A new investigation, “Burned: Deception, Deforestation, and America’s Biodiesel Policy” by the organizations Mighty Earth and ActionAid USA has found that biodiesel is not the environmentally friendly, “green” fuel claimed by industry producers. On-the-ground investigators from Ecostorm documented bulldozing, burning and the recent clearance of 30,000 acres of forest to plant new soy fields in northern Argentina, which supply some of the same companies producing soy biodiesel for export to the United States.
The U.S. Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) mandates increasing biofuel consumption through 2022, and has driven Argentina to increase soy-based biodiesel production for U.S. export. In 2016, Argentina provided over one-fifth of biodiesel consumed in the United States. The RFS is also contributing to the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico, the algal blooms in Lake Erie and other waterways and nitrate pollution across the Midwest, through increased crop production for biofuels in the United States.
“This isn’t the used cooking oil biodiesel powering Willie Nelson’s tour bus,” said Rose Garr, policy director at Mighty Earth. “The RFS was intended to clean up our transportation sector, but instead it’s subsidizing fuels that are even dirtier than oil.”
As the largest supplier of biodiesel imports, Argentina is currently a global hotspot of deforestation, caused primarily by soy production. The report also found significant quantities of biodiesel made from Indonesian palm oil being imported into the United States; palm oil has been Indonesia’s leading driver of deforestation, linked to habitat destruction of highly endangered species including orangutans and Sumatran elephants.
Mighty Earth and ActionAid USA sent a field team to Argentina’s Chaco forest to investigate the scope of this destruction. The team visited ten sites in the Chaco that are undergoing rapid deforestation for soy production, which it documented both on the ground and through aerial drones. They found new soybean fields carved into the middle of what were recently intact forests, and massive fires set to clear land for soy production. Although the Renewable Fuel Standard requires that biodiesel not be produced on recently cleared land, the report found evidence that major biodiesel producers like Cargill and Bunge were continuing to expand their overall soy operations into areas with significant deforestation.
“This appears to be a case where the left-hand claims to be clean while the right is in it up to its elbow,” said Garr.
In addition to the environmental impacts of this production, members of local communities are reporting serious health impacts connected to the expanded soy production incentivized by biofuels. Many families reported poisonings from the pesticides associated with this production, including glyphosate, which is sometimes sprayed aerially.
“The big agribusiness companies want you to believe they’re feeding the world. But they’re not. Kids are getting sick, local people are being forced off their land and animals are being killed, all to produce soybean oil that’s being shipped to the U.S. and burned as fuel for our cars and trucks,” said Kelly Stone, senior policy analyst at ActionAid USA. “Localizing food production and reforming our agriculture policies is an important part of tackling climate change. People’s rights to own and farm land and their right to a clean environment must not be sacrificed to feed the thirst of a broken Congressional policy.”
Mighty Earth and ActionAid USA’s report comes as the RFS is poised to be a key legislative fight in 2018. The organizations recommend that the United States ends or dramatically lowers mandates and subsidies for food-based biodiesel and other food-based biofuels. In addition, the agricultural traders and biodiesel producers who control the industry should adopt and fully enforce “No Deforestation, No Exploitation” commitments throughout their entire global supply chains in order to ensure that the soy and other commodities they sell is not produced through deforestation.
Although the recent decision by the Commerce Department to impose countervailing duties on Argentine and Indonesian biodiesel will likely curtail near-term imports, the massive environmental destruction in Argentina should serve as a cautionary tale. Because the RFS mandates remain in place, new biodiesel production will have to come on-line elsewhere, which poses risk to wildlife, people, and the climate.
“This problem won’t be solved by countervailing duties alone. If Congress does not end mandates for food-based biodiesel and other biofuels, this same destructive cycle could be replicated both at home and in other areas of the world,” said Garr.
Read the report here.
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