Biofuels and the Globalization of Risk: The Biggest Change in North-South Relationships Since Colonialism?

Biofuels and the Globalization of Risk: The Biggest Change in North-South Relationships Since Colonialism?

by Professor James Smith


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Biofuels and the Globalization of Risk offers a fresh, compelling analysis of the politics and policies behind the biofuels story, with its technological optimism and often-idealized promises for the future. This essential new critique argues that investment in biofuels may reconfigure risk and responsibility, whereby the global South is encouraged to invest its future in growing biofuel crops, often at the expense of food, in order that the global North may continue its unsustainable energy consumption unabated and guilt-free. Thus, Smith argues, biofuels may constitute the biggest change in North-South relationships since colonialism.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781848135727
Publisher: Bloomsbury Academic
Publication date: 11/11/2010
Pages: 160
Product dimensions: 5.30(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

James Smith is co-director of and a senior lecturer in the Centre of African Studies at the University of Edinburgh. He is also a director at the ESRC Innogen Research Center at Edinburgh and a visiting fellow in development policy and practice at the Open University. He has worked with many international organizations and research centers including Oxfam, DFID, IDRC and the Consultative Group for International Agricultural Research.
James Smith is co-director of and a senior lecturer in the Centre of African Studies at the University of Edinburgh. He is also a director at the ESRC Innogen Research Center at Edinburgh and a visiting fellow in development policy and practice at the Open University. He has worked with many international organizations and research centers including Oxfam, DFID, IDRC and the Consultative Group for International Agricultural Research.

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Biofuels and the Globalization of Risk

The Biggest Change in North-South Relationships Since Colonialism?

By James Smith

Zed Books Ltd

Copyright © 2010 James Smith
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-84813-572-7


Introduction: perfect storms

In 2009, John Beddington, the UK Government Chief Scientific Adviser, adopted the term 'perfect storm' to describe a future global confluence of food, water and energy insecurity (2009). While Beddington captured something of the unprecedented nature and threat of the future, the choice of 'storm' as a sort of metaphorical de-anthropomorphism ran somewhat counter to the usual humanizing of extreme weather events; for we need to be absolutely clear that the processes and interactions that will lead to food, water and energy insecurity are primarily driven by us, our exigencies and the choices we make. A great many of these interactions hinge on our trajectories of development and wielding of new knowledge and new technologies.

It is becoming increasingly apparent, and increasingly globally apparent, that we must learn how to better harness science and technology to these ends, and accordingly we need to understand the complex, interrelated contexts and processes that lead to new technologies, new priorities and new directions that will serve our future and deal with, rather than exacerbate, present and future risks. Biofuels – liquid fuels that are directly derived from renewable biological resources and especially from purpose-grown crops – throw many of these issues into the sharpest relief. One of the most striking features of biofuels as a global solution is their huge potential to entirely reshape livelihoods, patterns of resource consumption, environments and agro-food production systems; there is a cost for every benefit, and that is often invisible under the veneer of technological promise.

Much as the technological optimism of biofuels shifts responsibility towards the immediate futures of others, biofuels risk exporting impact and risk elsewhere. The production of biofuels risks reprioritizing land use across the globe, and as yet we know relatively little about the implications of this. Biofuels are driving, and transforming, the increasingly entangled relationship between energy, food security and climate change, and consequently trying to understand the politics, narratives and discourses that drive policy and practice surrounding biofuels provides an opportunity to reflect on the thorny relationship between science, development and the environment (Molony and Smith 2010).

In some respects biofuels are simple technologies. We are simply deriving energy from plants, through seed oil or biomass, primarily to combust in car engines. Future, better technologies may unlock efficiencies or new ways of deriving energy from plants, but the basic principle remains. In other respects biofuels are extremely complex. They are being developed within complex systems and their production in itself creates new complex systems. They generate couplings between agricultural systems, international markets, petrochemical companies, consumers and producers. These couplings have implications of their own. Charles Perrow, in his book Normal Accidents (1999), analyses the implications of the unexpected consequences of technological interactions taking place within what he terms 'tightly coupled' systems. These systems are so interrelated and complex that there is no easy way to control or contain negative consequences once a technology has started to unravel. This unravelling may quickly become irretrievable, and indeed any attempts to intervene may exacerbate the problem if we simply do not sufficiently understand the mechanics or truly recognize the root of the problem. The lure of biofuels may blind us to the risks bound up in the intricacies of new technologies and the limits of our ability to deal with them. We may understand the chemistry of photosynthesis and the physics of combustion, but we may not understand the gamut of interactions and implications necessary to efficiently join them up.

Biofuels represent both a promise of a technologically driven future and the spectre of a Rumsfeldian web of known unknowns and unknown unknowns (and presumed knowns). They represent an increasingly globalized, interconnected world, and a world where production, risk and responsibility are inherently localized, constantly diverted and increasingly entangled. Biofuels represent at the same time an effort to acknowledge and deal with some of the most pressing global problems we face, and an excuse to not really deal directly with these problems, or even to really understand them, and in particular what drives them. Biofuels, their development, their deployment, the ideas they represent and the sorts of solutions they suggest, are rooted in the contradictory processes of global progress, consumption and development. They reflect how we imagine the world to be, and refract how we – or those who make decisions at least – imagine it ought to be, or can be. This book will focus on the recent development of biofuels as both a solution to, and a driver of, perfect storms.

Biofuelled futures

In the space of a few years biofuels have shifted from existing beneath the radar of development, to being seen as a possible multi-purpose solution to a range of problems – climate change, energy insecurity and rural underdevelopment – to representing a 'crime against humanity', according to the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, owing primarily to the perceived impact of investment in biofuel production on food stocks and subsequently on global food prices. These contested and shifting perceptions have done little to substantially decelerate biofuels as a policy idea or as an investment opportunity. Figures from the US Department of Agriculture for 2009 show that the grain grown to produce fuel was enough to feed 330 million people for one year at average consumption levels, according to the Earth Policy Institute. This figure represents a third of all those who constantly go without sufficient food. In 2007, twenty-seven out of fifty countries surveyed either had policy under consideration or had enacted mandatory requirements for biofuels to be blended with traditional transport fuels, and forty had legislation to promote biofuels (Rothkopf 2007). Between 2002 and 2006, the amount of land used to grow biofuel crops quadrupled and production tripled (Coyle 2007).

David MacKay, in his excellent book Sustainable Energy, assesses the potential of biofuel production as a substitute for petrol in the UK (MacKay 2009). This is enlightening, if not particularly empowering. The average harvestable power of sunlight is 100 W/m2 (watts per square metre). The most efficient plants in Europe are about 2 per cent efficient at turning solar energy into carbohydrates. This suggests that the most efficient plants might deliver 2 W/m , although in reality this translates into something nearer 0.5 W/m . MacKay assumes that if 75 per cent of the UK's land were devoted to bioenergy production, which would equate to 3,000m of land planted with biofuel crops for every person, the energy output (ignoring any additional costs of growing, harvesting, processing and transporting) would be 36 kW (kilowatts) per day per person. The reality, if one were to attempt to assess the cumulative effect of inefficiencies throughout any processing chain, might – optimistically – be that an additional 33 per cent might be subtracted from that figure. To put this into context, a typical car-user uses about 40 kWh (kilowatt hours) per day; and if we fuel our car we still have to eat (ibid.).

In a similar vein, 'boundary-setting' calculations are compelling – and critical. Calculations indicate that all the vegetation in the USA contains only one third of the energy consumed in one year in the USA. That is all the vegetation, for current energy consumption patterns – not future demands – and does not account for any energy expended in the production, processing or transportation of biofuels (Pimentel, cited in Moore 2008). These statistics perhaps point to the potential of biofuels as hubris, or hot air.

These simple analyses encapsulate three important questions. First, why, if the potential for energy production (in the UK or USA at least) is so minuscule, are biofuels perceived to be so important? This is a key refrain of this book. Second, perhaps the UK's dismal weather means that biofuels can be produced more efficiently elsewhere? This is indeed true, and the 'comparative advantage' in terms of biomass production that the world's tropical regions enjoy has become a mobilizing factor in biofuels as a developmental tool. Third, why, if the potential of bioenergy appears relatively limited, and risks tradeoffs with other key determinants of human well-being, access to food primarily, is so much investment prompting turning agriculture from production of food to production of fuel? Good question.

In May 2008, the US Secretary of Agriculture claimed that their analysis showed that biofuel production contributed only 2–3 per cent to increases in food prices. In July 2008, however, a World Bank document, dubbed the Mitchell Report, leaked to the Guardian newspaper, calculated that biofuel production was responsible for 75 per cent of the 140 per cent increase in staple food prices witnessed between 2002 and 2008 (Mitchell 2008). Increased biofuel production was said to have led to increased demand for so-called feedstock crops (from which fuel can be derived), which led to large-scale land-use changes at the expense of crops such as wheat for food consumption. The report concluded:

The most important factor [in food price increases] was the large increase in biofuels production in the US and the EU. Without these increases, global wheat and maize stocks would not have declined appreciably, oilseed prices would not have tripled, and price increases due to other factors, such as droughts, would have been moderate. Recent export bans and speculative activities would probably not have occurred because they were largely responses to rising prices. (Ibid.)

Other organizations, such as Oxfam and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), estimated the impact of biofuel production on food price rises to be somewhere in between the incidental 3 per cent of the USA and the catastrophic 75 per cent of the Mitchell Report (Oxfam 2008). The variability of analysis is almost as striking as the attribution of impact. Why, when it is clear we simply do not know enough about the interactions, impacts and implications of massive investment in the production of biofuels, are we moving ahead so rapidly?

There are many reasons. Oil, the lubricant of the global economy, is running out. The concept of 'Peak Oil' has entered the popular lexicon, and conflict and instability in the major oil-producing regions of the world (notably the Middle East, Russia and Venezuela) have pushed the notion of energy security into the collective consciousness of policy-makers. These concerns are allied to the rises in oil prices that we have witnessed over the past five or six years, which have only really been curbed by the global recession. We have more impetus than ever before to diversify our energy sources.

Additionally, and it has been a long time coming, an emergent global concern with the implications of climate change and a political consensus surrounding the role of humankind and particularly our dependence on fossil fuels have provided another powerful dimension for alternative energy sources.

A lack of access to energy is increasingly being framed as a fundamental impediment to development and consequently as a cornerstone of developing countries' poverty alleviation strategies: 'modern energy services are a powerful engine of economic and social development, no country has managed to develop much beyond a subsistence economy without ensuring at least minimum access to energy services for a broad section of its population' (FAO 2000: 1). Energy fuels development.

Alongside this, the production of biofuels and diversification into alternative energy sources more broadly are seen as strategic opportunities for rural areas to grow their economies, diversify their income sources and create jobs. This is a concern for both developed and developing countries. In OECD countries, the overproduction of agricultural commodities, low prices, under-utilized land, low farm incomes and powerful farm lobbies have created optimum conditions in which new agricultural commodity markets can be cultured. In the USA and the EU already heavy agricultural subsidies can be quite simply recalibrated towards the growing of crops for biofuel production. In developing countries, too, there are economic and developmental drivers of biofuel production, primarily reduced oil imports, rural development opportunities and subsequent opportunities for exports and income.

Biofuels fire the imagination of policy-makers, entrepreneurs, researchers and governments because of the possibility of being all things to all people. The corollary of this is, of course, that they risk becoming objects of contestation, or ideas around which ideologies and politics are fought, much as agricultural biotechnologies were before them. Arthur Mol (2007: 297) talks about the emergence of a global integrated biofuel network 'where environmental sustainabilities are more easily accommodated than vulnerabilities for marginal and peripheral groups and countries, irrespective of what policymakers and biofuels advocates tell us'. This global network – and its actors, aims, interests and ability to shape risk, impact and vulnerability in profound and complex new ways – lies at the heart of this book.

Globalizing technology and risk

A slew of recent research is grappling with how we can engender individual, institutional and international responsibility and action for climate change when we have collectively behaved so irresponsibly for so long (cf. Giddens 2009; Hulme 2009; Stern 2007). As recent history shows us, we have repeatedly and cumulatively struggled to come to terms with the implications of our economic and technological development, in terms of environmental impact, developmental outcome and social justice.

Truman's oft-cited, late-i940s presidential address emphasized the role of science and technology within development, and that relationship has been at the core of the global development project ever since: scientific advances would make available for all, for the first time, the tools necessary to relieve suffering and replace Hobbes with hope, and ignorance and tradition with knowledge and science. The 1950s and 1960s led to the Green Revolution and marked the interrelated globalization of development and an institutionalization of science and knowledge, which has profoundly shaped the relationship between science, technology and development up until the present day (Smith 2009).

In the last thirty years, however, science's ability to shackle the vagaries of the environment has been replaced with a postmodern, post-normal, existential view of new technologies as the progenitors of new types of risk (Beck 1992; Yearley 2005). An emerging critical view of science as no longer the sole arbitrator of fact or the producer of rationality is reflected in a world where values, perspectives and solutions are atomized and fragmented and where coming to terms with uncertainty through rationality seems increasingly counterintuitive (Beck 1992). Most recently, in early 2010, hacked email accounts, seemingly accident-prone (at best) peer review, and cumulative scientific error have cast climate scientists as people not to be fully trusted by the media. It might be altogether more productive and insightful to focus on the sheer complexity of climate systems and their interactions.

Rapid global change, driven by new economies and new technologies, fundamentally alters our relation to the world; risk is transported out of the sphere of things visited upon people through natural events and into the sphere of outcomes that are the result of often far-removed, collective decisions, or individual errors. We may no longer suffer famine in Europe, but neither did we risk enhanced global warming in the past. The immediate becomes prospective, and the proximate transforms into perspective. This is the conceptual context in which potentially transformative technologies such as biofuels must be viewed, and therefore understood.

Beddington's 'perfect storm' prompts us to think about a future where food insecurity and demands for energy and development have greatly increased, and in some senses competed, against a backdrop of increasing climatic and environmental uncertainty. In 2009, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) reported that for the first time 1 billion people are undernourished, and this represents a significant recent increase to the steady-state figure of 'only' 800 million people that has been the norm for the past couple of decades (FAO 2009a). It is increasingly apparent that climate and food will become problems that affect us all, not simply a problem whose impacts will be confined to the global South. This realization of the globalization of risk into what Beck has termed the 'contraction] into a community of danger' (1992: 44) provides a powerful stimulus for change. Whether this will stimulate the sorts of profound political change that might lead to positive outcomes at climate change summits or undertakings to reorient agricultural subsidies away from production and protection remains to be seen; it is clear, however, that unknown risks, once perceived as sufficiently global, will stimulate immense new investment in science, in part as a direct solution and in part as an alternative to a political solution. This has important implications for biofuels, which concurrently represent both risk and response. The political economy of biofuels can drive forward entrenched and emerging sets of North–South and South-South relations (Dauvergne and Neville 2009). Amplifying existing power relations, or delineating new relationships based on historical inequities of power, risks entrenching risk in poorer countries and exacerbating historical patterns of resource consumption and exploitation.


Excerpted from Biofuels and the Globalization of Risk by James Smith. Copyright © 2010 James Smith. Excerpted by permission of Zed Books Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


1. Introduction: Perfect Storms
3. Systems
4. Synergies
5. Scale
6. Sustainability? Globalising Risk

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