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The Future of Brazilian Biofuel Production
Volume 15, Number 4: 25 January 2012

In a thought-provoking article recently published in the Annals of the Association of American Geographers, Robert Walker of Michigan State University's Department of Geography writes that "although biofuel represents a renewable and 'green' energy," it has what he rightly calls "a downside," the potential problem being, as he describes it, "the impact of growing international biofuel demand on Amazonia." Therefore, focusing on Brazil, and "given the explosive growth of Brazilian agriculture, and notable effects on forests within its national borders," he seeks to answer the question: "How will global demand for Brazil's land-based commodities, including biofuel, impact its tropical forest in the Amazon basin?"

In an attempt to answer this important question, Walker "describes recent agricultural expansion in Brazil and its emergent landscape of renewable energy." And using a form of rent theory, he goes on to frame "a concept of landscape cascade and shows how Brazil's expanding landscape of renewable energy is impacting forest areas at a great distance," after which he "considers recent projections of demand for Amazonian land out to 2020, given growth of Brazilian biofuel production and cattle herds."

The determined researcher, who describes himself as a quantitative economic geographer, says his projections indicate that "more Amazonian land will be demanded than has been made available by Brazilian environmental policy," and he goes on to discuss the likely "discursive dismemberment of Amazonia and how this articulates with efforts by Brazilian politicians to increase the region's land supply," pointing out that "agricultural intensification holds the key to meeting global demand without degrading the Amazonian forest, a landscape unique in the world for its ecological and cultural riches."

This conclusion is in some ways analogous to how we view the situation. For example, we too have noted the dynamic tension that exists between the need for land and freshwater resources to meet the food requirements of the expanding human population of the globe and the concomitant need to maintain sufficient land and water to sustain what yet remains of "wild nature." (See some of the items archived under the heading of Food in our subject Index). And the combined needs of humanity and the other species of life with which we share the planet are so great that the production of biofuels is considered by us to be hugely counterproductive, due to all the land and water that they require for their production. (See Biofuels in our Subject Index).

We thus agree with Walker that "agricultural intensification holds the key to meeting global demand without degrading the Amazonian forest." But we feel that something else is needed as well; for as has been suggested by Tilman et al. (2001), "even the best available technologies, fully deployed, cannot prevent many of the forecasted problems." This is also the conclusion of Idso and Idso (2000), who -- although acknowledging that "expected advances in agricultural technology and expertise will significantly increase the food production potential of many countries and regions" -- suggest that these advances "will not increase production fast enough to meet the demands of the even faster-growing human population of the planet." So what is to be done?

Based on the wealth of information we have acquired on the cycling of climate on a millennial time scale, going back from the Current Warm Period to the Little Ice Age to the Medieval Warm Period to the Dark Ages Cold Period to the Roman Warm Period and etc. (when there was consistently much less CO2 in the air than there is today), we conclude that our current level of warmth -- which is in no way unprecedented -- owes next to nothing to earth's currently higher atmospheric CO2 concentration. And also knowing of the tremendous growth-enhancing and water-conserving effects of atmospheric CO2 enrichment, which have been demonstrated to occur in literally thousands of laboratory and field experiments (see results archived in our Plant Growth Databases), we feel that we must allow anthropogenic CO2 emissions to continue to rise unimpeded, until they are naturally abated by the natural, unforced and non-subsidized development of economically viable non-fossil-fuel energy sources.

Sherwood, Keith and Craig Idso

Idso, C.D. and Idso, K.E. 2000. Forecasting world food supplies: The impact of the rising atmospheric CO2 concentration. Technology 7S: 33-55.

Tilman, D., Fargione, J., Wolff, B., D'Antonio, C., Dobson, A., Howarth, R., Schindler, D., Schlesinger, W.H., Simberloff, D. and Swackhamer, D. 2001. Forecasting agriculturally driven global environmental change. Science 292: 281-284.

Walker, R. 2011. The impact of Brazilian biofuel production on Amazonia. Annals of the Association of American Geographers 101 (4): 1-10.