Technology

Go Ahead, Blame Biofuels


A switch from fossil fuels to ethanol and its kin diverts resources from food production, leading to hunger and destabilization of farming

Editors' note: This is the second in a series of articles on the link between biofuels and the food crisis.

In the beginning it seemed like a good idea. Instead of burning dirty fossil fuels, we can power our cars using plant-based "biofuels." So said proponents of such fuel alternatives as ethanol. It would be like switching from a diet of greasy hamburgers to pure, sweet green tea.

Most environmentalists went along with the idea, and governments around the globe adopted policies mandating biofuel use and supporting the burgeoning new industry with subsidies. Multinational agribusiness giants, including Archer Daniels Midland (ADM), Cargill, Bunge (BG), and Monsanto (MON), rolled up their sleeves and prepared their coffers for a major cash influx. So did the biotechnology industries, expecting an opportunity to market genetically engineered crops for fuel, even where their food crops remain unpopular.

Auto manufacturers breathed a sigh of relief: With an alternative fuel available, people wouldn't bother to drive less. Big Oil, with an eye on future profits, ramped up investment and a major greenwash campaign.

An Even Worse Mess

A few lonesome voices suggested there could be negative consequences.

Lester Brown, from the Earth Policy Institute, for example, predicted that "the stage is now set for direct competition for grain between the 800 million people who own automobiles and the world's 2 billion poorest people." Others pointed out that agriculture itself is a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions and hence not to be relied upon as a solution to climate change. Nongovernmental organizations in Latin America, Africa, the European Union, and the U.S. called for moratoriums on incentives and targets that mandated biofuel use.

Now we are faced with the predicted mess. The push for biofuels has forced people off their land, caused deforestation, sucked aquifers dry, and increased the use of fertilizers and agrichemicals. To top it off, a study published recently in Science showed that biofuels result in far more, rather than less, greenhouse gas emissions.

As if that were not enough, food prices have skyrocketed. The price of wheat has risen 130% in the past year, and staples overall have gone up 80% in the past two years. Some of that has happened in leaps and bounds: Rice rose 31% in the course of just a week or so in late March. Hungry and angry people are taking to the streets.

Pricey Oil Means Pricey Food

Apparently the problem has multiple causes. High oil prices have made everything from fertilizer to tractors to trucking more expensive.

(Proponents of biofuels say that blending ethanol with gasoline is helping to bring the price of fuel down, but ethanol delivers less energy per unit volume than gasoline, so consumers have to buy more).

Increased demand for meat, which takes a lot of grain to produce, is another contributing factor. (But this trend has been under way for years and cannot account for the recent price surges.) The faltering economy has driven investors to speculate in commodities, which destabilizes markets. While global grain reserves are depleted, severe weather conditions have reduced grain production in some places like Australia. Nonetheless, we achieved global record production of grains last year! Unfortunately, the price of food is now bound more closely than ever to fossil fuel and biofuel markets, making it unaffordable for much of the human population.

Farmers eager to make a decent living will plant the most profitable crops and sell them for whatever purpose is most profitable. Ethanol is profitable. Estimates are that in 2008 a full one-third to one-half of the U.S. corn harvest—about 140 million tons of corn—will be turned into fuel (offsetting a mere 6% of U.S. transport fuel).

A Shortage of Soy

The decisions of farmers have global ramifications. For example, American farmers have switched from soy to corn varieties most suited for ethanol (not food). The shortfall in soy resulted in a soy price increase, which is now driving farmers in South America to switch to soy production. As a result, grazing lands are being converted to soy and cattle farmers are clearing the Amazon rainforest to create new grazing land.

This brings us full circle back to the issue of climate change. As the food crisis has brought biofuels into question, there is a swelling chorus of voices claiming that the next generation of technologies will avert competition for food by using cellulose derived from nonfood plants grown on "marginal" land. Wood is considered a promising alternative. It is not.

We are faced with an enormous and expanding human population to feed, using dwindling freshwater resources, increasingly degraded soils, and expensive fertilizer and chemicals. On top of that, deforestation has proceeded to the point where forests are unable to provide their essential climate-regulating functions: If biofuels are manufactured from wood, the demand for wood products, already unsustainable, will skyrocket. The world's forests cannot feed biofuel refineries as well as supply increasing demand for heat and electricity generation, pulp, paper, and other wood products. Forests, and therefore the climate, will suffer.

Relief of Hunger

In the short term, it is not enough to apologize while millions are starving to death. We must pony up the funds to alleviate the food crisis immediately. The U.N. has requested an additional $500 million to $700 million in aid. (The Iraq war is costing the U.S. $350 million every day).

In the long term, we must take agriculture out of the hands of Big Business and put it back into the hands of people who need more than ever to be able to feed themselves on their own terms. ADM and Cargill reported record profits, jumping 42% and 86%, respectively, in the past quarter alone. While they once again reap the gains of bad agriculture policy, biofuels may go down as the most misguided of all: In the words of the U.N. Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, overreliance on biofuels is indeed "a crime against humanity."


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