Bioethanol: the Bitterness of Sugar?

by Philip Nemenzo

With the Senate passage of the biofuels bill on October 11 and the projected signing of the law next month, the people of Negros Occidental and other sugar-producing provinces are once again gearing up for the good times. Many consider it as the harbinger of the sugar industry’s resurgence from its current moribund state, and maybe even a long-awaited solution to the insurgency problem in Negros’ hinterlands.

The Senate version of the law requires that gasoline fuel sold and distributed in the country should contain at least five percent bioethanol. The measure also provides that immediately upon promulgation, a minimum of one percent biodiesel shall be blended into all diesel engine fuels. Violators will be penalized with one to five years imprisonment and a fine ranging from P1 million to P5 million, according to the bill.

Bukidnon Rep. Juan Miguel Zubiri expects that immediately after the signing of the biofuels bill into law by President Arroyo, at least 12 ethanol plants will be built in various parts of the country, including five in Negros Island and two in Cebu. A bioethanol plant is currently being built in San Carlos City in Negros Occidental.

The biofuels brouhaha, however, should be considered with caution, according to scientists. Much energy is required to grow sugarcane and to convert it to ethanol, and crop cultivation certainly demands large quantities of fertilizer and pesticides, which have environmental and energy costs themselves.

Many consider that if the biofuels law ushers a bioethanol boom, even Negros’ forest lands will be converted to sugarcane fields by unscrupulous slash-and-burn farmers, leading to the further extinction of indigenous species, not to mention the detrimental effect on the ecosystem’s water supply. People, wildlife and sugarcane will eventually have to compete with the meager land and water resources available.

Moreover, can the country’s bioethanol production meet the law’s requirements? If not, then the country will still depend on imported biofuel. The move towards self-sufficiency in biofuels will trigger the conversion of more agricultural lands to sugarcane fields and consequently lead to an increase in food prices. This is not unlike the conversion of mangrove forests into prawn farms that have levied tremendous environmental costs on the Negros coastline. According to the Worldwatch Institute, producing 10 percent of the world’s transport fuels from crops would require 9 percent of the planet’s agricultural land.

Biofuel proponents consider that it is the answer to global warming. Not so, according to experts. With intensive agriculture comes intensive chemical and energy input, not to mention that the clearing of forest lands will release more CO2 and possibly trigger a net increase in greenhouse gases from biofuel production.

If the bioethanol issue is not handled with extreme caution, it will eventually pit the small minority who have cars with the large majority who are poor and hungry, with the haves versus the have-nots, with the city versus the countryside. Food for human consumption should not be converted to fuel for machines. That is nonnegotiable.

The sugar industry and Negros’ landed gentry are partly to blame for the insurgency and poverty in the countryside. The biofuels bill, if it becomes a law in November, represents a second chance, a new lease on Negros’ economic and social life.

If this experiment fails again, whatever sweetness sugar brings on the palate will never mask the bitterness in people’s hearts.*