Food or Fuel?

n2 biofuelscorn

We’re less than 50 years from the end of world oil supplies at current consumption rates according to a new report by HSBC bank. That coming shortage has brought new calls for increased reliance on biofuels, including from President Obama in last month’s energy speech. Biofuels are made from crops like corn, sugar, palm oil and cassava root which are harvested and then shipped to plants to be converted into fuels like ethanol.

While it’s likely that biofuels will play a significant role in powering more efficient vehicles in the U.S. and China, the poor nations that rely on these crops for food are facing rising rates of hunger and poverty as a result. Research by the World Bank found that an increase in biofuels production over 2004 levels would push more than 35 million additional people into absolute poverty, or an income of less than $1.25 per day. An analysis in the spring 2011 issue of The Journal of the Association of American Physicians and Surgeons, meanwhile, used statistics from the World Health Organization (WHO) to estimate that our growing need for biofuels will result in at least 192,000 excess deaths from hunger and poverty every year. This is higher than the 141,000 deaths the WHO estimates to be caused by global warming each year.

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization reports that 2011 has the highest food prices yet recorded. Despite the price of corn rising 73% in the U.S late last year, in part due to 40% of the crop now being used to make biofuel, Americans will probably only see a 2-3% increase in food prices in 2011. “For Americans it may mean a few extra cents for a box of cereal,” said Marie Brill, senior policy analyst at ActionAid, an international development group. “But that kind of increase puts corn out of the range for impoverished people.”

Though this year’s skyrocketing food prices can also be attributed to high oil prices and severe weather events destroying crops in Russia and Australia, the market for biofuels also bears some responsibility. “What is certain is that biofuels are playing a role,” said Oliver Dubois, a bioenergy expert at the Food and Agriculture Organization in Rome.

This is especially true since many industrialized countries have set ambitious goals outlining how they will transition from reliance on fossil fuels to greater use of biofuels. In the U.S., Congress mandated that biofuel use must reach 36 billion gallons annually by 2022, and Europe is looking to fuel 10% of their transportation from biofuels and other sources by 2020. But with the alarming food price increases and shortages, the viability of these mandates is being called into question.

“The policy really has to be food first,” said Hans Timmer, director of the Development Prospects Group of the World Bank. “The problems occur when you set targets for biofuels irrespective of the prices of other commodities.”

European biofuel developers are now looking to buy land in Africa specifically to grow jatropha, a small, relatively pest-free tree, for biofuels. Goldman Sachs has called jatropha a top candidate for future large-scale biodiesel production. The New York Times wrote that the weed far surpasses corn’s efficiency as a biofuel, and airlines have conducted successful trials in which 50% of their jet fuel was replaced with jatropha-based biofuel.

To those in poor nations, the crop’s greatest benefit lies in its ability to grow in poor soil and hot climates that are not amenable to edible crops, in turn posing little threat to global food production.