Jean Ziegler gave a harsh assessment on biofuels at a UN press conference on Friday, calling for a 5–year moratorium on pure biofuels. Ziegler is the Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food for the United Nations.
With more than 850 million people in the world chronically hungery, Ziegler said it was a “crime against humanity” to, essentially, turn food into fuel.
The statistics on world hunger tell a grim story. At least 25,000 people die from hunger or its consequences every day. In the time it takes you to read this blog post, as many as 100 or more people may very well starve to death. But to what extent can biofuel production be attributed to world hunger, or increasing the already stark realities of poverty and starvation?
Is Ziegler’s statement appropriately damning or irresponsible and unfair?
Rick Tolman, CEO of the National Corn Growers Association thinks the later, calling it a “travesty” to make such statements in public and calling for Ziegler’s immediate resignation.
And so the shouting match ensues.
But despite whether Archer-Daniels Midland is a purveyor of humanitarian crimes or simply “resourceful by nature”, there is no question that food prices are exploding, with corn prices up 40%, soybeans 75%, and wheat 70% – with no end in sight.
So are biofuels – particularly corn-based ethanol in the U.S. – the next great thing to wean us off of fossil fuel, or a scourge foisted upon us by Big Agribusiness and government subsidies?
All BioFuels Aren’t Created Equal
In the United States, the main source of ethanol is corn.
Corn is one of the least efficient sources for producing biofuel. For every unit of energy input to produce ethanol from corn, only 1.3 units of energy are created according to Green Dreams, a recent article in National Geographic magazine.
By contrast, in Brazil, a country that kicked their foreign oil habit long ago, sugarcane is the crop of choice for producing ethanol. Cane sugar yields twice as much fuel per acre, and the waste cane can be burned to fuel the distillery, reducing the fossil fuel needed to produce it. For every unit of energy input, 8 units of energy are produced.
Other biofuel options include biodiesel, produced from plant oils, and switchgrass, more efficient than corn, not a food crop, and can be grown on otherwise agriculturally undesirable land. But there is no magic bullet that will ameliorate altogether the environmental consequences of biofuels.
A report in Wired Science cites a study showing that demand for biofuels in North America and Europe has accelerated deforestation, thus eliminating a natural carbon sink exacerbating global warming.
Many are concerned that vast subsidies directed toward biofuel production under the guise of energy security a global warming mitigation are more like a wolf in sheep’s clothing, offering a viable solution to neither. Energy efficiency and simply using less fuel just isn’t as good for business
There is only so much land, that can grow only so much food or produce so much fuel, and one naturally will exclude the other.
The idea of biofuels may seem like a good one at first. But is it really? We are not in a position to ignore the entire production cycle of biofuel, it’s total cost including the environmental, social and macro-economic consequences.
We’ve already done that with fossil fuel, and the party’s over for doing it again.