Development & Aid, Environment, Tierramerica

Brazilian Biofuels Run into EU Obstacles

RIO DE JANEIRO, Aug 16 2010 (IPS) - Brazil leads the world in biofuel production, and now has to deal with European certifications that could end up creating new trade barriers.

A sugarcane plantation in Brazil - EMBRAPA

A sugarcane plantation in Brazil - EMBRAPA

Brazil has begun a counterattack on the European Union's measures for certifying crop-based fuels, which could lead to import barriers for this energy source coming from the South American giant.

Brazil is the world's leading producer of sugarcane ethanol.

The EU's certification requirements for ethanol and biodiesel are intended to ensure that their production and use represent a substantial reduction in emissions of greenhouse-effect gases, as compared to fossil fuels, and that they do not come from the encroachment of rainforests, wetlands or protected areas.

These requirements are part of the implementation of the bloc's Renewable Energy Directive, which will enter into force in December 2010. But “to associate the production of biofuels with the deforestation of the Amazon shows a lack of knowledge about the Brazilian reality, a protectionist move without scientific basis,” Robert Michael Boddey, an expert from the Brazilian government's agricultural research agency EMBRAPA, said in a Tierramérica interview.

The Europeans must understand that Brazil is not the Netherlands, Belgium or Portugal. “What we have in excess here is land,” he explained, “and although the cane fields are multiplying, and some crops have had to move to other areas, it doesn't mean that deforestation is going to increase.”

The expansion of sugarcane production, the raw material for fuel alcohol (ethanol), is occurring in three states outside the Amazon: in Goias in central Brazil, Mato Grosso do Sul in the southwest, and São Paulo in the southeast, where cane fields are taking over pastureland.

“In some regions of Brazil, there is one cow per space the size of Maracaná Stadium (in Rio de Janeiro). We could put four more cows in that same space,” Boddey said.

“That way, we could have four Maracanás more for the cane fields. Imagine if we were to do that with 1,000 cows,” he said. The Europeans “don't understand these proportions.”

The proof is that the pace of Amazon deforestation has been slowing in Brazil since 2005, he said. Cid Caldas, the general coordinator for sugar and alcohol at Brazil's Ministry of Agriculture, told Tierramérica that sugarcane plantations are permitted only on eight percent of Brazilian territory.

The rest of the territory, which includes “active vegetation” ecosystems like the Amazon, in the north, and the Pantanal wetlands, in the west, is protected, he said.

In the view of environmentalist Marcel Gomes, it is reasonable to criticize the different consequences that biofuels have for small and large farmers alike.

“When sugarcane is extended to an auspicious region, those who once produced various types of crops are obligated to grow sugarcane or soybeans, the raw materials for biofuels,” said Gomes, coordinator of Repórter Brasil, a social journalism organization that tracks issues related to slave labor and biofuels.

That change “does not affect the country's food security, but it does affect the small farmer who made a living from those fruits and their sales.” Rogério Rocco, a legislative candidate from the Green Party in October's elections and former superintendent of the governmental Brazilian Institute of Environment and Renewable Resources, believes the country should remember its past negative experiences with monoculture.

“The crop monoculture of coffee and sugarcane devastated the Atlantic Forest (along the Brazilian coast). Today only eight percent of that original vegetation remains,” Rocco told Tierramérica.

With the aim of limiting those risks, the government is carrying out an incentive program worth 2 billion dollars to promote agricultural development that — among other objectives — will make use of some 15 million hectares of degraded pastureland over the next 10 years.

Another project for the same period seeks to expand the rotation system that alternates crops and cattle to four million hectares.

In addition, EMBRAPA developed a system for climate zoning in order to determine which areas are appropriate for which crops, providing information to the 26 Brazilian states on their different climates and seasonal changes, as well as the composition of their soils.

With that map, farmers can invest and cultivate what is best adapted to an area's characteristics.

Gomes recognizes that Brazil's biofuels cannot be blamed for the 2007-2008 global food shortage — just prior to the international economic crisis.

The tortilla — the thin disk of unleavened bread made from maize, a basic food in Mexico and Central America, and widely consumed in the United States — saw a price hike that resulted from a sharp increase in petroleum prices.

The high oil prices shifted the energy demand towards maize-based ethanol, heavily subsidized in the United States — in turn driving up maize prices.

“Automatically, the people who relied on maize for food suffered,” Gomes said.

The activist said the United States and EU hide their protectionism against Brazilian biofuels behind their “environmental barriers.”

“In 2008, the Irish farmers alleged that Brazilian beef did not go through sanitary controls before being exported,” in order to prevent entry of a product that had comparative advantages, he said.

Furthermore, he said, “there could be fear that the technology of Brazilian biofuels, of very high caliber, could be exported to Africa or Mexico, and threaten both European and U.S. farmers.”

Caldas pointed out that in 2008 Brazil was blamed for the rising international food prices as a result of its “expansion” of bio-ethanol.

The U.S. financial crisis erupted in October of that year, international oil prices fell, and the matter was forgotten.

By 2017, the Brazilian government wants to end the practice of burning off the sugarcane stubble in fields of more than 150 hectares, which pollutes the air and sickens workers during the harvest.

That move would reduce Brazil's carbon dioxide emissions by six million tons annually — equivalent to the greenhouse gases produced by 2.2 million vehicles.

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