Earth Policy Institute: Lester Brown on Food-Based Fuels

Lester Brown (see our TreeHuggerTV interview), founder of the Earth Policy Institute and author of Plan B 2.0, has just released a new analysis on the dangers of using grain to make fuel. "The grain required to fill a 25-gallon SUV gas tank with ethanol will feed one person for a year. The grain to fill the tank every two weeks over a year will feed 26 people." Granted, the ethanol debate can be hard to follow; many interested parties have claimed that ethanol is good or bad, energy positive or negative. Some very credible sources see a bright future for the aloholic biofuel, though not necessarily via food crops, and biodiesel generally has less detractors. But regardless of the potential of biofuels as fuel, we also need to deal with the potential problems caused by using food to make them.Back to Lester brown:

"Cars, not people, will claim most of the increase in world grain consumption this year. The U.S. Department of Agriculture projects that world grain use will grow by 20 million tons in 2006. Of this, 14 million tons will be used to produce fuel for cars in the United States, leaving only 6 million tons to satisfy the world’s growing food needs. [...]

The amount of corn used in U.S. ethanol distilleries has tripled in five years, jumping from 18 million tons in 2001 to an estimated 55 million tons from the 2006 crop. [...] In Iowa, a staggering 55 ethanol plants are operating or have been proposed. [...] The profitability of crop-based fuel production has created an investment juggernaut.

But here's the main problem, the basis for the food vs. fuel competition:

As the price of oil climbs, it becomes increasingly profitable to convert farm commodities into automotive fuel, either ethanol or biodiesel. In effect, the price of oil becomes the support price for food commodities. Whenever the food value of a commodity drops below its fuel value, the market will convert it into fuel.

What that means is that climbing oil prices (it recently hit $78/barrel, and I suspect that people who will read this post in our archives in a few years will think that was the good old days) also make the price of food increase, not only because of higher transportation and fertilizer costs, but because the demand for grain to produce fuel will rise in parallel. It's a double whammy.

Here's what needs to be avoided:

Simply put, the stage is being set for a head-on collision between the world’s 800 million affluent automobile owners and food consumers. Given the insatiable appetite of cars for fuel, higher grain prices appear inevitable. The only question is when food prices will rise and by how much. Indeed, in recent months, wheat and corn prices have risen by one fifth.

For the 2 billion poorest people in the world, many of whom spend half or more of their income on food, rising grain prices can quickly become life threatening. The broader risk is that rising food prices could spread hunger and generate political instability in low-income countries that import grain, such as Indonesia, Egypt, Nigeria, and Mexico. This instability could in turn disrupt global economic progress.

What to do? The Earth Policy Institute has this suggestion which makes a lot of sense to us (at least to mitigate the immediate effects and gain enough time to implement deeper changes to our society - we need to go much further than just efficiency gains, we need to redesign the human systems around us so that they are not on a collision course with nature anymore):

There are alternatives to using food-based fuels. For example, the equivalent of the 3 percent gain in automotive fuel supplies from ethanol could be achieved several times over—and at a fraction of the cost—simply by raising auto fuel efficiency standards by 20 percent. Investing in public transport could reduce overall dependence on cars.

There are other fuel options as well. While there are no alternatives to food for people, there is an alternative source of fuel for cars, one that involves shifting to highly efficient gas-electric hybrid plug-ins. This would enable motorists to do short-distance driving, such as the daily commute, with electricity. If wind-rich countries such as the United States, China, and those in Europe invest heavily in wind farms to feed cheap electricity into the grid, cars could run primarily on wind energy, and at the gasoline equivalent of less than $1 a gallon.

To which we'd add biofuels made from waste biomass/cellulose. Normally, food-based ethanol would be just a temporary measure while that technology is perfected and deployed, but the danger is that a strong farmers lobby will delay and stop that progression for profit motives.

We highly recommend that you read the whole thing here and explore the Earth Policy Institute's website. See also: ::Grain-Based Ethanol Risk Hinges On Supply Projections, ::Shell Draws A Bright Line: No Food For Fuel

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