Brazil defends ethanol in food-versus-fuel fight

President Lula says the largest ethanol exporter makes fuel from sugar, not corn. And there's a sugar surplus.

By , Correspondent

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    A gas station worker fills a car's tank with ethanol in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Brazil, the world's biggest ethanol exporter, is bristling over criticism of its biofuel. As wheat, rice, and corn prices rise sharply, critics say producing fuel for cars is taking precedence over food for people.
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Brazil, the world's biggest ethanol exporter, is bristling over criticism of its biofuel.

As wheat, rice, and corn prices rise sharply, critics say producing fuel for cars is taking precedence over food for people.

"Ethanol has certainly become the scapegoat for a variety of issues, in particular the current price of food," says Toni Nuernberg, the executive director of the Omaha, Neb.-based Ethanol Promotion and Information Center. "But there is a collection of factors responsible: Drought, population growth, higher demand for protein [i.e., meat] from developing countries, and transportation costs."

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President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva says the bad publicity is unwarranted and uninformed. Many biofuel experts agree. Critics, they say, fail to distinguish between the different kinds of ethanol. Brazilian ethanol from sugar cane is up to eight times more energy efficient to produce than ethanol derived from corn, beets, wheat, or other temperate crops.

And Brazilian officials point out that there's plenty of sugar. Brazilian sugar production has doubled since the end of the last decade and is expected to grow by another 50 percent by 2021, says Marcos Jank, the president of Unica, the Brazilian Sugar Cane Industry Association.

There is more than enough sugar on the market and so no land is being taken for fuel rather than food, he adds. "Food versus fuel is not an issue in Brazil," Mr. Jank says. "Sugar prices today are depressed because there is too much production."

Brazil has around 160 million hectares of arable land ready to be planted, and although claims that no trees are being cut down to plant sugar cane might be true, they are also disingenuous, environmentalists say.

Cattle farmers in the fertile south and center of Brazil are selling pastures to crop farmers and moving their herds north into the Amazon where land is cheap and deforesting is easy, according to a recent Friends of the Earth report.

Nevertheless, the authors of the report agree that Brazil has been unfairly vilified. They and other experts say that solutions are on the horizon.

Second-generation biofuels made from waste products such as citrus peel, corncobs, and wood chips are under development and should be produced on a commercial scale within three to four years, says Reid Detchon, executive director of the Energy Future Coalition, a think tank funded by the UN Foundation. That is likely to eliminate much of the food-versus-fuel debate.

Another solution is adopting genetically modified groups, says Chris Flavin, president of the Worldwatch Institute. Although GM science is highly controversial, Mr. Flavin says it increases crop yields dramatically.

'We've utilized biotechnology with corn and soy beans and we've seen tremendous yield breakthroughs," Flavin says. "This isn't about price, it's about price times yield, and farmers are going to plant to get the better revenue."

Until those solutions can be implemented, some experts, especially in Brazil, would like to see the US reduce the 54-cent-a-gallon tax on Brazilian ethanol imports. That would go some way to reducing the pressure on corn prices, they say. But the US Congress, backed by US sugar farmers, has shown no inclination to reduce the tariff.

"The more important answer is to move away from [making ethanol from] food-based food stuffs to waste materials," says Mr. Detchon. "That would relieve the pressure on all parts of the system."

Brazil has a long history of ethanol production. The country's ethanol-for-fuel program started in the 1970s, and today more than two-thirds of all cars sold run on ethanol and all Brazilian gasoline sold at the pumps contains 25 percent ethanol.

Brazil is a major global exporter of sugar, beef, chicken, wheat, and soy.

President Lula claimed recently that the bad publicity over ethanol is prompted by the developed world's jealousy over its emergence as a major farm exporter: "Just when Brazil appears on the world stage not as a bit part actor but as the lead in a play about agricultural production ... people start to get uncomfortable, very uncomfortable."

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