Drive 1,000 Miles or Feed a Person for a Year? The Biofuels Dilemma

With hungry, angry people taking to the streets in countries on every continent — from Morocco to Mexico and Pakistan to the Philippines, and at least 20 other nations — the biofuel debate is clearly moving into new territory.


Arguments for and against using crops to make fuel are no longer focusing on energy ratios or "independence from foreign oil" or feel-good environmentalism. The headlines today are about people needing food to eat — and right now.


Politicians who once supported biofuel expansion are now backpedaling fast in the face of irate grocery shoppers in this country and an increase in hunger across the planet. Representative James McGovern, D-Mass., was one of the first national lawmakers to raise alarms about the impact of grain-based biofuels on food prices, telling the New York Times last month, "If there was a secret vote [in Congress], there is a pretty large number of people who would like to reassess what we are doing." Now 24 Republican members of Congress, citing high food prices, have come out into the open to urge a retreat from the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007, which mandates rapid increases in biofuel production.


State officials across the country are also looking to bail out of the biofuel rush. Gov. Rick Perry of Texas has formally requested that the federal government relax biofuel requirements imposed on his state. Also responding to runaway food costs, the Missouri legislature is considering a rollback of its own recently passed law requiring that gasoline must be mixed with a minimum percentage of ethanol.


Filling gas tanks or plates?


The agriculture lobby has legendary clout in Washington, so current biofuel targets, along with heavy subsidies that keep the industry alive, will stay in place for now. The 2008 farm bill, which has entered the homestretch in Congress, cuts the corn-ethanol subsidy by only 6 cents, to 45 cents per gallon, while the subsidy for the "next generation" of ethanol (to be made from grass, straw, and other cellulosic materials) will rise to more than a dollar a gallon. To soften the rapid food-price inflation that’s expected to result, the new law will increase food aid to lower-income Americans.


Perhaps the starkest measure of the car culture’s energy appetite is the fact that the state of Iowa, the nation’s leading corn producer, will soon be importing corn. If a meteorite were to land randomly in Iowa, there’s a 35 percent chance it would land in a cornfield; Iowa‘s corn harvest last year contained more calories than the state’s human population would consume in 85 years of eating; yet Iowa will be hauling corn in from other states. The grain will be fed to a multitude of new fuel-ethanol factories, along with the state’s existing corn syrup and livestock industries.


The world is learning fast that when fuel demand competes with food needs for the sun’s energy, it’s not a fair fight. The energy contained in the gasoline that fills a typical SUV’s tank contains approximately the same number of calories as are required in the annual diet of one adult. Or, rather than picking on SUVs, consider the energy burned by a Prius hybrid on a trip from San Francisco to San Diego and back. That would also feed a person for a year.


Measured in energy units like kilocalories, world demand for liquid fuels (gasoline, jet fuel, diesel and now biofuels) is currently more than six times the global demand for food. In energy terms, fuel demand will shoot up three times as fast as food demand between now and 2030.


But such comparisons don’t prove cause-and-effect. Can the pumping of ethanol into American fuel tanks really make it harder for parents in Yemen or Indonesia to feed their families?


An ethanol industry-funded group called the New Fuels Alliance doesn’t think so. In its briefing paper entitled "Fuel vs. Food: No Conflict" (pdf), the group insists (reviving the old Cold War term for less powerful nations) that "Third world food shortages are largely due to political and social issues such as poverty, government corruption, and inefficient distribution … Corn prices have little impact on food availability in the Third World … Food availability per capita is at an historic high."


That last claim is simply wrong. A close look shows that it was based on data from the late 1980s and early 1990s. The amount of food available per person has been falling steadily since that time; agriculture is not keeping up with humanity’s nutritional needs and is now being asked to fill the tanks of vehicles as well.


Nevertheless, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Ed Schafer told a recent International Food Aid Conference in Kansas City, "Higher [fossil] energy prices are the biggest factor in pushing up food prices." He stressed, "Biofuels are a factor, but not the factor." President Bush reiterated his strong, if grammatically shaky, support for biofuels in a recent speech: "As you know, I’m a ethanol person." He has rejected the Republican lawmakers’ call for restraint and blamed food inflation on people in India who, he believes, are eating too much.


Most experts agree that, indeed, several factors have converged to intensify the food crisis. But in a very recent report, the World Bank left no doubt where greatest responsibility for the current food emergency lies. The report’s authors dispensed with two commonly cited reasons for high prices, stating, "Droughts in Australia and poor crops in the European Union and Ukraine were largely offset by good crops and increased exports in other countries," and "only a relatively small share of the increase in food production prices (around 15 percent) is due directly to higher energy and fertilizer costs."


The bottom line for the World Bank? "Increased bio-fuel production has contributed to the rise in food prices… Almost all of the increase in global maize production from 2004 to 2007 (the period when grain prices rose sharply) went for biofuels production in the U.S."


How price shocks get from here to there


As economists debate the theory of "price transmission" — for example, the effect of rising corn prices in Iowa on the price of wheat in Egypt — the real-world data are coming in, and they show that the economic, physical, and biological links between biofuels and food can reach effortlessly across the planet.


In late 2006 to early 2007, the Mexican livestock industry was hit hard by the rising price of imported U.S. yellow corn (which is not eaten by people but goes to produce meat, eggs, corn syrup for soft drinks, and, increasingly, fuel ethanol.) Domestic white corn, a food staple in Mexico used mostly to make tortillas, was cheaper and was being diverted to animal feedlots. The resulting scarcity and high prices led to widespread unrest.


The Chinese government has forbidden the use of traditional cropland for biofuel production. But demand for biofuels is rising in the the world’s largest nation, so, according to reports, "China is looking for [biofuel] feedstock production opportunities outside its borders, [in] Laos, Cambodia, Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines" — a development that could hit food production hard in those countries. China reportedly has a keen interest in ethanol from cassava as well. To get enough cassava, a starchy root crop that keeps some of the world’s poorest subsistence farmers alive, China would have to import it from countries that are already struggling to produce enough food.


Farmers have been forced off their good cropland in oil-rich Indonesia and Colombia to make way for oil-palm plantations. U.N. investigator Jean Ziegler has documented the coerced or forced eviction of subsistence farmers in Brazil, Argentina, and Paraguay, which is occurring with the encouragement or even collusion of soy agribusiness interests (pdf). Rising demand for biodiesel will put even more pressure on South American farm families who grow food crops, according to forecasts.


Before the recent devastating cyclone hit them, the farmers of Burma were already staggering under a government mandate to grow the shrub Jatropha curcas for biodiesel production, and rice production was taking a hit.


Food activists have long argued that so-called "dumping" by the United States and other nations — that is, selling surplus grain cheaply on the world market — drives down prices that farmers receive in poorer countries, pushes them off their land and distorts agricultural production. Now, says the New Fuels Alliance, "as the U.S. ethanol market absorbs grain surpluses that would otherwise be dumped on the international market, small Third World farmers have a better chance of staying in business."


But a recent survey by the International Food Policy Research Institute in Washington (IFPRI) casts doubt on that happy prediction. Looking at who buys and sells food in the markets of Bolivia, Bangladesh, Zambia and Ethiopia (countries all currently suffering food shocks), IFPRI found that while only 1 percent to 4 percent of food is sold by poor farmers, 10 percent to 22 percent of food is sold to the poor people of those countries (pdf). The conclusion: Many more hungry people stand to lose than to gain from higher prices.


Estimates are that each 1 percent rise in the price of staple foods (in excess of "normal" inflation) will subject 16 million additional people to hunger. IFPRI projects, "If biofuel production undergoes a drastic increase, calorie availability in sub-Saharan Africa is projected to fall by more than 8 percent, and the number of malnourished children in the region is projected to increase by 3 million [by 2020]."


As major world crops are drawn into the energy market (in which prices are twice as volatile as in the food market), it appears that other staple foods are being pulled in with them. Noting that in the world’s poorest regions, people can spend 50 percent to 80 percent of their income on food, economists C. Ford Runge and Benjamin Senauer of the University of Minnesota warn, "When one staple becomes more expensive, people try to replace it with a cheaper one, but if the prices of nearly all staples go up, they are left with no alternative."


IFPRI predicts that the sheer quantity of food available will drop by 5 percent to 8 percent in Latin America, South Asia and Africa if biofuels are aggressively pursued. Were food consumption to shrink by a similar percentage in the United States, it might actually be a good thing, but in regions where many millions are already malnourished, it could be a death sentence, says IFPRI.


The cash crop trap


Cash crops — including sugarcane, coffee, cotton, lumber — have a long track record of crippling nations’ ability to feed themselves. Energy crops grown in the tropics are projected to follow in that cash-crop tradition. Brazil provides a key example. Hailed as a leader in alternative fuels, Brazil has based its ethanol industry on sugarcane, and that, according to labor groups, has only perpetuated the exploitation that always attends the growing of that crop.


The country’s Landless Workers’ Movement has condemned a national policy of encouraging sugarcane production for ethanol on big estates and even on lands being resettled under agrarian reform. Cane cutters are paid not by the hour but by the quantity they cut, and, writes the Movement, "This situation has serious implications for the health of workers and has caused the death of workers through fatigue and the excessive labor that requires cutting up to 20 tons per day. The majority of contracts are through third-party intermediaries or ‘gatos’ [so] formal work contracts do not exist."


Another way in which biofuel production could make food more scarce in the near future is by driving up demand for synthetic nitrogen fertilizer. Lavish quantities are needed to achieve high Midwestern corn yields, but synthetic nitrogen is even more essential to the life of many poor nations. If farming depended solely on naturally occurring nitrogen fertility, the planet’s cropped acreage could feed only about 50 percent of today’s human population.


In corn fields and rice paddies across the global south, farmers pace back and forth with panfuls of commercial fertilizer, metering out the precious granules by the handful. Meanwhile in America’s Corn Belt, big farm implements stuff more nitrogen into the soil than the soil can hold or crops can absorb. As natural gas (the chief input for making nitrogen fertilizer) becomes even more expensive and the world market decides who gets access to costly nitrogen, it will be ethanol cropping — whether it’s with corn, switchgrass or other nitrogen-hungry species — that goes straight to the head of the line.


The Worldwatch Institute’s Lester Brown has been talking for months now about "competition for grain between the world’s 800 million motorists and its 2 billion poorest people who are simply trying to survive." The competition for nitrogen is forecast to be just as sharp, with the wealthier motorists favored to win.


Undercutting future harvests?


More than a century of research, on top of millennia of experience, show that cropping of annual plants like wheat, rice, corn and soybeans inevitably degrades soil (see this review in Scientific American). It is estimated that almost 5 billion acres — 15 percent of the planet’s entire land surface — is now subject to human-caused soil degradation, mostly from agriculture.


On this continent, two developments have helped reduce soil loss by one-third over the past two decades: adoption of so-called "no-till" methods for reducing soil erosion and congressional passage of the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), which pays farmers to take the most erodable land out of production altogether and sow it to mixtures of native grasses and other plants. The CRP accounts for a much bigger reduction in soil loss than does no-till, but both have helped.


Biofuels now threaten to undermine future food production by reversing hard-won progress against soil degradation. First, the high price of biofuel crops is leading farmers to withdraw millions of acres from the CRP and put them back into cultivation. That will reduce the useful lifetime of those soils, which need permanent perennial vegetation. Second, as soon as methods for producing ethanol from cellulose have been employed on a large scale, crop "residues" — the dry stems and leaves left on the ground after harvest — will be collected and hauled off to biofuel plants.


A U.S. Department of Energy/Department of Agriculture blueprint (pdf) for supplanting just 30 percent of U.S. petroleum consumption with biofuels would not only consume vast quantities of intensively cropped grain but would also strip 75 percent of crop residues from the soil after harvest. That will further deplete the organic-matter content of farm soils. Concern is also rising that stepped-up depletion and pollution of water resources by corn destined for ethanol plants will undercut America’s capacity to produce food in the future.


Future food supplies elsewhere in the world also depend on intact, healthy ecosystems, and those appear to be under threat. In a recent Time cover story, Michael Grunwald described the "chain reaction" that has accelerated deforestation in the Amazon basin: "U.S. farmers are selling one-fifth of their corn to ethanol production, so U.S. soybean farmers are switching to corn, so Brazilian soybean farmers are expanding into cattle pastures, so Brazilian cattlemen are displaced to the Amazon. It’s the remorseless economics of commodities markets." Indonesia and Malaysia face a similar crisis, with oil palm plantations displacing rainforests in order to supply biofuels for Europe.


The bottom line on the food crisis was summed up in a May 6 commentary by Barry Coates, executive director of Oxfam New Zealand, in which he reminded the world that "even without the current food crisis, over 850 million people do not have enough to eat. Now many more face a similar fate."


Meanwhile India’s Finance Minister P. Chidambaram has articulated an ethical bottom line: "As citizens of the world, we ought to be concerned about growing food and converting it into fuel [to meet] lopsided priorities of certain countries. It is the most foolish thing that humanity can do."


The ethanol and biodiesel industries have struggled for decades to overcome technological, biological and political obstacles. Now, just as the biofuel express gathers some real momentum, the prospect of worldwide hunger could derail it for good.


Stan Cox is the author of the recently published Sick Planet: Corporate Food and Medicine.

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