Sunday, July 16, 2006

Biofuels vs. Food: The Debate Continues

From the Discovery Channel via digg, Lester Brown is speaking up on the US' recent rediscovery of biofuels, and claiming that the massive shift some are suggesting would mean greater starvation for about a third of the world's population:
...the growing demand for biofuels is beginning to adversely affect food supplies worldwide, and could eventually lead to serious economic and political instability, warned Brown, president of the [Earth] Policy Institute.

"In effect what we have are 800 million motorists who want to maintain their mobility and two billion people who want to survive," he said in a press conference on Thursday, announcing the release of a new report on the problem.

Those two billion are the same people who already spend more than half their annual income — in most cases less than $3,000 — on food, he said.

The competition between corn and ethanol struck home to Brown recently, he said, as he was reading U.S. Department of Agriculture grain production numbers.

"I was looking at USDA grain estimates and two numbers jumped out at me," he said.

World grain demand is projected to grow by 20 million tons this year. Some 14 million tons of that demand is expected to be for biofuels for cars in the United States.

That leaves just six million tons to satisfy the food needs of many countries that import U.S. grain — at a time when grain stocks are at a 34-year low and climate change and water shortages are making it harder than ever to grow grain, he said.

What’s driving the demand for biofuels is the high price of oil, said Brown, which has made biofuels economically attractive. At the same time, it’s becoming clear that the price of a basic staple food like corn is no longer based on its demand as a food, but also as a fuel.

"Everything we eat can be converted into ethanol or biodiesel," Brown explained. "As a result, the line between the food economy and energy economy has become blurred."

Writer Larry O'Hanlon also got comments from the Renewable Fuels Association, the trade group for the ethanol industry. As you might imagine, they believe Brown's statement is overblown. Interestingly enough, spokesman Matt Harwig makes the somewhat incredible claim that each kernel of corn can be used for food and fuel, because the refuse from the process, "distiller's grain," can be used to feed cattle. "It’s not as though we’re taking that entire kernel out of the food process," he said.

Technically, that's correct, but feeding grain to animals destined for slaughter is about the least efficient way available for feeding people. Plenty of folks at digg are also criticizing Brown, claiming that we already overproduce grain. I tend to side with him, though, as I've read his arguments about the effects of global warming on food production, which includes the inevitable entry of the Chinese into the global grain market: with growing desertification, they're having a hard time growing enough to feed their massive population. Biofuels as they're being touted currently in Washington probably aren't the answer...

That doesn't mean that they're not part of the answer, though -- again, we've got to get beyond this mindset that one form of energy or fuel will magically keep us running at current levels (including current levels of growth). There's nothing that will do this, and we've got to look at a broader energy mix. Even more importantly, though, we've got to start implementing conservation measures. Technological solutions are very attractive -- I'm as guilty of believing technology will save us as anyone -- but we've already got technology that will allow us to use energy much more efficiently than we do now. Why aren't we talking about banning the incandescent bulb, for instance, or making serious public and private investments in public transportation and hybrid and electric cars? Wouldn't our money go much further right now by investing it in measures like these while still building infrastructures for biofuels and renewable energy. The problem I see here, and it's pretty obvious, involves our tendency to count on what might happen tomorrow instead of doing what we can today... Finally, of course, none of these efforts will create a risk of further impoverishing others. Sounds like we've already got the tools for creating a "win-win" -- where's the will?

Apologies for ranting -- some of the snarkier comments at digg got me a bit riled up... When did right-wingers become so prominent in their discussions?

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