more chemical and/or enzymatic processing.

Ziegler did point to the more practical use of oil-bearing crops in arid lands.  He elaborated that “the cultivation of Jatropha Curcas, a shrub that produces large oil-bearing seeds, appears to offer a good solution as it can be grown in arid lands that are not normally suitable for food crops.”

The International Monetary Fund issued similar, but less drastic, comments earlier this month.  The IMF, which is tasked with overseeing the global financial system, stated that the demand for biofuels may have dire consequences on the world's poor as it raises the cost of staple crops such as corn and maize to untenable prices.

A IMF report stated that "One country's policy to promote biofuels while protecting its farmers could increase another (likely poorer) country's import bills for food and pose additional risks to inflation or growth."

Biofuel is thought to be more environmentally friendly as the growth of crops, which absorb CO2, is thought to counteract its environmental impact, somewhat.  However, biofuels often need to expend energy and chemicals in their growth and also consume similar debts when being processed.  Overall the process is thought by experts to be slightly more environmentally friendly than petroleum. According to a recent UK government publication biofuels cut emissions "by 50-60 percent compared to fossil fuels," though their exact methodology at reaching this figure was not clearly stated.

However, new research demonstrates biofuels emit more greenhouse gases than fossil fuels.  A research team led by Nobel Prize-winning chemist Paul Crutzen calculated total emissions from crops such as rapeseed, corn, and sugarcane.  They found nitrous oxide (N2O) emissions were twice as high as previously understood. 

Total emissions from all sources were up to 70% higher than those the use of gasoline.  Crutzen, who won the Nobel for his work on the ozone layer, is widely respected in the field of climate research.

The charity organization Grain also released a report condemning biofuels as contributing to deforestation. The group also slammed biofuels for causing the return of the old colonial planting system to Asia, Africa, and Latin America, at the expense of local and indigenous communities.

Biofuels are certainly gaining steam. Between 2000 and 2005 the use of biofuels worldwide grew four-fold. Brazil leads the world in production, with over 16 billion liters of ethanol produced yearly from sugar-cane.  The European Union is also jumping on the biofuel bandwagon, with a mandate which calls for 5.75percent of transport fuels to come from biological sources by 2010.

The promise of cheap, renewable replacements for fossil fuels managed to turn America's Breadbasket into America's Gastank almost overnight.  Yet as Ziegler and others warn, such rapid transition is not without drawbacks.

"Let's face it, we're not changing the world. We're building a product that helps people buy more crap - and watch porn." -- Seagate CEO Bill Watkins

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