Grain production for biofuels soars despite environmental risks

The cultivation of grains for biofuels, a market that has grown 800% in five years, is advancing in the Amazon and Cerrado and could threaten the food security of traditional populations.

When President Lula decided to return to taxing gasoline and ethanol in Brazil, last Monday (27), ending the exemptions resulting from a maneuver considered electoral by his predecessor, Jair Bolsonaro, the government announced that the rates would be different for each type of fuel. While the price of gasoline meant an increase, at the distributor, of R$ 0.34 a liter, ethanol, popularly called alcohol, rose only R$ 0.02. The decision was based on an ecological premise, since ethanol is a biofuel, a substance that brings environmental advantages by emitting less greenhouse gases compared to its fossil relative, in this case gasoline.

But the increased demand for green energy, combined with the legal suspension of sugarcane planting in the Amazon, has elevated corn to a prominent place among ethanol feedstocks. According to the National Confederation of Industry (CNI), corn ethanol production has soared by almost 800% in the last five years, going from 520 million liters in the 2017/18 harvest to 4.5 billion in the 2022 harvest. /2. 3. And the perspective is to reach 10 billion liters in 2030.

Corn entered because sugarcane is prohibited in the Amazon”, explains Lucas Ferrante, doctor in ecology from the National Institute for Research in the Amazon.

They warn about the socio-environmental impacts of grain production for biofuels

In this sense, scientists and civil society organizations warn of the socio-environmental impacts of grain production for biofuels in Brazil, where corn crops extend across areas of the Amazon and the Cerrado, which could be a vector of deforestation in these biomes. , albeit indirectly. And there is also the fear that the traditional communities that inhabit these regions will stop producing food to plant grains, targeting this emerging market.

Corn ethanol has proven to be a promising alternative to replace fossil fuels, but the impact of this type of production will depend on the conditions under which the grain is grown and processed.”, evaluates Carmem Araújo, director general in Brazil of the International Council about Clean Transport (ICCT, or International Council for Clean Transportation, in Portuguese translation), an organization that monitors global discussions on environmental laws.

The Ministry of the Environment (MMA) pondered that the production of ethanol from maize, as well as the diverse production of grains for biofuels, must comply with the environmental laws and the zoning established in which areas it is possible to carry out this type of economic activity. The ministry also indicated that the Federal Government will work on programs to mitigate and adapt to climate change, which includes the production of alternatives to fossil fuels. “Now, all ministries have the mission of incorporating actions aimed at combating climate change into their policies.”.

Greater demand for land to produce grains for biofuels

In 2021, according to IBGE data, 88.4 million tons of corn were produced, of which 62.8 million were crops planted after soy cultivation and harvesting, the so-called “off-season corn” any “second harvest”. The outlook is for a record harvest for 2023 and a 10.4% increase in the corn harvested area in 2022 compared to the previous year.

Most of the production (36%) is concentrated in Mato Grosso, a state divided between the Amazon and Cerrado biomes. The 18 corn ethanol production plants in the country are also all in the same region, which includes, in addition to Mato Grosso, Mato Grosso do Sul, Goiás and São Paulo.

As it is planted out of season with another crop, such as soy, corn is not directly responsible for changes in land use, but it can make it profitable and encourage the deforestation of new areas of native vegetation or even compete with production. of food. “Domestic corn production is well integrated into the global food and animal feed chain. Therefore, it is undeniable that allocating part of corn production to biofuels can increase the demand for land”, observes Araújo, director of the ICCT in Brazil.

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Pressure on agricultural frontiers

Therefore, the advance of this crop may have an effect similar to that of the expansion of soybeans in the Amazon: “Farmers sold their land for soy and migrated to areas of deforestation. The impacts of this corn boom could be land speculation, deforestation and land grabbing.”, explains Lucas Ferrante.

In fact, the planting of seasonal crops, such as soy and corn, has been putting pressure on the agricultural frontiers of the Midwest, especially in Mato Grosso and Mato Grosso do Sul, in addition to Matopiba – which covers the region between Maranhão, Tocantins, Piauí and Bahia. . Between 1985 and 2021, the production of Brazilian agricultural items tripled, according to a survey by the organization MapBiomas. From 2008 to 2019, soy production in the Cerrado increased by 80%; in Matopiba, it grew 125%, growth that is also reflected in the production of second-crop corn, as it is intercropped with this crop.

The National Union of Corn Ethanol (UNEM), an entity that represents the industries that produce biofuels, informed that the sector has a monitoring system for the production chain. “The corn used for ethanol production undergoes origin control and monitoring from its production on the farm, through the entire chain of custody until it reaches the industry.”, said the entity.

Hunger, pollution and pandemic

Researcher Ferrante also says that the production of biofuels can harm small farmers, indigenous people, artisanal fishermen, among other populations that live in areas of expansion of corn cultivation. “In Pará, for example, you have the case of communities that have joined the production of palm oil for biofuels. They gave up subsistence farming for this. The social and economic damage to the communities that adhered to this type of production was enormous.”.

UNEM denied that the sector’s growth could have an impact on food insecurity. “Only corn starch is used for ethanol production, while proteins, fats and fibers return to the market in the form of corn oil and protein feed (DDGS) for the production of poultry, pigs, cattle and fish.”, he concluded.

CNI, in turn, defends the production precisely because “it is made in almost all of Brazil” and “even through family farming, which allows for greater dynamism of regional development”. “In addition, corn is a more durable input, which can be stored all year round, which allows the plant to produce ethanol uninterruptedly, avoiding seasonality in the process.“, he adds.

The scientific community raises its questions

If such considerations were not enough, in the United States, the scientific community raised some questions in study published in the Journal of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS): Researchers say that corn-based ethanol has not achieved the expected reductions in greenhouse gases and that scientific evidence suggests that further technological advances and public policy are needed for corn-based ethanol to become a viable alternative to renewable sources. of non-renewable energy.

Around here, Ferrante was part of a group of academics that raised evidence on the relationship between the advancement of grain production for biofuels and the risk of the emergence of new pandemics. The investigators’ weights were published in Science magazine one of the most prestigious scientific publications in the world.

The chains associated with the production of biofuels may favor zoonotic leaps [cuando un agente infeccioso presente en la fauna o flora comienza a infectar y propagarse entre los seres humanos], which can generate new pandemics. It is a production cycle that is economically and environmentally unfeasible for Brazil and also from a public health point of view.”, concludes Ferrante.

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