The signs are cropping up — we just need to heed them.
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“Biodiesel: No War Required,” reads a bumper sticker I see more often than you might expect in North Carolina. As in other states across the nation, a lot of activist energy here has gone into creating a market for diesel fuel made from vegetable oil. Of course, it’s an uphill ride, given that a tiny fraction of the U.S. auto fleet runs on diesel to begin with.

Yet the message is attractive — and has been indirectly taken up by promoters of the dominant U.S. biofuel, corn-based ethanol. Ethanol promoters tend to be too politically cozy with the current administration to make an overt “no war” claim. But they do speak incessantly of “energy independence” — hinting that homegrown ethanol can keep us out of foreign entanglements.

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The line of reasoning goes like this: Gasoline depends on crude oil, the greenhouse-gas-spewing commodity that inspired U.S. presidents to launch two costly wars in the span of 12 years. Biofuel, by contrast, hails from seemingly renewable, carbon-neutral resources — corn for ethanol, oil-rich crops like soy and palm for biodiesel. Better still, the crops can be grown here in the United States. Thus, no more dependence on a scarce foreign resource — and no war required.

But to me, biofuels represent a kind of mirage. In a society so abstracted from the land — fewer than 2 percent of U.S. citizens make a living from farming, and farm work has generally become the province of foreign-born laborers, mostly from Mexico and Central America — crops naturally seem like an easily renewable resource.

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Yet every time you harvest a plant, a fruit, or a seed, you’re taking nutrients from the soil — nutrients that need to be replaced to maintain soil fertility. And in modern industrial agriculture, that means using fertilizers from sources that, like crude oil, are finite and concentrated in foreign nations.

Synthetic nitrogen fertilizer, for example, derives from natural gas. The U.S. owns just 3 percent of global proven natural gas reserves [PDF]. The largest store (40 percent) lies right where most of the globe’s crude is stashed: in the Middle East. (Iran, G.W. Bush’s bête noire, holds the region’s largest natural-gas deposit.) If all of that weren’t enough, nitrogen fertilizers annually unleash titanic quantities of nitrous oxide — a greenhouse gas the EPA reckons is 310 times more potent than carbon dioxide.

Then there’s phosphorus, another key fertilizer. To isolate phosphorus, you have to mine and refine phosphate rock — a process that creates vast piles of radioactive waste. Again, the U.S. holds a relatively tiny store of phosphate rock — dwarfed by those in China and Morocco.

Seen from this viewpoint, biofuels hardly seem environmentally benign — and relying on them could conceivably require, well, war. Indeed, Shell Oil has been embroiled in hostilities with indigenous groups in Nigeria for years — often regarding its exploitation of natural gas.

In and Out of Love with Fuel

Somehow, even as study after study points to the deep environmental and social liabilities associated with biofuels, U.S. politicians continue to lavish it with support. Late last year, President Bush signed into law the 2007 Energy Act, which mandates that U.S. drivers use at least 36 billion gallons of biofuel by 2022, up from 4.7 billion gallons in 2007. (Only 15 billion of the 36 billion can derive from corn; the rest must come from cellulosic ethanol, a technology that seems forever 10 years away from viability and whose use could actually worsen the fertilizer problem.)

Interestingly, in the European Union, politicians are starting to rethink their enthusiasm for biofuel. There, government programs affect biodiesel much more than ethanol, because most cars run on diesel engines. Recently, a spate of studies has exposed the severe ecological and social implications of vegetable-oil crop production in Southeast Asia and Brazil, where palm-oil and soy plantations have ramped up dramatically, in part to satisfy rising European biodiesel demand.

According to a University of Minnesota study, 27 percent of new concessions for palm-oil plantations in Indonesia lie on peatlands — representing a rich store of carbon built up over eons. As a result, the study found, “converting peatlands in Indonesia into palm oil plantations ran up a carbon debt that would take 423 years to pay off.” Already, conversions of peatlands and rainforest into plantations have made Indonesia the third-largest greenhouse-gas emitter in the world, behind the U.S. and China.

And a consortium of NGOs led by Friends of the Earth has painstakingly documented [PDF] the social costs of Indonesian palm production. The report states that the Indonesian government plans to expand palm production from 17.3 million acres to 66.7 million acres over the next several years — swallowing up forestland that “60 to 90 million people … depend on for their livelihoods.” Ahead of this anticipated land grab, the group is already monitoring more than 500 active conflicts between palm-oil companies and local communities over land rights.

Predictably, U.S. agribusiness giants have lumbered into the Indonesian palm mess. Archer Daniels Midland — the U.S. ethanol king, and also Europe’s leading biodiesel producer — owns a 16 percent stake in Wilmar International, the largest palm-oil trader and producer in the world. According to another Friends of the Earth study [PDF], Wilmar has not exactly been a model corporate citizen in Indonesia, where it’s the largest single holder of palm-plantation land.

Since 2005, Wilmar has evidently engaged in “illegal burning with the intention to clear land, illegal plantation development without approved Environmental Impact Assessments, land rights conflicts resulting from encroachment outside areas allocated and the absence of due consultation with relevant local communities, illegal encroachment in river buffer zones, (facilitating) illegal removal of forest products and deforestation without a proper assessment of High Conservation Values which may result in the further destruction of the habitat of, among other endangered species, the orangutan.” Ouch. Biodiesel may entail war after all.

ADM’s chief agribusiness rival, Cargill, also has extensive palm-oil holdings in Indonesia.

Confronted with mounting evidence of corporate malfeasance and ecological trouble, European Union officials recently grappled with the E.U.’s mandate that at least 10 percent of its liquid fuel supply come from “renewable sources” (read: biofuels) by 2020 — a several-fold increase over current levels. Eventually, the E.U. upheld the mandate — but added important caveats. It bans biodiesel made from new-growth palm oil, and obliges all “renewable fuel” makers to prove that their products reduce greenhouse-gas emissions by at least 35 percent compared to fossil fuels. Corn-based ethanol, reckoned to deliver 22 percent emissions cuts under best-case conditions, would not make the cut.

Marching to the Beat of a Different Tractor

In individual European countries, biofuel fever has waned even more. The New York Times reports that Germany, France, England, the Netherlands, and Switzerland have all slashed or eliminated tax breaks and other goodies for biofuel makers.

Here in the U.S., biofuel remains king. Not only does our own biofuel mandate contain nothing in the way of sustainability requirements, but we continue to lavish tax credits on biofuel use at the rate of $0.51 per gallon. The Global Subsidies Initiative reckons that if current policies hold, U.S. taxpayers will dole out $91 billion propping up biofuel production between 2006 and 2012 — $13 billion per year. No remaining viable presidential candidate challenges these policies — and the public doesn’t seem to care.

Why the difference between the E.U. and the U.S.? I think it has to do with our nearly complete divorce from the land that feeds us. How else could we behave as if crops come from nowhere? European agriculture has industrialized since World War II, but the E.U. has maintained policies that keep a significant number of small, diversified farms in place. In increasing numbers, Europe’s urban dwellers visit and support small farms as a form of tourism.

Here, national agriculture policy has explicitly thrown small farmers to the wolves. Perhaps our best hope for a wise fuel policy lies with the recent revival in farmers’ markets, CSAs, and other ventures that put consumers in direct contact with farmers actually growing food for people to eat. Rather than subsidize biofuels, perhaps we should be reinvesting in small, local-oriented food systems. And pursuing policies that directly cut carbon emissions — like conservation.