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Biofuels and Food Shortages

Biofuels and their Relationship to Food Shortages

by Marlene ffrench Mullen, 01 May 2008

Due to the recent alarm about food shortages and fears of world famine, biofuels are being accused for this worldwide misfortune. In a recent article in The Irish Times (16/04/2008) , the ‘Dash to Biofuels’, the use of arable land in the growing and production of biofuels is being isolated as the main culprit for rising food prices and the shortage in the supply of food; including a quote from a UN spokesperson condemning the use of biofuel as ‘a crime against humanity’.
This represents an enormous change in public opinion. An article in Newsweek from August 2005 welcomed biofuels as green gold. With oil prices going through the roof, biofuels were seen as a viable alternative to petrol and diesel. In 2008 the situation has changed dramatically. The front page cover of Time of April 14th condemned the clean energy myth. The article heavily criticized politicians and big business for pushing corn-based ethanol as alternatives to oil. The article accuses biofuels for driving up world food prices, helping to destroy the Amazon rainforest and making global warming worse. This may be a skewed presentation of the facts.
Ethanol (a form of alcohol) is mainly distilled from sugar cane and corn. In 2005, Brazil’s sugar-cane fields supported a network of 320 ethanol plants. By 2010 the number will increase to 380. Brazil’s 20 million drivers use petrol that is mixed with ethanol. New-generation (flex-fuel) cars can run on straight ethanol, which sells for half the costs of petrol. Local Brazilian sugar barons and giant multinationals continue to invest billions to supply countries like South Korea and Japan who are eager to supplement their growing oil requirements with biofuel. Today Brazil produces 19 billion litres of sugarcane ethanol, enough to supply 45% of its transportation fuel supplies. This 45% is produced from only 1% of its arable land and a tiny portion (which is a portion too much) of the Amazon is being torn down to grow the sugarcane. They’ve reduced fertilizer use while increasing yields, and they convert leftover biomass into electricity.
The US makes ethanol from corn. Its production represents 3% of all transport fuel. In Europe rapeseed is grown for biofuel production. In a recent article in the Irish Times, Ismael Serageldin, director of the Bibliotheca Alexandria and a former vice-president of the World Bank, heavily criticised the corn policy of the US in particular ‘for being terribly wrong, for having an enormous impact’. The U.S farmers are selling one fifth of their corn to ethanol production, so being a more lucrative crop the U.S soybean farmers are switching to corn production which results in Brazilian farmers growing more soybeans thereby expanding into cattle pastures. This in turn results in Brazilian cattlemen being displaced to the Amazon rain forest.
There is no doubt that the steep rise in the costs of staple foods such as wheat, soya and rice are creating riots in poor countries such as Haiti and Zimbabwe and creating political instability in developing countries worldwide. Food riots have been reported in Egypt, Cameroon, Ivory Coast, Senegal, Burkina Faso, Ethiopia, Indonesia, Madagascar, the Philippines and Haiti in the past month. In Pakistan and Thailand, soldiers have been deployed to avoid food being looted from fields and warehouses. It is estimated that globally, food prices have risen 40 percent since mid-2007. In Haiti[1] for instance, the price of rice has doubled since December. This is disastrous in a country where most people live on less than $2 a day.
Is all this food shortage related to the growing biofuel industry? Is it the case as Richard R Ernst, a Swiss Chemist and Nobel Prize winner claims that growing biofuels is ‘taking the food of the poor to burn it as fuel for the cars of the rich.’? Is it really that simple; stop biofuels and the world food shortage stops? Will we finally be able to feed the world? Is the US going to start growing corn to feed the poor? We should not forget that the food industry is a business. In 2007, the US corn exports are up 15% with higher yields per acre. At this moment the agri-business stocks are very high because a lot of hoarding is being done to obtain higher prices.
Apart from China and every other modern nation, concreting over vast area’s of land previously used for food production, major contributing factors such as drought, desertification, food crop disease, more frequent flooding and changing weather patterns and not least bad local politics, have affected agricultural production worldwide and are primarily responsible for the hike in food costs (because of those politics parts of Africa have been starving for decades long before biofuels came on the market). In Australia for instance, once a major producer of wheat and rice, consecutive droughts have devastated crop yields, pushing prices up. Australia’s rice production is down 90%. Instead of growing rice which takes huge quantities of water, they have switched to growing grapes which takes less water and for which they are getting a better price. These droughts have been caused by changing weather patterns for which the major culprit has been the burning of fossil fuels, not the growing of biofuels. The burning of fossil fuels releases the carbon that was stored in the Earth, into the atmosphere, thereby causing global warming and the changing weather patterns that come with it. Blaming biofuels for the world’s environmental problems does not take the problem away. Oil remains a limited resource and a heavy contributor to global warming and its consequences. The price of food is directly related to the price of energy. Take biofuels out of the chain and the price of oil goes up, thereby increasing the price of food.
As oil becomes scarce and harder and harder to extract, the cost of the next liter is becoming more expensive than the last. In that per liter price, the environmental cost of diesel production has never been taken into account.
While there has been a big focus on biofuels and its impact on rocketing food prices another major contributing factor to food shortage has been water and the shortage of it. Food production remains by far the largest consumer of fresh water. Irrigation alone uses fully two-thirds of all our water, to produce the crops either to feed us, or to feed livestock. Intense irrigation has led to dramatic increases in soil destruction through salination – the build-up of salt in the soil. Pollution, especially from the heavy use of nitrates in fertilizers has led to lakes and even inland seas being destroyed due to excess nitrogen and phosphorus. Rising sea levels means that more clean water sources are being contaminated, increasing the pressure on an already taxed global water supply.
Now this does not mean that the biofuel industry is not a component in the present global carbon problem, or that it does not play a part in rising food prices (i.e. Filipines and Indonesia). The Amazon rainforest is an incomparable storehouse of carbon. Using land to grow fuel or food leads to the destruction of forests, wetlands and grasslands that store enormous amounts of carbon. Even though in Brazil, only a tiny portion of the Amazon is being torn down to grow the sugarcane that fuels most Brazillian cars, Brazil now ranks fourth in the world for carbon emissions, and most of its emissions come from deforestation. There is no doubt that the tearing down of the rainforest has been accelerated by the demand for biofuels. Indonesia has bulldozed and burned so much wilderness to grow palm-oil trees for biodiesel that it is now 3rd among the world’s top carbon emitters according to a report by Wetlands International. Malaysia is converting forests into palm-oil farms so fast that it is running out of uncultivated land.

This tearing down of the rainforest accelerates global warming irrespective of the reason farmers may have for cutting it, whether it is for producing cereals, livestock or biofuels. Our present food problem is a consequence of the remorseless economics of commodity markets. Markets drive behaviour and high commodity prices will encourage deforestation everywhere whether it is for food or fuel. Without incentives to prevent deforestation, the world’s rain forests are severely threatened and farmers worldwide will continue to grow the crops that they get the best price for. We need to protect the rainforests on a global scale because as long as there is money to be made from it, farmers will continue to tear it down. The basic problem is that the rainforests are worth more deforested than intact. Here governments worldwide carry a huge responsibility. If we don’t want the farmers to tear down the forests, we have to pay them to leave them alone!
Deforestation accounts for 20% of all current carbon emissions. To stop deforestation is our major global challenge, whether it is for growing fuel or food. That means limiting the expansion of agriculture, a daunting task as the world’s population keeps expanding. The population of the Earth is increasing by the size of Ireland every 2 ½ weeks. And again the responsibility lies with the governments worldwide who carry a duty to address this through increased sex education.
To speak locally; what is the situation with biofuels in Ireland? In Ireland plant oil is made from 100% pure Irish rapeseed oil. For the production of rapeseed no chemical processing is required. In other words, the production is safe and non-toxic under appropriate farming conditions. In Ireland rapeseed was originally grown on set-aside land. Rapeseed is a Brasica, which is a rotation crop. It can only be grown on the same piece of land every 4 years. It adds phosphorus to the soil through its deep roots. It is therefore very beneficial to wheat production for instance, grown on a rotation basis following a rapeseed crop. As with most biomass production large volumes of materials must be transported. For the oil to be extracted seed must be transported. The by-product is a cake, which has to be transported to be used as animal food. Consequently centralized production is much less efficient and less economic. Decentralized production is recommended resulting in many small production units closer to the supplier and subsequent user. In 1989 over 300 decentralized rapeseed production units existed in Bavaria, which is Slíghtly smaller than Ireland. There are many more now.
Another ethical question needing explanation is that since the 1973 oil embargo there is now a backlog of effective methodologies developed that would save or substitute oil yet these continue to remain mostly untapped. Fuel saving devices have only slowly been developed and put into the market. Why is it that only now (35 years later) considerable work is finally being done on electric cars?
A question that always arises whenever reading or listening to someone debunking an environmentally sustainable course of action is ‘what is their motive?’ and more critically ‘what is their solution?’ It would not be surprising to see nuclear fuel and other derivatives of such technology gain more public support and positive airtime, as the growing anti biofuels sentiment gains more publicity.
In reply to John O’Shea’s remark, it is not good enough to blame the food crisis on the SUV driver’s of the world. SUV drivers may or may not be ignorant but they are not the sole cause of the food crisis. What is required at this stage is a global dialogue and a task management of the world’s food crisis without the hysteria. We have a worldwide problem, we need worldwide planning. In fact, one could say we almost need a moratorium to concreting good agricultural land for industry and houses. Is it for instance acceptable to turn good agricultural land into motorways along the East Coast of Ireland?
The United Nations are going to have to come up with a comprehensive plan of action rather then taking the easy way out and blaming one recent industry for the problems of this planet. We have depleted many natural resources. We are destroying our one solid resource; the rainforest that can deal with global warming. We have indeed done a very good job on depleting all our natural resources on Earth and we need a global policy to turn the thing around, not hysteria.

Another issue and challenge facing everyone is not only finding a viable replacement for oil and growing enough food. That entire premise is based on the implicit acceptance that we must somehow maintain our present levels of excess. Excess is the problem, the need to eat more, drive faster, claim dominion over everything so that it can be turned to serve our purpose. And that is the question that faces us, how do we change this drive towards excess? With less demand supply is no longer a problem, and in reality the many who survive on so very little should be a clear enough signpost that gluttony is killing everyone and everything.

Sources:
‘Dash to biofuels a risk to poor’ Article by Mary Fitzgerald, Irish Times 16/04/08
Global water crisis threatens millions of lives and jobs Article by John Gibbons Irish Times 24/04/08
Time Magazine April 14th 2008
Newsweek Magazine August 8th 2008

[1] Haiti imports nearly all of its food, including more than 80 percent of its rice. This is because much of Haiti’s farmland has been abandoned because of soil decimated by erosion, deforestation, flooding and tropical storms. In the past rice was a luxury in Haiti, only eaten on special occasions and on Sundays. Most of Haiti’s self-sufficiency in home-grown rice was destroyed by the intervention of the US backed military government in 1986. Tax on imported rice and other cheap products from the US was slashed thereby creating a dependency on imported foods. The plans of the US to make Haiti into an industrial nation providing cheap labour never materialized leaving the country without an income and without the ability to produce its own food.

 

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