I happened to disagree with a very reasonable critique I found on Gristmill last week, and want to use an article called “Stuck in the Middle with Fuel” (a great title by the way) by Eliza Barclay as a foil. It is a perfectly good article. I am using it as an example of traditional journalism only because it was timely and handy. Getting a piece past a battery of editors is one hurdle; having it pass muster on the comments field of the blogosphere is another thing altogether.

Keeping with tradition, Eliza must feign neutrality. She begins her narrative by painting a picture in the reader’s mind, subtly suggesting that biofuels will rid third world countries of smoke belching diesel trucks:

Occasionally these rural taxis are new vehicles, but most are rickety, rusted, and running on antiquated engines and exhaust-spewing diesel.

Next, she must obtain interviews from experts:

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“Sugarcane production for ethanol is much more oriented toward the large scale, which Brazil has done,” said Suzanne Hunt, biofuels program manager at the Worldwatch Institute in Washington, D.C. “But biodiesel is better suited to the small scale, and Central American governments could focus on biodiesel production.”

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This statement is not only grossly inaccurate, but suggests that these countries should turn from ethanol to biodiesel. Hasn’t this woman ever watched an episode of The Dukes of Hazzard? Small-scale ethanol production hit a high here in the U.S. during prohibition, with guys using things called stills and a grossly inefficient feedstock called corn mash.

The two most popular feed stocks for biodiesel, soybeans and palm, have been consuming tens of thousands of square miles of rainforest biodiversity and carbon sinks for years, and that trend has just had a big fire lit under its butt by biodiesel demand. You may not care for ethanol, Suzanne, but we really don’t need to be pouring gas on the biodiesel fire either.

“There is no limit on [available farmland] in Central America, so I don’t think they’ll have to convert cropland or cut down trees,” said Arnaldo Vieira de Carvalho, a sustainable-energy expert at the IDB. “But we do need to study and plan for these things so that we avoid those kind of impacts. So far it’s not happening in Brazil, so I think it can be avoided elsewhere in the region.”

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This is a beauty here. First, even if you cut down all of the rainforests, you eventually hit a limit to farmland. Second, just saying that you don’t “think” they will have to convert cropland or cut down trees is pretty meaningless without some reasoning to back up what you “think.” He lost all credibility with me as being a sustainable energy expert when he said, “So far it’s not happening in Brazil [cutting down rain forests for crops], so I think it can be avoided elsewhere in the region.” Deforestation to plant crops is not happening in Brazil?

“We also have a lot of available land: only 70 percent of the country’s arable land is currently in use.”

Let me put that into perspective. Indiana has roughly 100 times more arable land under the plow than El Salvador has in available arable land (40 million verse 400 thousand acres). How can you ask them not to expand arable land into carbon sinks if this venture proves profitable? The same goes for all of the other countries mentioned.

These quotes are not much more accurate than stringing grammatically (for the most part) correct sentences together at random. Now, let’s see how well the rest of the article holds up under close scrutiny.

Toyota’s 2006 first-quarter sales in Central America, for example, were up 9 percent from 2005.

It looks like poverty reduction is going to mean more cars. More cars mean you need more fuel. And if growing more fuel means more poverty reduction, you will get even more cars. You get the picture. A tail-chasing exercise will ensue. When all available farmland is used up, more will have to be created from rainforest carbon sinks, and as we all know, destruction of rainforest carbon sinks accounts for a quarter of our global warming and is also the main driver behind the sixth great extinction event.

But oil is up, and sugar is too — prices for the sweet stuff have doubled [my emphasis] since early 2005. That’s left many warming to the notion that it may be more profitable to produce sugar for ethanol production than for consumption as a foodstuff.

And still others say [my emphasis] biofuels are too energy-intensive to produce and will drive up the costs of foodstuffs the poor barely have access to now …

The above statements contradict nicely. One clearly states that biofuels are raising food prices, while the other suggests that rising food prices are only a future potential or rumor (while simultaneously trying to water it down with a straw man). The concern that biofuels may consume more energy than they produce has become a favorite strawman. This debate over the net energy gain of corn ethanol has been raging for over 30 years, but it has nothing to do with sugarcane or palm oil. One of the many concerns over biofuels is their future impact on food prices. Farmers will sell to the highest bidder.

Other environmentalists have called biodiesel “deforestation diesel” because of a perception that producers are deforesting precious forests to plant oil palms.

That “perception” she refers to is actually a well-documented: factfactfactfact.

Economically and environmentally, biofuels seem to make good sense … could create jobs, protect the environment … In addition to fuel, what we can generate is a number of important jobs growing sugarcane.

As it stands today, biofuels don’t necessarily make good sense economically. Food producers are bidding against biofuel refiners for the same crops, forcing consumers (losers) to pay a higher price for food to pay farmers (winners). A free market is based on providing the lowest priced goods to consumers through economic competition, not on providing higher profits for producers at the expense of consumers (i.e., a subsidy). And finally, biofuels can be environmentally sound but only if rainforest carbon sinks are not converted. That is already happening in Brazil and many other places around the world as well.

And what about these “important” jobs? Does working in the tropical sun all day long into your old age as a poorly paid farm hand sound appealing to you? Farming can be rewarding, especially if you own the farm. As a farm employee in the tropics earning a low wage, it generally sucks, especially if you plan to live to a ripe old age.

Finally, let me touch on the futility of U.S. farmers refusing to let cheap ethanol into our market. Sugarcane is about eight times more efficient than corn, using a fraction of the energy and being far more carbon neutral. We can’t grow sugarcane. Our hope is to someday use cellulosic, but sugarcane beats the crap out of cellulosic also (using about half as much energy input). This is all a big joke. Unless something comes along to stop this biofuel craze, America will one day import ethanol and biodiesel from the tropics to meet our insatiable thirst, and they will convert what is left of their rainforest carbon sinks to provide it.

Deforestation, soil erosion, and water pollution are major environmental concerns for all of these countries. Biofuels are unlikely to alleviate any of them. Alleviating poverty in these countries will require good governance. In fact, it would already be alleviated if they had that. I empathize with these people having just watched what six years of bad governance has done to my country.

This was not a bad article. It was worthy of being on the front of any newspaper. I’m just pointing out that much of what we read in newspapers is just as full of holes as this article. Unless you are intimately familiar with the subject yourself, you just don’t realize it. The interviews with “experts” give articles a feel of legitimacy, but real experts are real hard to come by, and they all have their opinions also.