The biofuel boondoggle

Guatemala is suffering

By
January 9, 2013

Sure, we know that the First World’s increase in demand for biofuel — generally produced from corn, sugar, and palm trees, among other plants — is helping to drive up global food prices. But a recent article in the New York Times showed just exactly how this global phenomenon works — in Guatemala.

With its corn-based diet and proximity to the United States, Central America has long been vulnerable to economic riptides related to the United States’ corn policy. Now that the United States is using 40 percent of its crop to make biofuel, it is not surprising that tortilla prices have doubled in Guatemala, which imports nearly half of its corn. At the same time, Guatemala’s lush land, owned by a handful of families, has proved ideal for producing raw materials for biofuels. Suchitepéquez Province, a major corn-producing region five years ago, is now carpeted with sugar cane and African palm.

All of which makes a hungry country even hungrier: “Roughly 50 percent of the nation’s children are chronically malnourished, the fourth-highest rate in the world, according to the United Nations.” The online version of the story includes brief video interviews with Guatemalans.

Meanwhile, the business section of the Times recently profiled a company, Carbon Engineering, that aims to fight climate change by pulling carbon dioxide straight back out of the atmosphere — and then sell it to companies that need it, for such activities as feeding algae to grow biofuel. It’s not fast enough to save Guatemala, but it’s something.

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1. by Caroline Cummins on Jan 10, 2013 at 9:33 AM PST

Here’s Tom Philpott's take on the Guatemalan biofuel tragedy. And his critique of the global biofuel farm industry, too.

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