The Cost of Palm Oil

Posted October 14, 2009

Matilda "The day the (palm) seeds arrived in our country on the plane, I wondered, `what are these seeds?'" Matilda Pilacapio told us at a meeting in late September. Pilacapio is a human rights advocate from Milne Bay, Papua New Guinea and she stopped by our Minneapolis office on the way to a meeting with Cargill—the largest palm oil importer in the U.S.

Papau New Guinea, a former British colony, contains some of the last remaining intact rainforests and 5 percent of global biodiversity. Palm oil first came to the island in 1994, when Pilacapio was the country's Minister of Agriculture. Palm quickly replaced coconut that had been grown on plantations owned by British companies and the British government's Commonwealth Development Corporation.

"Life has dramatically changed," Pilacapio told us. "We have a traditional life of sharing and giving. What we have, we share with our village. Now, our people live in a monetary world. Our people are at a crossroads."

In the mid-1990s, the World Bank required a number of structual adjustment programs in Papua New Guinea as conditions for a loan to the country's government, according to Pilacapio. Among the changes, were the user pay system—where people pay for things like education and health care—but also land registration (which opened up land that had previously been controlled by Indigenous peoples). Part of the World Bank loan to the country was to develop palm oil plantations, says Pilacapio.

Cargill owns three palm oil mills in Papua New Guinea. The company took over the mill in Milne Bay, where Pilacapio lives three years ago. She currently works with the Milne Bay Women in Agriculture to strengthen traditional agriculture systems in response to Cargill's expanding oil palm plantation in the region.

Pilacapio said young people in Papau New Guinea who want to farm no longer have access to land because so much is going toward palm oil plantations. Previously able to provide food for its own population, the growth in palm oil plantations has led Papua New Guinea to become heavily dependent on food imports.

Pilacapio came to visit Cargill as part of an effort by Rainforest Action Network to get the company to improve its practices at palm oil plantations, starting with simple things like creating buffer zones to protect water systems. Thus far, the company has not budged. Pilacapio is asking Cargill to: 1) stop the expansion of palm oil plantations, particularly from traditional landowners and onto virgin lands; 2) share its profits with local governments and landowners; 3) provide workers with better wages and working conditions; and 4) clean up water that is downstream from their milling plant.

So, what is the cost of palm oil? In the marketplace, the palm oil produced in Pilacapio's community certainly doesn't reflect all its costs, including damage to a traditional culture, diminished food security in the region, the loss of biodiversity and effects on global climate change. The "monetary world" Pilacapio describes is not working.

» Read the full post

Biomass program rolls out, raises eyebrows

Posted October 2, 2009

The Biomass Crop Assistance Program (BCAP), launched in the last Farm Bill, was hailed as an opportunity to spur the wider adoption of new, more sustainable crops to feed a growing bioeconomy. Now, we are reminded once again that the intent of legislation and real-world implemention are two different things. In a new IATP commentary ("Questionable start for biomass program"), policy analyst Loni Kemp sheds light on why BCAP is raising eyebrows. Kemp writes:

The way the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has rolled out the first part of BCAP is raising eyebrows, as initial funding seems to be going to pay for already-existing biomass supplies used for renewable energy, instead of focusing on helping to jump-start the new cellulosic energy future.

In September, IATP submitted comments as part of BCAP's Environmental Impact Statement. We've also written a BCAP factsheet with a number of recommendations for implementation, including:

  • Perennial and multiple-species biomass feedstocks should be the focus of BCAP, with preference for native species. No invasive, noxious or genetically modified feedstocks should be included. If funds allow, then annual crops in a resource-conserving crop rotation would be acceptable.

  • Preference should be given to projects that provide local ownership opportunities; will
    have local economic benefits; and will involve new and socially disadvantaged farmers.

  • Annual payments are intended to be an incentive to establish new energy crops, and thus should not be drastically lowered if the crop is sold or if it is used for another purpose.

As Kemp writes:

Unfortunately, at least so far, USDA seems to be getting BCAP wrong. They should reconsider the true intent of the program and focus on helping farmers plant and deliver new crops for renewable energy.

» Read the full post

Ethanol Industry Explores Options to Antibiotics

Posted July 28, 2009

Earlier this month, IATP reported on the widespread and unnecessary use of antibiotics by the ethanol industry. IATP's Julia Olmstead visited a Wisconsin ethanol plant last week that is using a hops-based alternative to antibiotics to manage bacteria growth in the fermentation process. Watch her video below to learn more.

» Read the full post

Getting Antibiotics Out of Ethanol

Posted July 16, 2009

Unnecessary antibiotic use in livestock production is a massive contributor to the growing specter of antibiotic resistance. But in a study released today, we report on a lesser known source of non-therapeutic antibiotic use: the ethanol industry.

For decades, ethanol producers have added antibiotics to the fermentation process to control bacterial outbreaks. The practice attracted little concern until last year, when the FDA began testing samples of distillers grains, a nutrient-rich ethanol co-product that is sold as feed for cattle, dairy cows, pigs and poultry. The testing revealed residues of four types of antibiotics, and the results implied that these antibiotics (erythromycin, tylosin, virginiamycin and penicillin) are moving from the fermenter tanks to our food system. 

Unnecessary antibiotic use is the bad news. But our research found some good news, too. Effective, cost-competitive antibiotic-alternatives are widely available and are already used by nearly 45 percent of the ethanol industry. We found that statistic inspiring, and in our new report, we ask the ethanol industry to go a step further and enact a voluntary antibiotics ban. Given the risks of antibiotic overuse, and given the effective, widely available antibiotic alternatives, there is really no good argument the ethanol industry can make against this action.

Read all about it here, and learn why getting antibiotics out of ethanol just makes sense.

» Read the full post

Electric Cars vs. Big Mac

Posted July 13, 2009

Earlier this week, the green machine known as McDonald’s (I say this with tongue in cheek, of course) announced they’re getting into the alternative energy biz. That’s right—the hamburger chain will soon open an electric vehicle charging station at a restaurant in Cary, NC, with other stations to follow.

Says the press release, “The new McDonald's will deliver yet another new facet of energy conservation by enabling EV drivers to have a place to recharge their vehicles, while enjoying their meal.”

Well, okay, I’m on board with expanding EV charging stations, something we’ll need if electric cars are to become widespread. But the irony here is simply too great to ignore.

This “green” McDonald’s, as they call it, is still a hamburger restaurant, and feedlot beef is the most greenhouse gas (GHG) intensive food we can eat. A 2006 FAO study estimated that 18 percent of GHG emissions come from livestock production, more than transportation. And beef production makes up a Whopper whopping 78 percent of those emissions, even though beef consumption only accounts for 30 percent of meat consumption in the developed world.

Driving a plug-in hybrid electric vehicle will save you on average about 100 grams of CO2 per mile compared to a conventional car, according to a Minnesota Pollution Control Agency study. Cutting out the quarter pounder will net you somewhere around 3,600 grams of CO2, according to low estimates. That’s 20 miles worth of savings, in just one cheeseburger. Puts things in perspective, doesn’t it?

Of course, this works out very well for McDonald’s, which gets to claim even more green-ness than they already do. But for the rest of us, it’s clearly better to skip the burger (or if you can’t give them entirely up, as I haven’t, choose 100 percent grass-fed beef from a rotationally grazed system and eat them sparingly).  And, if you can, leave the car at home.

» Read the full post

Better Biodiesel

Posted June 22, 2009

Making_biodiesel_2008 Earlier this week I had the good fortune of visiting the Organic Valley cooperative in La Farge, Wisc., a tiny town nestled into that state's ridiculously gorgeous Kickapoo Valley. There's a lot to like about Organic Valley: their co-op model has made organic dairy production and organic farming a viable path for more than a thousand farmers, they prioritize sustainability in all that they do, and, well, their chocolate milk just rocks. 

But I wasn't there for the milk, I was there to check out their innovative on-farm biodiesel program. Organic Valley biodiesel guru Zach Biermann, along with Jake Wedeberg, have designed a mobile biodiesel press--a trailer that holds everything they need to make biodiesel from oil seeds (or waste grease). They can move the trailer from farm to farm, so farmers who want to grow their own oil seeds (Zach and Jake have been experimenting with camelina and sunflower seeds) can process their own fuel on-farm.

Earlier this year, Organic Valley teamed up with the Sustainable Biodiesel Alliance (of which IATP is on the board of directors) to field test that organization's Baseline Practices for Sustainability, a set of guidelines to ensure sustainable biodiesel.

You can see the biodiesel trailer in action next month (and learn a lot more about sustainability and farming) at the Kickapoo Country Fair, July 25-26. IATP will be hosting a workshop on sustainable biodiesel. Join us! I’ll be there with chocolate milk in hand.

» Read the full post

Indirect Misdirect

Posted June 15, 2009

Calculating the carbon footprint of corn-based ethanol (including indirect effects around the world) continues to be a political hot potato that threatens congressional negotiations to address global climate change. Earlier this month, we outlined some of the key issues in this debate between House Agriculture Chair Collin Peterson (D-MN) and Henry Waxman (D-CA), the lead author of the House climate bill.

In the Saturday issue of the Minneapolis Star Tribune, IATP President Jim Harkness, Michael Noble from Fresh Energy and Patrick Moore of Clean Up the River Environment, co-authored a commentary that offers a proposal to break the deadlock. 

They write: "Indirect land use change (ILUC) is real, but ILUC calculations need more research and development before they are used in policy. We need to better understand the links between what happens here in the Corn Belt and what happens in the rainforest, and we must figure out how to quantify indirect effects. Combining a commitment to do this research with a commitment to account for these emissions would be a better approach."

Read the full commentary.

» Read the full post

The Curious Case of Climate Policy and Corn Ethanol

Posted June 2, 2009

Corn ethanol supporters’ claims that the fuel reduces greenhouse gas emissions are tenuous, at best. But corn ethanol might end up being the key to getting climate policy—specifically, the Waxman-Markey cap and trade legislation—through Congress.

House Democratic leaders have vowed to move forward on the legislation, but a group of farm state representatives, including House Agriculture Committee Chair Collin Peterson (D-MN), are threatening to derail the bill.

They mainly want two things: for agricultural offsets to be regulated by the USDA, not the EPA (although as of now, Waxman-Markey does not include the role of farms or forests in emissions reductions scenarios); and to get indirect land use change out of the formula for calculating biofuels’ greenhouse gas emissions in the revised Renewable Fuel Standard  (the RFS2 is part of the 2007 energy bill, and has nothing to do with Waxman-Markey). See my blog post related to indirect land use change here.

Rep. Peterson and the mainstream agriculture lobby don’t trust the EPA on agriculture, a feeling that was heartily confirmed when the agency made the decision to include indirect land use in the revised RFS. EPA-controlled climate credits, therefore, scare the heck out of them.

Peterson introduced a bill on May 14 that would ban indirect land use change from the RFS2, but despite its 46 co-sponsors, there’s been no sign yet from Congress that they’ll reopen negotiations on that part of the 2007 energy legislation. There’s no question, however, that Peterson and his supporters make up a large enough group to successfully stop Waxman-Markey if they so choose.

Whether Peterson gets his way on indirect land use or not, it’s clear that U.S. climate policy— both politically, as well as practically—will have to walk hand-in-hand with U.S. agriculture policy to succeed. We'll write more soon on the connection between agriculture and climate policy, and specifically on the ways agriculture can play an important role in mitigating climate change.

» Read the full post

Ethanol's Contentious Carbon Footprint

Posted April 30, 2009

Despair abounds in the ethanol industry after the California Air Resources Board (ARB) voted 9 to 1 in favor of the so-called Low Carbon Fuel Standard (LCFS) last week. The regulation aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from transportation fuels 10 percent by 2020.

Taking firm steps toward greenhouse gas emissions reductions is, of course, a good thing. But the new law could potentially cross corn ethanol off the list of fuel options for not only California but also the 11 states planning to adopt programs modeled on the LCFS.

The LCFS will rate the carbon intensity of different transportation fuels by calculating carbon emissions during each fuel’s production, transportation and consumption. Fuel refiners, blenders and distributors will be required to phase out high carbon intensity fuels or to purchase credits from utilities companies selling low-carbon electricity to power electric cars.

Greenhouse gas emissions from consuming and even transporting a fuel are pretty easy to measure. What are much harder to calculate—and far more controversial—are the emissions caused by a fuel’s production.

The biofuels industry has cried foul over ARB’s inclusion of emissions from what’s known as biofuels’ “indirect land use change” effect. Indirect land use change (ILUC) is an attempt to calculate the effect ethanol production has beyond just the land where the corn is grown and the refinery where it’s processed.

According to the scientists ARB commissioned to calculate ILUC, when American farmers sell their corn to ethanol plants, bypassing traditional food and feed markets, farmers on the other side of the globe cut down rainforests and plow up grasslands to plant crops to fill the gap. The resulting release of carbon dioxide from decomposition of exposed organic soil is large, many researchers argue, and must be included in corn ethanol’s carbon footprint.   

It’s not so simple, say ethanol producers and a different set of scientists. Not only is it almost impossibly difficult to accurately quantify the influence U.S. farmers’ actions have on decisions made a world away (how do you sift out other market pressures, politics, etc?), but also, say the critics, the ILUC burden falls unfairly on biofuels: no one is calculating the indirect emissions of petroleum, for example (add up the emissions created by our military in defense of our oil supply, and the number would likely be significant).

I’ve struggled with this one as I’ve watched the lead-up to this decision. Prominent scientists on each side have sent compelling letters to ARB defending or decrying ILUC. I’ve watched heated debates between ILUC inclusion’s defenders and those that support the ethanol industry. I’ve seen public policy students here at UC Berkeley, where I’m a graduate student (in journalism, not public policy), furrow their brows and scratch their heads over its muddled-ness.

How, then, to think about it?

The easiest part is this: to applaud California’s leadership on carbon emissions reductions, something we desperately need bold action on. After that, things get trickier. Clearly, indirect land use change exists, and it’s something we need to address. But is it responsible or useful to quantify this for policy? I’m not sure that it is. The work that’s been done on these calculations (much of it by UC Berkeley professors) has been good. But if you read the literature, you’ll find that an awful lot of uncertainty, unknowns and assumptions go into the calculations. That’s okay for academic work—a process of continual refining, debate, review, revision—but it’s problematic when it comes to policy that will have a big impact on the biofuel industry (and here I’m thinking most about the farmers who either grow biofuel crops, have a stake in local refineries, or both).

The critics here might say, “Well, what’s the alternative?” or “As compared to what?”

I don’t think it’s an either/or.

Until we can figure out a way to accurately calculate ILUC and other fuels’ indirect effects in a way that has—if not consensus—broader scientific and stakeholder support, ARB and eventually the EPA (who is watching this closely as a possible model), would be better off making carbon emissions reductions and indirect land use change two different issues.

ARB has committed to reviewing again the carbon intensity calculations before the LCFS becomes binding in January 2011. Let's hope they will decide to include only biofuels’ direct emissions, as they do for other fuels. Then let's enter into a separate dialogue—with separate policy initiatives—to work on indirect land use change and the indirect effects of other fuels. Let the scientists continue the ILUC debates, and let the stakeholders—both here and abroad—come together to find immediate ways to tackle the actual problem of ILUC.

My guess is that we’d make more progress on both fronts.


» Read the full post

Biofuels Policy: What's Sustainable?

Posted February 17, 2009

What does renewable energy really mean? And while we’re at it, what’s sustainability, anyway?

Seemingly simple questions, but they’re ones that crop up again and again as I get started in my work with the Rural Communities program.

Take, for instance, a set of biofuels policy recommendations released last week by a coalition of five green NGOs, headed up by the Environmental Working Group. I’ve pasted them below.

The proposals amount to a series of safeguards to ensure that federal policy incentives—things like tax credits and subsidies—are tied to environmental performance standards. In other words, if the ethanol or biodiesel isn’t actually reducing greenhouse gas emissions or our dependence on foreign oil, its producers won’t get federal money for it.

Sounds pretty sensible, right? Indeed, the proposals are sensible. But in our view, they’re also too narrow.

Sustainability standards for biofuels and other rural-based renewable energy policies must take into account the economic concerns of family farmers. If we lose them—and overly aggressive (albeit well-intentioned) policy moves like eliminating the Renewable Fuels Standard (RFS) probably won’t help—we lose our best shot at both environmental sustainability and maintaining vibrant rural communities.

We applaud this group’s efforts, but we propose a couple of tweaks:

1. Policy incentives should be tied not just to environmental performance standards, but also to local and regional economic benefits.

2. Rather than eliminate the Renewable Fuels Standard, let’s view it as an opportunity to create and ensure a market for sustainably produced agricultural products. Mandates for local production and sourcing are a first step, along with a gradual shift of focus away from quantity, and toward economic and environmental quality.

I’ll be posting regularly about IATP’s bioeconomy work and analysis—check back soon.

From Environmental Working Group's Web site.

1. Ensure that all policy incentives for renewable fuels, including mandates and subsidies, require attainment of minimum environmental performance standards for production and use, to ensure that publicly supported “renewable fuels” do not degrade our natural resources. Such standards would: certify net life-cycle greenhouse gas emission reductions through 2050, taking into account direct and indirect land use change; and do not cause or contribute to increased damage to soil quality, air quality, water quality, habitat protection and biodiversity loss. Compliance with these standards must be verified regularly.

2. Restrict the RFS to fuel options that do not cause environmental harm, adverse human health impacts or economic disruption.

o Cap the RFS at current levels and gradually phase out the mandate for biofuels, unless it is clearly demonstrated that such fuels can meet minimum environment, health and consumer protection standards.

 o Establish feedstock- and technology-neutral fuel and environmental performance standards for all biofuels and let the market devise ways of reaching them.

 o Periodically reevaluate the sustainability and performance of renewable fuels.

 o Provide a mechanism and requirement to mitigate unintended adverse effects, including authority to adjust any mandate downward.

3. Tie the biofuels tax credits to the performance standards

o Phase out the biofuels tax credit to blenders while phasing in tax credits or subsidies for renewable fuels that are scaled in accordance to the fuels’ relative environmental, health and consumer protection merits.

4. Rebalance the U.S. renewable energy and energy conservation portfolio to reflect the relative contribution these options can make to reducing fossil fuel use, enhancing the environment, spurring economic development and increasing energy security.

o Subsidies to renewable energy and conservation should be distributed more evenly between alternative energy sources, and should be allocated in a manner that is fuel- and feedstock-neutral; biofuels, particularly corn ethanol, must no longer receive the lion’s share of federal renewable energy subsidies.

 o New policy must:

         * Emphasize energy conservation; we cannot drill or grow our way out of the energy crisis.

         * Create a level playing field among renewable energy options; set fuel-, feedstock- and technology-neutral standards, so as to reduce fossil fuel consumption and greenhouse gas emissions, improve environmental quality and biodiversity, and reduce pressure on agricultural markets.

5. Support research to improve the analysis of net climate impacts, net non-climate environmental impacts, commodity price impacts and other social factors that are substantially affected by policies that promote biofuels. All of the previous policy asks must be based on better research on the impacts from biofuels; understanding these impacts are crucial to developing sound policies.

» Read the full post