Biofuels – Bad for Apes As Well?

By David Surace


Like others, primate scientist Jane Goodall sees problems with the biofuel rush.

This week at the Clinton Global Initiative, a philanthropic meeting set up by former President Bill Clinton, celebrated primatologist Jane Goodall made a small splash in recent headlines by suggesting that biofuels such as ethanol and biodiesel might not be the environmental saviors they’re made out to be. The problem: how and where their base products are grown.

In the same way that Mexico has seen much of its blue agave crop replaced by the more profitable, ethanol-bearing corn, producers in various rainforest countries (Brazil, Indonesia, Uganda) are starting to cut down rainforest in a renewed agricultural frenzy to grow domestic product like sugarcane and palm to meet demand for the coming biofuel rush. Unlike blue agave however, which is prized mostly for its value in tequila, the swaths of rainforest in question represent a delicate, complex and still somewhat unexplored ecosystem.

The United Nations officially recognizes biodiesel and plant-sourced ethanol as “low in carbon” because of their source-crops’ ability to process a certain “offset” of the greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide. But if croppers are burning down rainforest (an efficient and ravenous consumer of CO2) to make it happen, this “offset” has arguably been “offset”.

One could argue Dr. Goodall’s automotive credentials, but her point may stem from a “backyard” concern: In one of the many ripple effects from the rush to bio-fuels that will manifest themselves in the coming years, Ugandan prospectors are seeking to buy (and mow down) large parcels of rainforest to convert to biofuel-grade sugarcane fields, somewhat uncomfortably close to where her non-profit group works to conserve Great Apes.

The Goodall Foundation’s proposed solution involves working with a new federation of rainforested nations called the Forest Eight (F8 for short) to set up a system whereby wealthy countries would subsidize biofuel crops that aren’t planted in place of rainforest. Details about the plan should surface during climate talks this December in Bali, Indonesia.

Besides Ms. Goodall’s parochial concerns about the apes, there is a growing recongnition that the push for biofuels is going to have some very unwelcome consequences. The price of corn, soybeans, and other grains is already at record highs; one of the drivers for those record prices is the anticipated demand for biofuels produced from crops like corn and soybeans. Indeed, a recent report on the impact of biofuels by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) stated that biofuels may “offer a cure that is worse than the disease they seek to heal.”

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Author: Brendan Moore

Brendan Moore is a Principal Consultant with Cedar Point Consulting , a management consulting practice based in the Washington, DC area. He also manages Autosavant Consulting, a separate practice within Cedar Point Consulting. where he advises businesses connected to the auto industry. Cedar Point Consulting can be found at

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  1. Ethanol from corn is the latest in a string of bad choices made by the Bush administration. It’s a dumb idea and the projected benefits would only occur in the most optimistic of scenarios. Ethanol from sugar cane is a pretty good plan, but the Bush Administration just slapped huge tariffs on that product, so I guess we’re stuck with the dumb idea.

  2. I don’t know why, but the title of this post just cracks me up.

  3. Ethanol from corn is a stupendously bad idea, but it seems the U.S. is moving full-speed ahead with it anyway. Archer Daniels Midland has got to be happy, and there will be some more big contributions to the Republican Party in the future. It’s all about values, right?

  4. The apes and the humans deserve better than what we’ve done to the world. They’ll go first and we’ll follow. The end will be just like the beginning.

  5. man what a bunch of cassandras

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