[permaculture] The Biofuel Illusion

Charles de Matas cdematas at hotmail.com
Sat Jul 8 18:20:42 EDT 2006

   Sugar cane is much better at converting sunlight into carbohydrates for 
ethanol production than corn or switchgrass.  Some businessmen in Trinidad 
are constucting a plant for dehydrating ethanol. They plan to import ethanol 
from Brazil, purify it here, and sell the pure ethanol to the US.  Some 
senators from corn growing states in the US have been trying to get import 
barriers in place to prevent this.  But I don't think that in a free market 
world they will succeed for long against a cheaper product.  Eventually the 
US will be importing ethanol from Brazil.  A lot of environmental damage has 
already been done in Brazil by ethanol production from sugar cane.  I think 
accelerated deforestation in the Amazon basin will occur when Brazil seeks 
land for more sugar cane production.
   Having said that, let me also say that biofuels offer a great opportunity 
for permaculturists.  Every permaculture project should consider 
incorporation plants for biofuel production, to make itself more 
self-sufficient in fuel, and as a cash crop. Permaculturists can produce 
biofuels in a sustainable way.  If only the biofuel is exported, all the 
organic matter can be recycled and a closed system reached which will keep 
producing without much external inputs. There are many possibilities:
- Use land that has been abandoned or degraded by agriculture, mining, etc. 
or cannot otherwise be used for food production.
- Use inputs like sewage sludge that are prohibited by organic farming 
certifiers for food production.
    Biodiesel production can be done on a small scale. In the tropics, oil 
palms produce more oil per hectare than most other oilseed plants.  I'm not 
sure about ethanol production, I don't think it is economical on a small 
scale.  Conventional sugar cane production is very destructive to the soil.  
I think there are ways to grow sugar cane organically, in rotation with 
legumes like pigeon peas, but I think such practices have disappeared almost 
completely from the tropics.
    While I agree that biofuels will not provide a complete replacement for 
fossil fuels, I think biofuel technology should be developed as much as 
possible and permaculturists should develop sustainable ways to grow crops 
for biofuel production.


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