Biofuels production affects people in many different ways, from its social and economic effects to its environmental and health effects. Thus, the development of any policy on biofuels should take into account the various ethical and social issues that arise when individuals and communities feel the effects of that policy. This session was devoted to a discussion of such issues.
The session’s first speaker was Alena Buyx, a senior research associate at the School of Public Policy at University College London and head of the Emmy Noether Group in Bioethics at the University of Muenster. Buyx, who presented via video from Germany, spoke on ethical issues relating to biofuels.
Buyx, who is the former assistant director of the Nuffield Council on Bioethics, began with a brief description of that body. Established in 1991 and jointly funded by the Medical Research Council, the Nuffield Foundation, and the Wellcome Trust, it “looks at ethical questions that are raised by advances in the biomedical sciences.” The council strives to stimulate debate, she said, but is has also been reasonably successful in contributing to policy making in the past few years.
In 2011 the council published a report on the ethical issues related to biofuels production, Biofuels: Ethical Issues (Nuffield Council on Bioethics, 2011). Much of Buyx’s presentation, she said, was based on issues and policy recommendations from that report. “What I hope to bring to the table today is a very comprehensive way to bind many things together and to have a look at some of the pressing ethical issues that we encounter in this field, which is very complex and, by its very nature, very interdisciplinary.”
The Current Situation
To set the stage, Buyx offered a brief description of the current situation surrounding biofuels. There is very little debate, she said, on the climate-related problems caused by fossil fuels or on the need to reduce fossil fuel consumption. “But there will be a short- and mid-term need for liquid transport fuels,” she added. “Anybody who says any different is a dreamer, at this stage.”
Although there are various alternatives for transport fuel on the horizon, such as hydrogen, none is yet mature enough to be put into production now. “Biofuels are one of the few alternatives we actually have now for energy for transport,” Buyx said, “so that is our background. We are talking about a real existing technology, as opposed to many others that are quite far away.”
Transport accounts for about 30 percent of the world’s energy use, and biofuels are currently a small proportion of that. Some studies predict that biofuels could make up around 9 to 10 percent of world transport use by 2020.
Biofuels are attractive for a number of reasons, she said. Many countries are interested in them because they could provide a path to energy security and energy independence from the countries that today produce much of the world’s energy. Biofuels also have the potential to promote further economic development, both in developed countries and in the developing world. In Europe, the main reason for turning to biofuels, she said, is their potential to help in the mitigation of climate change by reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
A number of policies and targets have been implemented over the past decade to encourage the use of biofuels, such as the Renewable Fuel Standard in the United States and, in Europe, the European Renewable Energy Directive and the Fuel Quality Directive, which mandate that by 2020, 10 percent of all transport energy needs to be from renewable sources and all transport emissions need to be reduced by 6 percent. It is fair to say that in the early 2000s, biofuels were seen as something of a silver bullet for energy problems, Buyx said.
The two main types of biofuels currently in production, as noted earlier in the workshop, are bioethanol and biodiesel. There are a number of new approaches that may provide large amounts of bioenergy in the future but that are still being developed. These include the use of waste products as fuel, including straw, cooking oil, and municipal wastes; lignocellulosic biofuels derived from such things as willow trees,
miscanthus, and switchgrass; and algal biofuels, which are still mostly at the experimental stage.
The report by the Nuffield Council on Bioethics “found a number of quite serious ethical concerns, mainly focusing on deforestation and biodiversity loss, risks to food security, some human rights breaches, and concerns of inequity,” Buyx said. Although it was not the council’s intent to focus on ethical concerns related mainly to bioethanol and biodiesel, this is what they ended up focusing on because these two fuels are so dominant today and so much further along in development relative to the other types of biofuels.
Buyx described three cases studies from the ethics council’s report. All three were concerned with issues with current biofuels production, not potential future problems. “Let me say that biofuels production is very heterogeneous from an ethics point of view, not just from a technical one,” she said. “One of the take-home messages is that we need to look at it on a case-by-case basis.” In particular, the U.S. case study—which is the first case study she described—is not one homogenous case study; it has many parts.
One of the ethical issues stemming from corn ethanol production in the United States is the effect that such production has on food prices and food security. Certainly food prices went up significantly during the past decade as a significant portion of the U.S. corn crop was diverted into biofuels, which in turn led to some highly publicized riots in Mexico, among other places, that were in response to sharp rises in the price of staples. Although it has been shown that biofuels were by no means the only culprit, they did contribute to the increase in food prices, and the effect may increase as biofuels production goes up. This tension between biofuels production in the United States and affordable food worldwide raises a number of ethical issues.
A second set of issues concerns the question of indirect land-use change and its effect on greenhouse gas emissions. As discussed earlier in the workshop, life-cycle assessments call into question the claim that the use of biofuels can reduce greenhouse gas emissions because when the effects of land-use change are taken into account, the greenhouse gas benefits may disappear. Indeed, Buyx noted, some calculations show that biofuels production actually makes the greenhouse gas problem worse than simply using gasoline.
A second case study looked at Brazil. That country has a well-developed industry for producing ethanol from sugarcane. “The main issues that came up there,” she said, “were centered on the environmental sustainability of this production.” Deforestation is a major concern, as some rainforests have been cleared for sugarcane production.
A second great concern in Brazil centers on workers’ rights. There have been reports of conditions on the sugarcane mills that amount to slave labor as well as reports of very unhealthy working conditions and of informal child labor in the mills.
Buyx noted that while she was focusing on particular countries because these were the places where the problems were most apparent or, at least, where they received the most attention, similar problems appear in many places around the world. “Actually, to some degree, these are globalized problems.”
Malaysia provided the third case study, which focuses mainly on palm oil diesel production. “Again, environmental sustainability was a great issue there,” Buyx said. “Deforestation occurred with forest land being cleared for palm oil plantations, which led to significant biodiversity losses.” There were also a number of land grabs, both by governmental organizations and by entities in the private sector, and these land grabs led to the disruption of subsistence economies in the areas in which they occurred. There are also food security concerns caused by rising prices for palm oil and for foods that use palm oil.
Moving Toward More Ethical Production of Biofuels
In short, Buyx said, the case studies indicate that much of the current production of biofuels is “quite unsustainable.” Thus, one of the main messages in the report is that, from an ethical point of view, there is a need to improve current production methods. “We need to continue to develop alternatives for the future, alternatives that are better at doing what biofuels set out to do.” The report offers an ethical framework for policy makers intended to help them move toward more ethical production of biofuels.
According to that framework, policy decisions concerning biofuels should take into account certain moral values. These include human rights and global justice, solidarity and the common good, stewardship, sustainability, and intergenerational equity. “These are the big philosophical concepts that are touched upon when we discuss production of biofuels.”
These philosophical concepts are quite theoretical, Buyx noted, so in order to help policy makers reflect these values in practical policy making, the report reframed them into a set of more practical principles. These five ethical principles and one ethical duty formed the core of the report’s ethical framework, she said. They are
• Biofuels development should not be at the expense of people’s essential human rights, including food, health, and water.
• Biofuels should be environmentally sustainable.
• Biofuels should contribute to a net reduction of total greenhouse gas emissions.
• Biofuels should adhere to fair trade principles.
• The costs and benefits of biofuels should be distributed in an equitable way. It should not happen, for example, that the benefits occur in the developed world and the costs occur disproportionately in poor countries.
• If these five principles are respected, depending on certain key considerations, such as absolute cost or whether there are even better alternatives, there is a duty to develop such biofuels.
Although this list may sound very demanding, Buyx said, there are many examples of biofuels development where these principles are respected. In such cases, there is a duty to go ahead with this kind of production and support it as well as possible.
The report recommended that these principles be applied not just to biofuels, but to comparable technologies and products as well, in order not to unduly penalize biofuels. An industry that adheres to ethical practices should not have to compete with other areas of technology in which unethical practices are common. “We believe this should be a benchmark for the whole energy sector,” Buyx said.
The recommendations offered in the report were targeted at UK and European institutions, Buyx said, but they apply equally well to other countries around the world.
In the area of human rights, one concern is that the rapid increase in production of biofuels may lead to some human rights abuses. Thus, it will be important to have effective monitoring systems in place, which do not currently exist. There are currently some excellent voluntary standards in place such as the Roundtable on Sustainable Biofuels, Buyx said. “We believe that such very good standards, which have been broken down into a lot of applicable codes and tools already, should be made compulsory through certification.”
In the area of environmental sustainability, she said, it will be important to develop an international environmental sustainability standard for biofuels production, which will make it possible to determine when a violation of environmental sustainability occurs. The United Nations Environment Programme has been working on such a standard in the past; hopefully, she said, this project would be completed soon.
A related issue is the contribution of biofuels production to global warming. It will be important to develop an international regulatory standard for assessing life-cycle greenhouse gas emissions from biofuels, she said. “The Global Partnership for Bioenergy has been working on this for quite a while, and we applaud those efforts and believe that is a very important tool that we will hopefully gain.” With regard to indirect land-use change, the best option will be to address land-use change directly with a global coordinated response. “Land-use change should be monitored directly at the source,” Buyx said, “and we should protect our land by a good, global, and, coordinated land-use policy. We are fully aware of the high demand and complexity this places upon international policy making. Currently, most countries do not even have a national land-use policy.”
Under the heading of “just reward,” Buyx said that biofuels production targets should promote fair pay and fair trade principles, so as not to encourage low wages and unhealthy working conditions, and that licensing schemes should address all intellectual property issues transparently, with a way to sanction violations.
On the topic of equitable distribution, she said that policies should ensure that benefits are shared equitably—for example, through public-private partnerships—and that the costs should be shared equitably as well. “We have seen that this can work through public-private partnerships, for example, in drug development in the developing world,” Buyx said. “We see some early encouraging efforts in the energy sector as well.”
At the same time, however, biofuels policies should not discourage local, small-scale biofuels production. “There needs to be a certain degree of flexibility, because some areas are very fuel-poor and might depend on this kind of energy. It is very important to look on a case-by-case basis and to have a certain sophistication in how these certification standards can allow for exceptions,” Buyx said.
To apply these ethical principles, policy makers will need to look at broad energy portfolios, rather than individual technology options, because they will inevitably have to make comparisons between different
technologies. The ethical principles should be used as an “ethical checklist” in evaluating different energy options and policies. In particular, policy makers should incentivize research and development of new biofuels and technologies that need less land and other resources, avoid social and environmental harms, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
In sum, Buyx said, a more sophisticated target-based strategy is needed. “We don’t say to abandon all targets because there needs to be some continuity for the public and the private sector to be able to invest in this area. It just needs to be more sophisticated and more reflective of issues and problems that might come up.” That strategy should be based on a comprehensive ethical standard, which is properly enforced through a certification scheme. The standard should include all of the principles described above. In addition, there should be a strong focus on investment in the new biofuels technologies to help make sure that the targets can be met.
Currently, Buyx said, there is an imbalance between existing biofuels and new, unproven ones. There are strong financial and regulatory incentives to stay with the established biofuels. “We need to rebalance this by focusing far more on the new biofuels and by bringing in a lot of incentives,” she said, and added that she and her colleagues have lobbied the UK government to take this into account when adopting the European targets for UK policy.
Buyx closed with what she described as “one quite encouraging policy development that we have seen since we have published this report.” In October 2012 proposals for revised targets for the European Commission’s Renewable Energy Directive were announced. It now seems likely that the overall target will stay the same—10 percent of transportation fuels to come from renewable sources by 2020—but that there will be a limit on how much of that can come from cereal and other food crops. That will provide an incentive to increase the development of biofuels that do not compete with food—and which, therefore, avoid violating the first principle from the council’s report.
The session’s second speaker was Theresa Selfa, an associate professor in the department of environmental studies at the State University of New York’s College of Environmental Science and Forestry. She spoke on the socioeconomic impacts of biofuels in rural
communities, with a primary focus on Iowa and Kansas, as well as about a pilot study in Colombia that is looking at sugarcane ethanol production with particular attention paid to the issues of land and water grabs.
Selfa began by noting that in addition to energy independence and climate benefits, biofuels were promoted in many countries as an opportunity for rural economic development. Many rural municipal governments, particularly in the Midwest, gave tax breaks, created tax increment financing districts, and upgraded roads, water and sewer plants, and other infrastructure to attract ethanol plants.
A Study on Biofuels Impacts on Rural Communities in the U.S. Midwest
Noting the efforts to attract ethanol production, Selfa began a project to examine the socioeconomic impacts of ethanol production in six rural communities in Iowa and Kansas. It was focused particularly on community perceptions of the economic and environmental costs and benefits of ethanol production.
The study involved six case studies chosen according to a variety of criteria, she said. She and her colleagues were looking for variation in the dates that the ethanol plants were established, in their size (some small and some large), in their ownership structure (some locally owned and some not), the presence of community opposition or support, and the availability or scarcity of water. “Iowa is actually a pretty water-rich state,” Selfa noted. “Kansas, especially as you move farther west, is quite arid. So there was a gradient of water availability.”
The case studies used several different methods. For example, the researchers analyzed contacts at newspapers to see how people in the six communities had talked about the plants, both before and after their establishment. “Was the community in support of it? Was there much discussion?” The researchers also developed profiles of the demographic changes that had taken place in the different communities from 1980 to 2007. “A lot of communities had lost population,” Selfa explained. “It was thought that these plants were going to help revitalize and maintain populations.”
The group carried out community surveys concerning the perceived benefits and costs of ethanol as well as the residents’ environmental attitudes and behaviors. More than 1,000 people in the 6 communities filled out the survey, Selfa said. “Finally, we did focus groups and in-depth interviews with a variety of stakeholders in all of the communities,
including farmers, plant workers, plant owners, local government officials, environmental organizations, school administrators, community members, and business owners.”
As a side note, Selfa said that of the six plants featured in the case studies, one was idled at the time of the workshop because the price of corn had gotten so high the previous year that it was not feasible for it to run, and one had already gone bankrupt and restructured. “One of our conclusions is that it is not an obvious win-win for rural communities.”
The communities in the study were all small communities—the largest had just more than 20,000 people, and the smallest had fewer than 2,600—and most had lost population. Three of them had lost 10 percent of more of their population between 2000 and 2010, while only two had grown during that time, and both had seen population increases of less than 2 percent. As measured by the percent of the population below the poverty line, four of them had significant poverty. The demographics of the community as well as some information about the plants are shown in Table 7-1.
The community survey’s findings offer an insight into how the communities felt in general about the ethanol plants. For example, one question asked respondents to rate the overall impact of the plant on the local quality of life. The responses were relatively balanced between seeing the plant as an overall positive versus seeing it as an overall negative—40 percent said the benefits outweighed the costs, 36 percent said the benefits and costs were about equal, and 24 percent said the costs outweighed the benefits. “Nothing too striking here, in terms of the benefits as outstanding or the costs as onerous,” Selfa said.
In addition to having community members fill out the questionnaire, the researchers also did a number of interviews in an attempt to get a better understanding of the plants’ economic benefits and the community members’ perceptions of those benefits. One finding that emerged from the interviews was that the perception that the ethanol plant provided economic benefits increased with residents’ income and education levels.
The researchers also discovered that there was “this sort of intangible community pride” concerning the presence of the ethanol plants, Selfa said, almost as if the plants were providing a “psychological boost.” People would also talk about how the plant was a good fit for the community because it was a farming town.
TABLE 7-1 Community Case Study Demographics
|Community||Population 2010||Percent Population Change 2000–2010||Median Household Income 2009||Percent Below Poverty Line 2009||Plant Start Date||Ownership||Plant Capacity||Feedstock||No. Employees|
|Greene County, IA||10,366||–9.9||$41,244||11.3||2009||Absentee||100 mgy||Corn||60|
|Russell, KS||4,506||–10.9||$31,425||19.4||2001||Absentee||48 mgy||Milo/wheat starch||35|
|Garnett, KS||3,415||–6.1||$36,847||9.2||2005||Local||35 mgy||Corn||30|
|Liberal/ Hayne, KS||20,525||+1.9||$39,392 (Liberal)||23.9||2007||Local||110 mgy||Milo/corn||50|
|Nevada, IA||6,658||+0.7||$50,621||3.9||2006||Local||55 mgy||Corn||35|
|Phillipsburg, KS||2,581||–12.0||$44,070||6.2||2006||Local||40 mgy||Milo/corn||31|
NOTE: mgy = millions of gallons per year.
SOURCE: Selfa, 2013.
A school superintendent from one of the Kansas communities put it this way:
“I think most people are … proud that [we have] an ethanol plant, I think, again, that that it’s a sign of being a community that’s a little bit more progressive than the community next door that we may be rivals [with]… . I think the ethanol plant is looked at as a feather in our cap.”
Even if people did not personally benefit from the ethanol plant, Selfa said, they were often glad it was there. “I think a lot of these communities initially felt that it gave them sort of a boost because they had had decades of out-migration and not a lot of economic growth. They felt like, ‘We are on the right track, we are starting to grow again.’”
The survey also had open-ended questions such as “What are your impressions of the plant?,” and the answers to these offer a different sort of insight. Some of the positive comments were
“It smells and smokes, but any job in this town is better than none at all,” “Glad to have it, especially with several communities losing jobs in western Kansas,” “We support it, we love it, we want it to stay here,” and “I think most people like having it here. It brings more awareness of the availability of E85 as an alternative to gasoline.”
There were fewer negative comments than positive comments. The negative comments included
“It may soon close, and we will be burdened with a tax load, as we already are, and we had no say about it; no election! We done this, now you taxpayers eat it.”
“Very frustrated with increase in traffic to and from the plant, and a disappointment in the addition of jobs that are not available to local residents.”
“Most people don’t have any idea about who runs the plant and who benefits from it locally.”
“The only problem I have with the ethanol plant is why should our county go into debt to build a paved road to the plant to make the investors money?”
“The downside that scares me to death is, we have built a lot of things around this plant and other towns have built around plants like it, and the stroke of the market could shut them all down. The upheaval caused would be tremendous. A lot of money being lost in investment.”
Concerns similar to the final one were expressed by people in several communities, Selfa said. “There was definitely a lot of concern around what is the future, is this really sustainable, is it economically feasible.”
The survey also focused on the specific impacts that community members observed that they attributed to the plants. The impact noted by the greatest number of people—42.1 percent of respondents—was a change in the crops planted by farmers. Beyond that, the surveys reported increased traffic congestion (34.5 percent of respondents), local roads showing heavy wear (31.2 percent), and increased local food prices (17.6 percent). The survey was carried out between 2008 and 2009, Selfa noted, which was a time when there was a great deal of concern in general about ethanol production driving up food prices, but this concern does not seem to have trickled down to the local communities, at least not to the degree that a large percentage of people in the communities noted food price increases.
Other impacts noted by the surveys were that the plants had generated noticeable odors (40.6 percent), that water resources had been diverted from other important needs of the community (25.2 percent), and air pollution had increased (23.2 percent). Only 9 percent of respondents claimed to have noticed a decrease in the overall quality of the environment, and only 4.9 percent reported increased water pollution.
“What intrigued us,” Selfa said, “was why residents would identify particular problems, such as water resources having been diverted or odors, but then they didn’t translate that into an overall decrease in the quality of the environment.” The comment from a city official in Kansas was representative of the local focus:
“I would say water… . There is always a concern, especially in western Kansas where we have a lot of drought, that we are using a resource that might not
come back to us without rain. I would say that water usage and consumption is always a big concern.”
Selfa commented, “It was somewhat paradoxical, we thought, that although the residents mentioned specific environmental concerns—the odors, water scarcity, air pollution—they did not seem to be overly concerned about a decline in their local environmental quality.” When she and her colleagues followed up on the issue in their interviews, what they found was that relative to the other industries in these communities? which in Iowa and Kansas are generally such things as feedlots, oil refineries, and meatpacking plants—the ethanol industry seemed pretty benign to these residents. Furthermore, she added, many rural communities are desperate for any kind of economic growth. “That plays into them competing against each other to draw plants to their towns, despite relatively few direct jobs and what later became a lot of instability in the industry, due to farm prices.”
Selfa offered several conclusions that were drawn from the project: State and local governments have incentivized ethanol production in rural communities. The new market for corn has benefitted some farmers, but it has also led to an intensification of production, with some negative environmental impacts. The plants provide relatively few jobs directly, and recently some of the ethanol plants have closed or idled, due to market instabilities. Investors and local governments are being left with the debt.
Sugarcane Ethanol Production in Colombia
Selfa next described a research project just getting started in Colombia for which a pilot project was performed in the summer of 2012. The subject is sugarcane ethanol production in Colombia and the potential for Bonsucro certification—a certification for sugarcane—to address water and land grabs. Land grabs in particular have been a major concern in Colombia.
As in the United States, there has been dramatic growth in biofuels production in Latin America during the past 5 to 10 years, she said. The governments there have played a major role in this growth by setting production mandates. Furthermore, because the European Union 2009 Renewable Energy Directive targets sugarcane as an advanced biofuel, there has been increased interest in Latin American countries in producing sugarcane for ethanol production. That certainly triggered
further interest in production for export. The growth in biofuels production has also driven the development of various standards and certification systems, including the Bonsucro certification.
In Latin America, the national state has generally played a central role in promoting biofuels, Selfa said. The domestic elites have also played a critical role, while foreign investors have been a less important part of the developments.
There has been growing awareness of how the interest in biofuels has been driving land grabs, not just in Latin America but also around the world, Selfa said. “When we talk about land grabs, the traditional meaning of it is that it is a foreign investor coming in and buying up large tracts of land,” she noted. However, in Latin America the land grabs do not always result in the expulsion of people, as is the case in many of the high-profile land grabs that get attention.
Colombia is one of the larger producers of sugarcane ethanol in Latin America, after Brazil. The country is just starting to move into palm oil production. The biofuels mandates are seen as a major strategy for rural development in Colombia, which has a great deal of armed conflict in rural areas. The idea is to create a new activity in these rural areas to bring jobs and economic development. Also, Colombia has the goal of becoming a major exporter of biofuels. However, Selfa noted, the country has not yet met its domestic use mandates.
Selfa’s pilot study was carried out in the Valle del Cauca in southwest Colombia. “My graduate student did exploratory interviews with stakeholders in the sugarcane and ethanol industries, farmers, activists, government officials, industry associations, refineries, and agronomists,” she said.
The Valle del Cauca has been a sugarcane production region for 140 years, and historically it has had highly unequal land distribution, with 5 percent of the population owning 61 percent of the land. The area requires irrigation, unlike Brazil, which does not, so it relies on cheap irrigation provided by the government. There has been a dramatic growth in sugarcane production there—a 20 percent increase from 2001 to 2011—and the sugarcane has pushed out most of the remaining food and other cash crops.
A major question Selfa has examined is who is benefiting from Colombia’s biofuels policies. “Certainly the rhetoric has been that it is a rural development strategy,” she said. However, her research has indicated that it is mainly benefiting the large producers and that it is reinforcing land inequities through the use of tax exemptions; access to
land, loans, and exports; and access to cheap and plentiful irrigation water. That access to irrigation water provided to the large producers has been to the detriment of community users, she said, and it has also been increasing water pollution because of the intensified sugarcane production. And the policies have been deepening the existing pattern of land ownership and concentration.
What role is the Bonsucro certification playing? “As we heard yesterday,” Selfa said, “there are different certification initiatives that are merging to certify for sustainable biofuels. Colombia has become interested in joining Bonsucro in particular so that it can access the European Union markets.” Another reason for seeking Bonsucro certification, she said, is to demonstrate social responsibility at the national level, with the goal of avoiding more conflict with local communities, especially around water issues and health issues related to sugarcane burning. Colombia’s goal is to have 40 percent of its sugarcane Bonsucro certified by 2013.
In the area of land grabs, Bonsucro has several principles designed to discourage outside investors from taking land from local owners. However, Selfa said, Bonsucro is designed to address the “classical” land grab scenario, which is not what is going on in Latin America. For example, one Bonsucro principle is that the local land-use laws must be obeyed. But that is of little use in preventing what is happening in Colombia because most land transactions are occurring legally. The Bonsucro principles do not address the central role that the government has played in perpetuating the inequitable land distribution, she said, nor do they address land reform or land restitution issues or the issue of violence, all of which play prominent roles in what is happening in Colombia.
Water grabs are another concern in the Colombian sugarcane ethanol-producing regions. In the Valle del Cacua, 64 percent of the surface water and 88 percent of the aquifer’s water is going toward sugarcane. Household users account for 26 percent of the surface water usage, and there is very little water left for other agriculture, industry, and other users. An agricultural researcher summed up the situation this way:
“The municipalities which depend on underground water suffer in the dry seasons of shortages in the water supply because the water is being robbed by the sugar industry, and with license of CVC [the Cauca Valley Corporation, an agency similar to the Tennessee Valley Authority,
which is responsible for development of the region’s water]. Candelaria, Pradera, many towns are affected by the lack of water during El Niño… . There are [restrictions on water use] but … all the water management in Valle del Cauca is corrupt, CVC is co-opted by the sugar mills, nobody knows what is happening… . I have the impression that ethanol was necessary to justify the pumping because it is very expensive.”
In essence, Selfa said, the researcher was suggesting that now that the sugar is going toward the ethanol market, this provides even greater justification for why the sugar industry should be using all of that water.
In summary, Selfa said that biofuels are not an overwhelming win-win for rural communities, although they may represent a win for some, especially large, producers. National, state, and local governments have promoted the expansion of biofuels industries, but there has been less attention to the social, environmental, and economic costs to communities. Governments have exercised limited oversight in terms of environmental and socioeconomic externalities.
Finally, she said, corn and sugarcane ethanol production is reinforcing and extending land-use patterns and agricultural practices, which results in negative environmental impacts and social inequalities.
In the ensuing discussion, Jamal Hisham Hashim, National University of Malaysia, noted that in Malaysia the government has the legal right to acquire land in situations that involve the national interest, as for building a dam or a large petrochemical complex, and he asked Buyx if there are any ethical guidelines on the best way to undertake this sort of relocation, not only for palm oil plantations but for other projects, such as dam construction.
Buyx answered that there have been some early efforts at establishing national land-use policies which include codes of conduct for such things as how to deal with the customary rights of indigenous people who live in particular areas and make use of the land for food, shelter, medicine, and other reasons. However, she said, she could not point to any such efforts that she would single out as being sufficient. “What we have suggested,” she said, “is to mainly focus on avoiding the
most egregious breaches, because some of these land grabs are clearly highly problematic. We focus on tightening existing policy or enforcing existing policy that tries to protect indigent population from being displaced.” She also suggested that developed countries should support developing countries “in enforcing this kind of policy, both financially and in terms of actual help on the ground.” This should help make it more likely that the policies already in place are actually enforced.
Next, Bernard Goldstein of the University of Pittsburgh asked Buyx how one goes about defining solidarity and the common good. In many societies, he said, the terms seemed to be defined by advertising managers and politicians rather than by some general consensus. “How do you make sure that what you are looking at is something that has been agreed to as a common good … rather than just simply something that has been manipulated?”
Buyx said that she has no definition of the common good, but that the Nuffield Council on Bioethics did “propose a definition of what we understand solidarity in this context to be.” She began by noting that “solidarity” has been used in many areas and to mean many different things. One way that it often appears in the United Kingdom, she said, is when cuts in government funding are proposed. Then people speak of solidarity in the sense of “We owe each other assistance and we all have to tighten our belts. We are in this together.”
And, indeed, the notion of being in it together, of sharing a common fate, is one of the elements of how the council defined solidarity behavior between states. “It is very rare to define solidarity between states, and not very many have attempted it,” she said. In the council’s efforts, the definition was very much oriented toward practice. For example, in the case of climate change, many countries will be affected and are already being affected. “This notion of sharing one problem is part of the definition,” she said. “The other part of the definition is that, because we share this problem, there is an obligation to help each other dealing with it.”
One implication of this is that there needs to be special focus on protecting the most vulnerable members of the world society from this common problem. This understanding of solidarity, she noted, includes an appeal to the common good, but the council did not define that term “because that was just too big for us.” Instead, the council made the specific practical recommendation that the first focus of any action should be to protect the weakest members. That implies, for example, that efforts should be made to protect the weakest populations in
developing countries from such things as fluctuations in food prices or land grabs.
Next, Luz Claudio, Mount Sinai School of Medicine, asked Selfa whether comments from the community were solicited at some point during the siting processes for the six plants that she studied or if public meetings to discuss the plants were held.
“There were six communities, so they were all a little bit different,” she said. “Sometimes, the people who organized them said, yes, we had them [community meetings], but no one came.” Generally speaking, the members of the communities did not seem to feel very well informed about the plants, she said, and she provided some evidence that this was indeed the case. She carried out a study of plants in both Iowa and Kansas—not just the six in her major study, but many more—to see how many times they had received citations for environmental violations. About half the plants in both states had received citations for water and air pollution violations. But the community perception was that the plants were very clean plants—that there were no environmental externalities and no environmental impacts. “It made me wonder,” she said. “I guess it just doesn’t get into the public discourse or the media that a plant was cited for improper permitting or excess affluence.”
In one Kansas community in particular, a long drought combined with the water use by the plant led to water restrictions for households on outside watering. At that point, Selfa said, some of the community members were saying, “If we had any idea that the plant was going to use this much water, of course we would have not wanted it in our community.”
In response to a comment about whether empowerment should be an ethical consideration is developing biofuels, Buyx responded that “an ethical appraisal of biofuels would indeed be incomplete without taking that onboard.” She explained that the council’s report goes into some detail on how to work with local communities in a way that includes them as part of the whole process and that there are some good examples of applying that principle in the report. In addition to this being the ethical approach, it is also often the practical approach, she said. “There are a thousand different types and kinds of biofuels production. They are not the same. They have to be looked at case by case.” In many cases, she said, well-thought-out policies already exist for dealing with the particular problems that arise. The difficulties actually lie with implementtation, and that is where the local population can help. “It works best if all partners, including industry on the one side and also the local
populations, are a part of the process. There needs to be consultations, processes, and real participation.”
Nuffield Council on Bioethics. 2011. Biofuels: Ethical issues. London, UK: Nuffield Council on Bioethics.
Selfa, T. 2013. Socioeconomic impacts of biofuels in rural communities: Examples from the United States and Colombia. Presentation at the Institute of Medicine Workshop on the Nexus of Biofuels Energy, Climate Change, and Health, Washington, DC.