Tourists, bird watchers, and native cattle herders in Kenya’s Tana River delta may soon have a spanking-new alcohol refinery in the middle of their wetland. Granted, the wetland will be slightly less wet because a third of its water will be diverted to cropland. Always one to look for a silver lining, I would hope that this refinery will include an air-conditioned bar where tourists and herders alike can gather for happy hour after a long, hot day of wildlife viewing and cattle herding.

Paul Matiku, Executive Director of Nature Kenya (and might I add, a real pessimist) claims:

Large areas would become ecological deserts. The Delta is a wildlife refuge with cattle herders depending on it for centuries as well. There is no commitment to mitigation for the damage that will be done and no evidence that local incomes will be in any way improved.

*Cough*loser*cough*! Excuse me.

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Here, Richard Branson, after publicly admitting that his investments in corn ethanol were a mistake, goes on to say:

“But, ah, there are countries in the world like Africa [actually a continent], um, like Mozambique, where they have got sugarcane plantations lying wasted, doing nothing …”

Someone should tell the Mumias Sugar Company about this. They’re about to plow under a perfectly good wetland! Ditto for the president of Uganda, who is trying to turn the Mabira Forest Reserve into a sugar plantation. I wonder: Could there be a reason abandoned farmland is abandoned? Could all of this purported abandoned farmland just be the next biofuel talking point in a long line of debunked talking points? You knock a dozen arguments flat, and they just keep coming back with new ones:

Ron Steenblik posted this link to a video in the comments of Tom Philpott’s most excellent article that raised both of my eyebrows. It’s worth checking out. Jim Cramer (the manic guy on Mad Money) tells investors how to capitalize on the looming famine. He contradicts himself toward the end when he says:

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If we want to go to where biofuels matter, we have to go to Brazil where they use soy and sugarcane …

And then he goes on to paraphrase the CEO of XTO (whoever the hell that is):

… we have to stop burning food to fuel things … it doesn’t do anything but exacerbate the famine problem …

Soybeans and sugar were still considered food the last time I checked, but maybe they’ve been reclassified as fuel when I wasn’t looking.

In Brazil, soybeans and cane sugar are once again expanding at the expense of the Cerrado and Amazonian carbon sinks. According to this article in Mongabay, researchers are now predicting that half of the Amazon will be gone in just 20 years. Crap. The usually quoted 40-year time frame is history:

The damage will release 15-26 billion tons of carbon into the atmosphere, adding to a feedback cycle that will worsen both warming and forest degradation in the region.

This is largely due to “land scarcity in traditional growing regions like Europe and the United States [and] surging interest in biofuels,” and subsidies for corn ethanol:

The shift from soy to corn has led to a near doubling in soy prices during the past 14 months. High prices are, in turn, driving conversion of rainforest and savanna in Brazil for soy expansion.

Philpott has a near-perfect track record for predicting the destructive path of corn ethanol. I also have a pretty good record. Strangely enough, it turns out not to be all that hard, unless you are making a profit. For example, I recently predicted that Vinod Khosla would start investing in cane ethanol because (quoting myself, as I am wont to do):

[E]thanol made from sugarcane is less energy intensive and far, far cheaper than cellulosic. The Amazon and the virtually free land it sits on is vast. Cellulosic does not stand a chance against Brazilian cane ethanol in the long haul. Using biofuels to feed internal combustion engines will eventually destroy the last great carbon sink if we don’t find a way to replace the internal combustion engine fed with liquid fuel.

According to this blurb on the Sustainable (eyes rolling) Energies website, he has just done that:

Ethos, an ethanol startup based in Cambridge, Mass., raised an undisclosed amount of financing from Khosla Ventures and GreatPoint Ventures. The company reportedly has its sights set on developing sugarcane-based ethanol projects in Central America, Latin American and the Caribbean.

My next prediction is that he will fund lobbying efforts to drop our tariff on imported ethanol. I’ll let you know when that happens. Vinod isn’t big on biodiesel, because he thinks it takes too much land.

Speaking of biodiesel, that same blurb talks about Imperium Renewables’ financial woes. Remember Imperium? They have the world’s largest biodiesel refinery positioned at a seaport to take advantage of the cheapest feedstock anywhere in the world. They are also supported by Seattle’s local politicians who “have mandated its use, subsidized its profit margin, and to ice the cake, have allowed millions of dollars of retirement funds to be invested in Imperium.”

They are also the same guys who just fueled Branson’s latest PR stunt.