So, renewable energy advocates and environmentalists should support the rapid expansion of this industry, right?
Well, not exactly and certainly not unconditionally. The key thing to realize is that land is finite and there are competing demands for its use. In many cases, using land for energy means not using it for other human needs. Nowhere is this clearer than in the history of the Brazilian sugar cane industry.
Sugar has long served as an important cash crop for the Brazilian economy. In the 1960s and 1970s, many sugar cane plantations consolidated and expanded their operations—often using foreign capital—with the result that poor workers were pushed off lands they had used to supplement their food intake. As described in devastating detail by Nancy Scheper-Hughes and others, losing these small plots led to famine, poverty, sickness, and in many cases, death.
This story is not particular to Brazil. Throughout the world, particularly in areas colonized by European powers, there has long been a tension between using land to grow food for locals versus using land to grow cash crops for foreigners. Sadly, cash crops have won this battle more often than the needs of locals. In many areas, this has created slow starvation, cyclical poverty, and environmental degradation.
We must not repeat this history. If Brazilian ethanol—or any other bio-fuel—is to be part of our energy solution, we must ensure that it does not come at the expense of the world’s rural poor. President Bush visited Brazil this past March to discuss an ethanol agreement with Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva. Any trade agreement emerging from these discussions should require limits to the overall land use of the Brazilian ethanol industry, ensuring that sufficient land remains for the rest of Brazil’s population.
Solving global fossil fuel dependence is a tricky issue that will require some hard choices to be made. However, outsourcing these costs onto the world’s poor is not the answer. We should only support bio-fuels as part of the solution if human rights are protected.
 Nancy Scheper-Hughes, Death without Weeping: The Violence of Everyday Life in Brazil, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992).
Note: this blog was inspired by reading other posts at Science Progress and has been cross-listed at their web site.