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The Ethanol Lie

About this film:
During the summer of 2008 we traveled to southwest Ecuador with a conservation group and found ourselves in a remote village on the border with Peru[1]. We spotted a hen with her chicks hobbling along the road and pulled out our camcorder. Then suddenly an old woman approached us in distress. At one point she was frozen in tears and couldn't speak. This is in one of the poorest areas of Ecuador with an average income of under $50 per month. There are no social services available of any kind. No one was able to help her, not even the local priest. That's when we decided her story must be told.

The old woman's name is Lastenia Correa Aponte. This video is HER STORY.

Using Food for fuel:
We didn't intend to make a video focused on corn ethanol or congress' energy policy but that's where this story led us. It seems that when we burn food to run our cars it affects the whole world![2]

Whatís the connection between US energy policy and Ecuador?
There is a direct connection. We live in a global economy and the US exports wheat, soy, and corn. In the past, it was cheaper for countries like Ecuador to import corn from the US. But after congress mandated[3][4] so much ethanol, farmers in the US planted corn for ethanol[5] rather than for food. This reduction in food supply caused the price of corn to go up.[6][7] Poor countries like Ecuador faced food shortages. Thatís why farmers in Ecuador are burning tropical forests to plant corn.

Why is this our problem?
Itís our problem because we all live in one world. The destruction of tropical forests for biofuels releases many times more greenhouse gas than is saved by the biofuels. The large increase in US ethanol production is leading to an increase in greenhouse gas emissions. [8][9][10][11] This is very important because tropical deforestation now accounts for 20% of greenhouse gas emissions[12] and that is accelerating global warming. In addition, the world is losing irreplaceable biodiversity that took millions of years to develop.

Do you want to learn more?
For the best overall review of this important issue please read this excellent article: Time magazine, Mar. 27, 2008, The Clean Energy Scam.

Also see the photos of our trip.


  1. The Tumbes (or Tumbesian) region of southwest Ecuador is a rare dry tropical forest with high levels of endemism and over 800 bird species. According to Bird Life International this biodiversity-hotspot is one of the richest and most threatened sites on earth. Unfortunately it may be lost within a few years.
  2. The Clean Energy Scam , By Michael Grunwald, Time magazine, Thursday, Mar. 27, 2008.  
  3. Energy Policy Act of 2005. Summary of Policy Provisions of the Conference Report.
  4. Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007. A Summary of Major Provisions in a report for congress.
  5. Associated Press, August 12, 2008. The USDA raised its estimate of the amount of corn that will be used for ethanol production to 4.1 billion bushels out of total harvest of 12.3 billion bushels.
  6. World Bank Report: A Note on Rising Food Prices, by Donald Mitchell, July 2008.
  7. Union of Concerned Scientists September 2008 newsletter: Corn ethanol pushes up food prices, by Doug Gurian-Sherman.
  8. Use of U.S. Croplands for Biofuels Increases Greenhouse Gases Through Emissions from Land-Use Change, Timothy Searchinger, Ralph Heimlich, R. A. Houghton, Fengxia Dong, Amani Elobeid, Jacinto Fabiosa, Simla Tokgoz, Dermot Hayes, and Tun-Hsiang Yu, Science, 29 February 2008: 1238-1240
    Abstract: "Most prior studies have found that substituting biofuels for gasoline will reduce greenhouse gases because biofuels sequester carbon through the growth of the feedstock. These analyses have failed to count the carbon emissions that occur as farmers worldwide respond to higher prices and convert forest and grassland to new cropland to replace the grain (or cropland) diverted to biofuels. By using a worldwide agricultural model to estimate emissions from land-use change, we found that corn-based ethanol, instead of producing a 20% savings, nearly doubles greenhouse emissions over 30 years and increases greenhouse gases for 167 years. Biofuels from switchgrass, if grown on U.S. corn lands, increase emissions by 50%. This result raises concerns about large biofuel mandates and highlights the value of using waste products."
  9. Land Clearing and the Biofuel Carbon Debt, Joseph Fargione et al. Science, 29 February 2008: Vol. 319. no. 5867, pp. 1235 - 1238
    Abstract: "Increasing energy use, climate change, and carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from fossil fuels make switching to low-carbon fuels a high priority. Biofuels are a potential low-carbon energy source, but whether biofuels offer carbon savings depends on how they are produced. Converting rainforests, peatlands, savannas, or grasslands to produce food crop-based biofuels in Brazil, Southeast Asia, and the United States creates a "biofuel carbon debt" by releasing 17 to 420 times more CO2 than the annual greenhouse gas (GHG) reductions that these biofuels would provide by displacing fossil fuels. In contrast, biofuels made from waste biomass or from biomass grown on degraded and abandoned agricultural lands planted with perennials incur little or no carbon debt and can offer immediate and sustained GHG advantages."
  10. Carbon Mitigation by Biofuels or by Saving and Restoring Forests?, Renton Righelato and Dominick V. Spracklen Science, 17 August 2007 317: 902
    Abstract: "The carbon sequestered by restoring forests is greater than the emissions avoided by the use of the liquid biofuels."
  11. Ethanol Can Contribute to Energy and Environmental Goals, Alexander E. Farrell et al. Science, 27 January 2006 311: 506-508
    Note: Unlike the reports above, this earlier report concluded that corn Ethanol was slightly better than gasoline. However it was corrected through an Erratum ( posted Science, 23 June 2006) that disclosed a large uncertainty and rendered the conclusion very uncertain. Furthermore, in a February 2008 interview, Farrell admitted that his report ignored land use and acknowledged that using land to produce biofuels essentially competes with using land for food. Sadly, Alexander E. Farrell died in April 2008 just before a scheduled trip to Minnesota to testify at a legislative hearing.
    Abstract: To study the potential effects of increased biofuel use, we evaluated six representative analyses of fuel ethanol. Studies that reported negative net energy incorrectly ignored coproducts and used some obsolete data. All studies indicated that current corn ethanol technologies are much less petroleum-intensive than gasoline but have greenhouse gas emissions similar to those of gasoline. However, many important environmental effects of biofuel production are poorly understood. New metrics that measure specific resource inputs are developed, but further research into environmental metrics is needed. Nonetheless, it is already clear that large-scale use of ethanol for fuel will almost certainly require cellulosic technology.
  12. Tropical deforestation and greenhouse gas emissions, Holly K Gibbs et al 2007 Environ. Res. Lett. 2 045021 (2pp) doi: 10.1088/1748-9326/2/4/045021

See the photos of our trip.

After watching this video
What can we do?
The U.S. House of Representatives provides a page to Write Your Representative. They don't publish email addresses, so you must write via snail-mail or call.
If you want to help save tropical forests, you should choose a non-profit environmental organization that is small enough so your contribution makes a difference, has been around over ten years, and that minimizes its costs in the US so donated funds to go directly to protection of forests.
Here are two:
Nature & Culture International is dedicated to the conservation of biological and cultural diversity in Mexico, Ecuador and Peru. They have a broad range of programs and help communities with sustainable development.
World Land Trust-US works with local partners to buy and protect tropical rainforests.

Filmmakers: Manny Miranda (camera), Bret Granado. (editing), and Steve (nature lover).