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Posted 15 March 08

Bio-fuels: A good idea in the wrong hands

Climate policy is on a collision course with our bees

Global climate change has become an indisputable fact and realization of this demands we seek effective methods to reduce green house gases.

Instead of our continued reliance on fossil fuels for energy production, increasingly we are turning to renewable energy sources. Recently, this renewable energy search has veered in a direction, which should fill beekeepers, in particular, with severe anxiety. Every indication is that EU policy on climate change is on a collision course with our bees.

Originally, bio-fuels seemed a really good idea. The concept of using biomass and vegetable oils were first developed by "crazy" environmentalists to supply their local farms and communities with electricity and heat. With the possibility of feeding electricity produced with bio-gas or bio-fuel into the public grid, these ideas became not only ecologically, but also financially interesting.

The original, local-area ecological pioneers suddenly found themselves displaced by investors who built power plants of bigger and bigger dimensions.

To satisfy the bio-fuel demand for large-scale operations, ever-increasing monocultures of energy crops are being planted --- with all the risks associated with the most intensive farming methods. And the negative consequences of such methods are all too familiar to beekeepers.

Meanwhile, multinational corporations in energy, chemistry and auto industries are discovering this business opportunity and reshaping the political agenda for themselves. If the politicians who claim to be tackling the climate change problem create the right legal framework, bio-fuels become highly attractive investment opportunities for these multinationals. The fight against global climate change then will allow them access to state subsidies and public money.

By simply changing from fossil fuels to bio-fuels, we seem to be able to avoid any fundamental change in our economic system. Consumption-driven growth can go on unabated without decoupling it from the demand for more energy. Policy makers can avoid unpopular mandatory measures to lower energy use. The car industry can continue to market their present fleets of cars with the same internal combustion engines. At the same time, bio-fuels seem to provide a near term solution for energy security by reducing dependence on crude oil from countries in politically unstable areas. Reducing demand, it is hoped, will also mean the stabilization of oil prices.

However, as in every gold rush, it is not the gold diggers who make the vast fortunes, but rather their outfitters, suppliers and traders. The biotech and agro chemical industries, as well as the refinery and fuel industry, and commodity traders in raw materials (such as palm oil, rape, maize, and sugarcane) are those most likely to profit. Also, big power companies already have a clear vision as to how the original decentralized approach to renewable energy can be edged out by solutions that fit their commercial model.

Companies very actively pretending to rescue the world’s climate primarily include Bayer, BASF, Syngenta and, of course, Monsanto. These manufacturers of pesticides and genetically modified seeds have had their sales goals thwarted by consumer resistance to these products. In the food sector, the application of pesticides is a constant subject of public outrage and criticism; and genetically modified crops have never made it on to European supermarket shelves.

When it comes to bio-fuels, however, these multinationals hope to bypass all such problems. As long as the plants do not show up on the consumer’s dinner plate, industry can count on a lot less opposition to the use of genetic engineering and pesticides. Besides, their lackey politicians are already busy making sure that the consumer will not be part of the decision process.

To understand better how the consumer is being excluded from the equation, and what role GMO industry is playing, we have to look back to September 4, 2005. On this day before the last federal election in Germany a television debate took place between then-Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, and the candidate of the Christian Democrats, Angela Merkel:

Merkel: Please permit me one final sentence about genetic engineering - - -

Moderator: No, - - -

Merkel: - - - But, this I must do to make simply clear: Germany is a country with a strong chemical industry. And we must get to the point, where we produce genetically modified renewable raw materials not for the food consumption, but for chemical reactions. Now the conditions are worse than in all other European countries, this is the truth. And, therefore, Germany will not make progress in this area; therefore, we will also change this. I find, the viewers must know this. This is for BASF and other chemical companies a quite important thing.

After the election, the new federal cabinet immediately swung into action and decided on March 15, 2006 to institute a mandatory blending of "Bio" fuels to gasoline and diesel. This step was explained to the public as the only way to reach the "ambitious" goals for climate protection. As the next step, the tax breaks for pure bio-fuels were cut under the pretext of fiscal responsibility.

On February 26th of this year the Federal Association for Biogenic and Regenerative Energy and Fuels (BBK) wrote in an open letter to the Federal Government: "now with introduction of the second tax step on bio-diesel and vegetable oil on the 1st of January, 2008, the demand for German bio-diesel and vegetable oil has completely collapsed. Bio-diesel is now more expensive than regular diesel with the present taxation of 15 ct. per litre and vegetable oil of 10 ct. per litre, and as a result is now unmarketable. Approximately 85% of Germany’s bio-diesel production (an estimated 5 million ton capacity) stands idle. Approximately 70% of the companies operating vegetable oil presses have shut down as a result of this tax policy."

Decentralized bio-fuel operations have been mercilessly wrecked by this policy in favour of multinational industry. An important goal of theirs has been reached. Now, in contrast to area of food, the consumer can no longer decide against an intensive application of pesticides and genetic engineering with the production of supposed "Bio" fuels.

For bio-gas an alternative solution was found, that also favours industrial solutions over all decentralized approaches.

Today, from the vantage point of the large power companies, the farmer as an energy producer already has far too large a share of the value chain. He grows not only the biomass, but also the produces the bio-gas and operates the generators. The power companies are forced to pay high prices for the electricity fed into their grid.

In 2006, a board member of the German power giant EON came to the annual meeting of the Farmers Union to present the power companies’ vision for bio-gas. The small, decentralized facilities operated by the farmers were “too ineffective” and a centralized system for power generation would be the better way. However, a small problem exists in the fact that the delivery of biomass to main power stations by the farmers would totally overwhelm our transportation infrastructure. However, for this problem a solution was readily at hand. The farmers would continue to ferment biomass into bio-gas on their farm, but feed it standardized for the central power generation into the natural gas network.

Politicians are already obediently busy implementing this idea. There is a "Bundesrat" initiative for the feeding of bio-gas into the natural gas net. . Also there is a position paper of the Federal Government for an integrated energy and climate protection program with a plan to feed bio-gas into the natural gas net for central power generation. In December 2007 the first large scale bio-gas processing facility went operational near Halle, in Germany.

Climate policy has been redacted to ensure there is no disadvantage to major industry players. The new and improved climate policy may not do much for our planet's CO2 balance, but certainly will help the balance sheets of major corporations.

Bio-fuels have a neutral CO2 balance at best. Plants remove carbon from the atmosphere by incorporating it into their biomass. When biomass is burned, the process is reversed. Intensive industrial agriculture produces biomass, however, with considerable energy expenditure and depletion of the soil. This, in turn, releases additional CO2. The CO2 imbalance can be catastrophic and not just when rain forests in the Third World are cleared and are replaced with palm oil plantations. Additionally, the cultivation in our region is advantageous only if extensive cultivation methods or waste products are being used.

In her most recent book, "The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism," Naomi Klein impressively demonstrates how disasters are being used cleverly to push through a certain form of capitalism worldwide. "In the shock state things can be implemented to which the people would never agree in stable times. " The climate shock is no exception.

What is the significance of all this for beekeeping?

As a result of unfortunate developments in food production, we are forced to deal with the effects of over-intensive industrial agriculture. Our bees already suffer from mono cultures with the lack of pollen and heavy use of pesticides. Blossoming meadows are transformed by an increased reliance on silage into green deserts. Genetic engineering threatens to contaminate our products and to damage our bees, but has failed to take hold, for the moment at least, due to opposition from consumers worried about the food supply.

The overproduction of food led in the past to subsidies that took entire fields out of production. This was a good development for bees, because these fields could then be planted with flowering plants.

Now the misdirected bio-fuel boom leads to a dramatic turnaround of the sound agricultural practice. Fields previously taken out of production are being farmed again but are no longer available as a retreat for bees and other insects. According to the union for oil and protein plants (UFOP), bio-fuels acreage on such previously out of production farm land amounted to about 437,600 ha for Germany in 2007. This represents an increase of 9.7% compared to 2006. For 2008 the EU suspended the rules for taking farmland out of production for the first time. It is to be expected that soon these rules will be abolished entirely. If and when that happens, nothing will stand in way of a total agrarian desert surrounding us.

As for bio-fuels, mere consumer opposition cannot contain pesticide application and the use of genetic engineering. GM-crops are being developed specifically as a renewable resource in non-food applications and, hence, without need for approval as a food crop. Current laws and regulations have the effect that even slight contamination from such crops lead to our products being classified as unfit to be marketed. The EU has zero tolerance for GM contamination from crops without regulatory approval for food. And such crops are not limited merely to rapeseed for bio-diesel or maize for bio-gas.

Also genetically modified poplars for the paper industry are already in the labs and will be commercially grown soon, according to the plans of the bio-tech industry. Bees collect poplar pollen. With it there will also be GM-pollen in our bee products that does not come from GMO’s with regulatory approval as food. So-called Pharma-Crops are even more troublesome. These are plants genetically altered to produce pharmaceutical substances. In the U.S.A. different pharmaceutical raw materials are already grown in the open without any precautions for bee products. For many years now, we have been publicly pointing out these problems, but the law governing the planting of GM-crops offer no special protection for beekeepers and their customers.

Political decisions of the German Federal Government and the EU regarding the cultivation of biofuels and other renewable resources are on a direct collision course with beekeeping. The bees’ health is clearly endangered by such intensive agriculture. Bees’ death and contaminated products are a basic menace of the economic viability of commercial beekeeping operations. Bees also forage on cultures not intended for the food production. Hence, coexistence between farmer and beekeeper is no longer possible.

The arguments of beekeepers are routinely swept aside by officials and corporate interests. This is because it is in the singular area of beekeeping that it becomes immediately clear that the promise of coexistence was never intended to be kept. The overarching goal has always been to allow the biotech industry a foot in the door. Once the contamination has begun, there is within a short period of time no longer any freedom of choice, but only irreversible contamination thresholds constantly revised upwards.

Only the backbenchers in parliament, who refuse to educate themselves thoroughly with this matter, still believe in the fairy tale of coexistence. Only industrial fairy-tale peddlers, the scientists and the bureaucrats, know exactly how little truth is in this promise. The voting public consistently has rejected GM-crops with large majorities in opinion polls for many years now. Still, the ruling parties agreed in their coalition contract to change the regulations for GM-crops in such a way, that they “promote research and application in Germany." As we have seen, this is happening under the false label of climate and energy policy.

A good idea has fallen in the wrong hands.

The German satirist Georg Schramm has summarized this state of our democracy perfectly in a popular television show:

"Special interest groups determine the policy. They pull the strings controlling the political figures, who are used to play democracy for us in the Berlin puppet theatre."

In this case, the play could be called "Angela Merkel Saves Earth’s Climate." It is up to us to make sure that this political farce is cancelled quickly, before both the climate and our bees are beyond help. This will only be possible, if beekeepers, farmers and consumers prove by their activism, that we can still have functioning democracies in Europe and not nation states that exist by, of, and for industry.

The article will be published in Karl-Rainer's IT-magazine in German,
but has translated it for you into English.

Walter Haefeker

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