Agrofuels: Ignoring the Principle of Caution

C. Fernando Márquez

Editor's Note: This article comes to us from C. Fernando Márquez, Executive Director of the Colombian Society of Motorists,  S. C. A. 


Last April-24-08 the event "BIOFUELS TO DEBATE" was carried out in the Colombian Congress organized by Colciencias, the National University of Colombia and the Fifth Commission of the House of Representatives, with the participation of scholars, national and international experts and representatives of the oil palm producers and farmers union.

In spite of its importance, little if anything has been said by the media about the debate conclusions, in particular the one expressed by the Chairman of the Environmental National Forum and former environment minister, Manuel Rodríguez Becerra, stating that "in Colombia there are still no conditions for agrofuels to become environmentally-friendly".  

Road Through the Amazon

A road runs through the Amazon jungle, in the Brazilian state of Ceara. - HEMIS.FR MANUEL ANSEDE - MADRID - 06/11/2007

With much more time (speakers times were only 15 minutes) and depth, Professors Tomás León Sicard, Director of the Institute of Environmental Studies from the National University of Colombia, IDEA; Miguel Ángel Altieri, President of the Latin American Scientific Society of Agroecology, and Geraldo Deffune, Investigator and Consultant for the Agricultural Biodynamics's Brazilian Association (ABD), gave their lecture on April 25th to an auditorium mainly composed of Environment and Development Master's students and Professors. Professors Deffune's and Altieri's positions made journalist Judith Sarmiento, moderator of the debate, exclaim "you leave us very anguished."

The rise in foods prices as a consequence of the promotion of agrofuels -and government subsidies that make it more profitable to produce ethanol rather than food- is one of the aspects that has hit the entire world and Colombia is not the exception, but with an added issue: Colombia has one ofthe most expensive family food budgets in the region, comparatively, accounting for 30% of the entire family income, being just topped by Argentina at a little more than 31%. Brazilians spent 21% in satisfying their food necessities, while Mexicans spent 22%.     

The Colombian newspaper EL TIEMPO, the most important one in the country, without mentioning the debate, pointed out in their April 28th editorial some important aspects on agrofuels, such as the rise in food prices that hits exactly where common people are most vulnerable, but that is not, unfortunately, the only concern in this matter. All variables involved need to be analyzed in a serious debate, according to EL TIEMPO.  Such debate should include the following topics so that it can have the depth required: 

  • Full compliance of the Caution Principle
  • The increase and emergence of new emissions 
  • The damage caused by agrofuels to the mechanical components of vehicles 
  • The carbon debt imposed by pruning and burning   
  • Displacement and murder of peasants 
  • The high energy deficit characteristic of agrofuels 
  • The validity of their denomination 
  • The huge amounts of water required for their production  
  • The implications of using Genetically Modified Organisms to produce them 
  • Consequences, control and mitigation policies on the use of pesticides and fertilizers 
  • Sustainable cultivation of energy crops, time line
  • Funds for financing investigations 

The inclusion of these aspects is fully justified by the following important elements: 


  • We should be skeptical of the ability of science to understand complex biosystems 
  • We should know how to manage risks that are uncertain in the long term 
  • We should consider the possibility of error when estimating environmental and health impacts

This fundamental principle has been systematically ignored in Colombia, where there was no  -and there are not- enough studies to anticipate, as far as it is possible, the negative effects from the production and combustion of agrofuels, effects such as the rise in food prices that were obvious when the oxygenated gasoline program began, while effects on water, air quality, public health, flora, fauna and vehicles will require deeper analysis and studies that should have started long ago. The clock is now ticking. 

In Colombia, a country with around 5 million vehicles, there were only 2 studies on 8 automobiles, which still show that ethanol harms some components, especially in older carburetor cars which constitute more than a half of the colombian vehicle fleet.

Furthermore, the few studies that were carried out reflect the lack of research into mechanical, environmental and public health risks, which makes the omission even more serious. These risks should be valued according to the peoples' fundamental rights to life, health and a clean environment. In Colombia there is jurisprudence on this matter, the Contitutional Court Sentence C-293/02 mentions, among many other articles that:

"In relation to the results arising from an event (environmental damage), it is determined that it can give place to irreversible consequences if the appropriate restraining measures to stop the action that causes deterioration are not taken. If obtaining scientific certainty regarding the effect was necessary before taking any corrective measure, any determination might be inofficious and ineffective, thereby turning inoperative the preventive function of authorities"

"Human beings are the main concern regarding sustainable development. (...) For that reason, the constitutional command demands making a sustainable use of resources". (sentence C-058 of 1994). It also says that the exploitation of natural resources and the exercise of economic activities cannot go against the right to a healthy environment, regardless that the country's economy interests lie on the economic activity to develo.".

"Likewise, the right to the environment is fundamental for humanity's existence and it cannot be unbound from the people's right to life and health. In fact, detrimental environmental factors cause irreparable damages to human beings and if that is so, it shall be stated that the environment is a fundamental right for humanity's existence.". 

"It is debated whether the principle of caution, which consists in that when there is danger of serious and irreversible damage, the environmental authorities should not use the lack of absolute scientific certainty as reason to postpone adopting effective measures to impede the degradation of the environment" (numeral 6 from article 1º of the Law 99 of 1993), this principle is granting limitless abilities to such environmental authorities, so that, without the needing absolute scientific certainty that the activity produces serious damages to the environment, they can adopt measures to avoid injuring the rights and interests of people affected by such decisions."

On the other hand, the Health Secretary of Bogotá reported in 2007 an increase of more than 1700 cases of acute respiratory illness in children under the age of 5 in Bogotá compared to 2006. These reported cases maybe linked to the increase in the concentration of tropospheric ozone caused by the higher volatility of gasoline when it is mixed with ethanol, which leads to a greater amount of volatile organic compounds, VOCs, in the atmosphere, which due to photochemical reactions, produce this and other pollutants hazardous to health, such as ozone, nitrogen oxides and acetaldehyde. 

This increase - about 6% compared to 2006 - is surely much higher taking into account that many of those affected children have no access to the health care system and therefore these cases of morbidity and mortality are not recorded.  Moreover, it is also necessary to include other risk groups such as seniors and those already suffering lung disease, throughout the country; this increase should be carefully evaluated; global warming and climate change can not be the unique and magical explanations for these phenomena, the colombian government must do everything that is feasible and humanly possible to address this situation.

NEW EMISSIONS: (The UPME, Unidad de Planeación Minero Energética, is a technical organism joined to the Colombian Ministry of Mines and Energy. Their studies and reports are used to state the laws and energy policies of the country) 

UPME report, slide 47, presented on August 22 of 2007: "A widespread reduction of polluting emissions is evidenced in the entire consulted bibliography, (hydrocarbons and carbon monoxide, notice by us) except for the aldehydes and nitrogen oxides". Acetaldehyde, which is among the group of the aldehydes, is a carcinogenic compound and mutagenesis inductor while nitrogen oxides are the cause of acid rain and water reservoirs eutrophization, i.e. annihilation of all existing life forms within such reservoirs, in addition to severe respiratory syndromes. These are not the only noxious compounds needing to be controlled. Do we know how to manage risks that are uncertain in the long term? Is it too much to ask for the euphoria to give place to a thoughtful analysis of these and other phenomena? 

The advertising machinery mounted by agrofuels promoters has focused on the decrease, very significant, we acknowledge, of non-burnt hydrocarbons, carbon monoxide and the 2 or 3 points of improvement in the octanage of Colombian gasolines. But increased production of trophospheric ozone, nitrogen oxides, aldehydes, carbonils and other toxins has been ignored, thereby increasing the possibility of error when estimating the environmental and health impacts enunciated by the principle of the caution.   

DAMAGE TO VEHICLES: UPME: DURABILITY. (slide 62) "The premature wear of the pieces that make up the engine due to the use of ethanol mixtures tends to be larger, presenting lubrication failures as a result of an increase in metal-metal contact between parts, due to the ethanol´s solvent action that removes the lubricant film protecting their surfaces from rubbing. Tests done in rehearsals banks show a reduction in the life time of escape valves. Also, oil tests show a larger quantity of solid material produce by the part's wear away in comparison with the gasoline. On the other hand, the formation of solid deposits in the admission valves increases almost by 350% when a mixture of 10% ethanol is added, which forces the use of additives to reduce such increase to 50% of the gasoline's value."

Except for Brazil, in the rest of the world ethanol is used in proportions no larger than 10%. In fact, the use of ETBE is preferred in some European countries to improve the gasoline´s antiknock index. The main reason for this trend relies on the incompatibility of ethanol mixtures with the engine's materials which are exclusively designed to be used with gasoline. In the United States and Australia, studies on the durability of engines working with ethanol-gasoline mixtures have been thoroughly carried out with overwhelming results: engines need to be adequate for working with mixtures whose ethanol content is above 10%.

UPME: (slide 64) "in relation to other parts of the engine, corrosion problems are seen in the carburetor, fuel supply system, the fuel hoses, the filter and the fuel tank. The largest problem occurs when the particles that are removed in the corrosive process, travel via the fuel, causing stings or pricks. To surmount this phenomenon, Zinc, tin and coal coating have been implemented in order to protect systems that were originally designed to be used with gasoline and that are to be used mixtures of ethanol blends between 14% and 20%." But what happens with blends between 10% and 14%? 

Columbian Study

 In spite of this and other studies, the Colombian government will mix 12% of ethanol for 2009 and 20% for 2012

There are no vehicles in Colombia that can withstand these mixtures, and even if the new cars are made with the required specifications, nothing is said about the possible mechanical damage to nearly 5 million vehicles currently circulating in the country, which demonstrates improvisation and irresponsibility surrounding the topic.

Slide 130 entitled FACED CHALLENGES, the UPME says that the government should: "prepare the entrance of superior percentage mixtures without harming the consumer (20% from 5 to 10 years)". The cost of adapting vehicles to be used with mixtures containing more than 10% of ethanol is estimated between US$400 and US$500. "Without harming the consumer" means that these costs will be assumed by the government? or that nobody will get sick by some unknown (for him) emissions? Wouldn't it be better, before making cheerful accounts and embarking the country in a bigger adventure, to evaluate all implications derived from the use of agrofuels? 

The Germans, well-known worldwide as expert automobiles manufacturers decided to postpone ethanol's entrance into their country until 2009 and reduce the amount of ethanol included in the mix from 10% to 7%. The German environment Minister, Sigmar Gabriel, justified the decision by stating that a fuel of those characteristics would damage the engines of millions of old cars whose drivers earn little money so as to force them to buy more expensive cars. It should be noted that in Europe, the term "old cars" refers to those cars with more than 5 years of use. In Colombia most vehicles, around 60%,  have more than 10 years of use and it is not strange to find vehicles with 20, 30 and more years of use.   

When ethanol conversion first started, it was greeted in Europe as an indirect way of reducing carbon dioxide emissions. Today the question is whether producing ethanol in fact causes more damage to the environment than the fuel it is meant to replace, admitted the Minister, who spoke about the damages caused by the use of fertilizers and the deforestation implemented to clear out areas for growing biocrops, says the report.   

THE CARBON DEBT:  The former minister Manuel Rodríguez Becerra said during his interview that agrofuels have a negative balance for Colombia. "In several regions of the world, the development of this industry has implicated the destruction of wide forest areas, such as in Indonesia, and has contributed largely to the production of green-house effect gases, without mentioning the problems such as soils degradation, destruction of biodiversity, water contamination among other." He is right, Malaysia is one of the world's largest contributors of carbon dioxide, accounting for 8% of the world's total production due, mainly, to cultivation of palm oil. The pattern of exploitation occuring in Malaysia is clearly undesirable for Colombia in the medium and long term.  

DISPLACEMENT AND MURDER OF PEASANTS: The requirement -it wasn't an expression of altruism from the Colombian palm growers- on a stamp of environmental quality that the European Union imposed to the Colombian exports of palm oil confirms the existence of dark aspects that should be objects of opportune, systematic and wide analysis.  

A report written by Fidel Mingorance, entitled "The flow of the palm oil Colombia-Belgium-Europe,"  that was published for the first time in November of 2006, carried out by request of the Belgian Government, gives full details of three important elements: the plantations, the paramilitarism and the mandatory displacement as a consequence of the stealing of lands. It is not, like the President of Asocaña, (sugar cane sowers association) suggested during his interview in the Colombian Congress, of "leftist" positions, but of a system that benefits the country and its people.  The hunger, the displacement and the misery lack political color for those who suffer them.    

ENERGY DEFICIT:  Ethanol provides 33% less energy than gasoline. Tadeus Patzek, professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Berkeley, demonstrates that 70% more energy is invested in producing a gallon of ethanol.  In Colombia, agrofuels don't pay taxes of any class, its consumption is obligatory and they are strongly subsidized, otherwise their production would be unviable. 

Gigantic plantations would be needed, Patzek says, "to replace 10% of the fossil energy used globally every year during 40-80 years.  Near 500 million hectares, (a little more than half of the surface of the United states) These plantations would be implemented in the tropics, in good climates, with abundant provision of water, good lands and easy access." This is the true reason for the interest of Europe and the United states in Latin America; as a biomass and agrofuels supplier.  

THE CATEGORIES:  The central topic of the debate that EL TIEMPO proposes should be their categories, and it should not be limited to discussing whether they are agro or biofuels. Under any of these categories, it is a fallacy to name "biogas" to the mixture of more than 250 chemical compounds with 10% of a fuel of agricultural origin like ethanol. The use of the prefix "bio" is an advertising trick, it is the commercialization of the ecology, of the green concept, without a demonstrated real interest from the producers.

In the United States, at the beginning of the last century, they decided to add tetraetil-lead to the gasoline and they called it "etilgasoline," a name that masked for a long time the noxious effects of the lead but it didn't prevent millions of people in the world, children especially, from developping neurological, renal, psychological and other affections while many millions died prematurely.    

WATER WASTE:  Tatiana Roa, the Censat Agua Viva Chairwoman, a Colombian environmental organization which protects water, alerted industrial and other people that work in the area about the need to integrate the cultivation of agrofuels with the needs of the population and protect water and the production of food. Their concern is more than reasonable; 800 or more gallons of water are required to produce one gallon of ethanol while the pesticides and fertilizers used contaminate the phreatic level water that later will go into the rivers. The need of import "bagre" (a kind of fish) from the Vietnam Mekong, is still fresh in the minds of Columbians. Shortages due mainly to the contamination of the rivers that has transformed them into sewers replete with chemical and organic waste, not capable of sustaining life. Waters that are also used for irrigation in many places of the country, as well as human and animal consumption.   

GENETICALLY MODIFIED ORGANISMS (GMOs): Professor Geraldo Deffune considers that Latin America could benefit economically and socially from agroenergy development and its production if the principle of caution was applied; however, the monoculture farms and the patenting of seeds generate technological and energy dependence, contamination, rural exodus due to the concentration of the best lands in the hands of powerful industrial groups, and economic dominance. 80% of the terrestrial biomass is made up of trees and to fell trees to make room for agriculture of agrofuels does irreperable harm to the country, he also said.  

Genetically modified organisms are a good opportunity to solve some problems but they also outline a series of questions related to the contamination of other crops, the rupture of the biological cycle and the health of those that consume them as foods.  It should be carefully evaluated, a matter that is not easy due to the enormous strategic and economic interests involved.  Examples are plentiful:                           

The Hungarian scientist Arpada Pusztai found results very worrying related with rats fed with transgenic potato, for which he requested more time and money to expand his study. Not only did he not receive the money but rather after granting an interview to a television station about the topic, he was dismissed from Rowet Institute, in Aberdeen, Scotland, an investigation center in which he had worked for37 years. This incident is known as the Pusztai affair. 

March 11, 2007, full color and in the Colombian main stream media, under the suggestive title of "More Corn, More Country", Monsanto "shares with all of you that we have received approval of the National Government through the Agricultural Colombian Institute, (ICA) following the recommendation of the National Technical Committee of Biosafety, to begin controlled sows for the technology of corn YielGard". This is not a distant problem, the GMO era has already begun in Colombia.  

FERTILIZERS AND PESTICIDES:  Another stone inside the shoe: Atrazine, professor Miguel Angel Altieri said, is causing gonadal changes and hermaphroditism in amphibians exposed to very small doses, of 1 ppm (parts per million). Atrazine, a potent herbicide, can affect pregnant women that enter into contact with it in the farms where it has been used, slowing the normal growth of their babies. In animals exposed to high levels, birth defects have been observed, as well as damage to the liver, the kidney and the heart. Glifosato and other pesticides are more and more questionable due to their harmful effects on people, animals, water and plants.  

RENEWABLE IS NOT THE SAME THING THAT SUSTAINABLE:  Although they are fuels obtained from renewable sources, it doesn't mean that their cultivation is sustainable. The growing demands  of agro-fuels imply the use of more and more new lands to produce them, while the exhaustion of the farmlands after some years of use goes into a spiral that will create collapse for the whole agricultural structure if not  how many and which farmlands can be used for this purpose is not addressed.  

One of the most perverse effects in this system is the appropriation of the best farmlands by the big economic, national and international groups, expelling peasants from their farmlands, who later will augment the  misery in the cities, due to their inability to compete industrially. Always they are the losers. Agrofuels are not an energy nor environmental solution and they should be treated as a partial and temporary solution that should not distract from the search for truly clean and sustainable energy sources. It is necessary to finance research and to train competent professionals, starting now.      

The recent case of Carimagua is illustrative It was an 18,000 hectare farm located in the Colombian east plains (that later shrank to 17,000) which was given to a group of displaced peasants in 2007 but later was offered to palm oil growers. The defense offered by the Agriculture Minister to change the ownership were "the acidity of the soil, the inability of those displaced to invest in the improvement of the lands and the location, far from the cities."

FINANCING OF INVESTIGATIONS:  GMO corn also caused severe damage to mice used for tests in very short periods of time, Professor Deffune said, without the results being disclosed.     

The reason is, surely, that behind these investigations exists a great investment, generally of the same companies that produce the seeds and the technology. The alliances, acquisitions and coalitions of the last years between the makers of seeds and pesticides are a clear signal. Monsanto, Novartis, DuPont, Aventis and AstraZeneca control almost 100% of the transgenic seeds market and, simultaneously, two thirds of the pesticides market. Monsanto alone grosses more than $5.5 billion.  

It is, the biologist and journalist Zaira María Amaya Lesmes says, "as if the owner of a hospital bought the mortuary and the cemetery to the side: he wins if the patient lives, but doesn't stop winning if he dies." 

Recently, British Petroleum (BP) donated to the Univeristy of California, Berkeley, the Lawrence Livermore Laboratories and the University of Illinoism, $500 million devoted to developping new energy sources: basically biotechnology to develop plantations that generate agrofuels. 

The executive director and president Robert A. Malone said that BP was "joining some of the best world talents in sciences and engineering to respond to the demand for energy with no carbon emissions that we will work to improve and to expand the production of clean, renewable energy, through the development of better technology." In spite of its magnitude, this is a relatively modest investment considering that they will appropriate the knowledge and the academic know-how that government support took decades in building.                                              

The agrofuels boom arises starting from the energy necessities and reduction of consumption of petroleum in European countries and in the United states mainly, that have found in the Latin American countries the ideal conditions to produce them; a pantry to which one can go so that they can continue maintaining an overwhelming consumption rhythm. This could not be so bad for Latin America if we strictly obey the principle of caution.   

Agrofuels are not bad in and of themselves, but because of the way and the methods used to produce and sell them. They constitute a good opportunity for Colombian and Latin American agriculture, if and only if, we make things right, with more technical, social and human approaches than commercial ones. To absorb the damages that agrofuels cause while others reap their advantages, would be self-damaging and would take decades to recover, if we are able to.   


Since April 2006, we have sued the Colombian government, demanding more research be carried out in the production and combustion of agrofuels to better understand, anticipate and mitigate as much as possible, the mechanical, environmental, social, economic and public health effects that these agrofuels have and will have.

The phenomena associated with agrofuels are not well understood and even worse, ignored or underestimated, which have lead to recent and strong pronouncements from scientists, organizations such as FAO, World Bank, UN, EU and a significant number of environmental and human rights organizations throughout the world.

Despite a large number of international studies demonstrating risks and dangers associated with the use of agrofuels, added to those that appear every day worldwide, Judge Matilde Lemos Sanmartin, ex-fifth Administrative Judge of Bogotá, said that "the evidence presented is insufficient," and thus refused the request of more and deeper studies, ignoring the precautionary principle and the available legal mechanisms to obtain these studies, mandatory when the discussion is so important for the citizenry and the country, importance that can be applied also to many other Latin American countries.

Curiously, our demand was the last judgement signed by Lemos Sanmartin before being promoted to Judge of the Administrative Tribunal in the Arauca Department.  We could not prove that her judgement has been pressed, bought or manipulated, but this coincidence leaves a bitter taste. The judgement has been appealed, and we hope that it will be accepted for review by a different and more interested court.

We will not relent in our efforts to demand that ethanol and oil palm production be carried out with human and social sense, and not only commercial objectives as is happening right now in Colombia.

Agrofuels should be seen as a temporary and partial solution, not as a total remedy.  We do not consider acceptable the omission of serious and conclusive studies in order to protect economic interests that hardly benefit persons other than business owners; we will appeal to all possible allies in Colombia and abroad to force the precautionary principle be applied in order to protect ourselves and future generations from irreparable damages which could result in prohibitively expensive environmental and public health costs.


1. Texto de la Sentencia de la C293/02 Corte Constitucional

2. Desarrollo y Consolidación del mercado de Biocombustibles en Colombia, ppt.

3. Pone Alemania el freno a los biocombustibles, Artículo de prensa

4. Documento, El flujo del aceite de palma Colombia, Bélgica Europa

5. Thermodynamics of Energy Production from Biomass, Tadeus Patzek

6. Página web de Censat Agua Viva

7. Texto de la Acción Popular instaurada por la S. C. A.

8. Editorial Abril-27-08 diario EL TIEMPO

 9. Más Monsanto menos país, Alfredo Molano

10. La prensa brasileña afirma que los cultivos de caña se expanden en la Amazonía


12.    Texto de la sentencia emitida por el Juzgado 5º Administrativo de Bogotá.



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