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The Role of Biofuels in a Warming World

RP Siegel | Monday November 5th, 2012 | 3 Comments


As part of our series on biofuels, it is important to look at the role that biofuels play in ecosystems that are getting hotter due to climate change.

We know that the 14 billion gallons of ethanol produced by American agriculture last year displaced close to 10 billion gallons of gasoline, reducing carbon emissions that contribute to warming. Biofuel also increased energy independence and source diversification, while helping to keep costs under control in a world of ever-increasing demand.

But growing the corn used to produce that much ethanol required the use of land and water resources as well as fertilizer that might have otherwise contributed to food production. How did that play out in a year of record heat and drought that saw domestic crop shortfalls and rising food prices? Were the calls from far and wide to roll back the ethanol mandate in light of these food impacts justified? Did the costs on the food end of the spectrum negate the benefits on the energy side?

When I spoke with Bob Dinneen of the Renewable Fuels Association, he pointed out that the 11 percent shortfall in domestic corn production was ameliorated by a global response, triggered by the rising price signal. The increased price bolstered production abroad, which resulted in a global corn crop that was only two percent below last year’s.  So perhaps those crying out about food vs. fuel are looking at the problem too narrowly.

These themes were reinforced when I spoke with Fleming Voetmann,  Public Affairs Council of Novozymes.

Voetmann told me that, “It’s not really accurate to focus on corn ethanol as a major factor in the drought and the food crisis. Of course, corn ethanol is a part of the equation but it’s a tiny part of the equation. It’s like a bucket of water in a tsunami.”

He went on to recommend moving forward, rather than pointing fingers. “What we need to do is accelerate investments in agriculture, particularly outside the U.S.”

I wondered what investments overseas had to do with last summer’s drought, but he connected the dots for me. It turns out that, in terms of global market dynamics, America’s commitment to corn ethanol has had consequences that have been quite positive, if somewhat unintended, for both food and energy.

“Over the past 30 years or so, we have had under-investment in agriculture, outside the U.S.,” Voetman said. This has meant that in other regions, particularly in developing countries, agricultural productivity has become stagnant.

“Why?” I asked.

Because the government farm subsidies that allow America to flood the world market with corn at super-low prices leave little incentive for these countries to develop new technologies or their own agricultural capabilities. Says Voetman, “The world market became dependent on cheap corn from the U.S. And if you have really cheap commodities, it becomes difficult for the least developed countries to invest in agriculture.”

We’ve seen this in our own hemisphere where cheap exports that poured into Mexico under NAFTA undermined the livelihoods of Mexican corn farmers – this lead to a flood of illegal immigrants coming North, desperate to find new ways to feed their families.

America’s corn ethanol initiative has increased demand which allowed prices to return to pre-subsidy levels. The higher prices make international investment in agriculture more viable, in turn, boosting economic growth.

This international context is the one in which Voetman would like us to view this summer’s price increases. According to Voetman we would be wise to adapt a global perspective when it comes to thinking about food and renewable biofuels. It makes sense from the standpoint of resilience. Given the unpredictable impacts of global warming on agricultural production, distributing production around the world spreads the risk. That way, if one region gets hit hard, another region can increase production and pick up the slack. It also has positive implications in terms of alleviating hunger worldwide, because every region has the potential to grow its own food.

Voetamn asserts that we really need to push now for agriculture investments, particularly in Africa. Why Africa? “Because over the past 30-40 years there have been enormous yield increases all around the world due to technology as well as agricultural practices, but Africa has not participated in that. And that is unfortunate because there is a lot of good land in Africa, there is a lot of prime soil there, and good climate, too. That would make the globe as such, much more robust at managing these extreme weather patterns.”

When you think about the prospect of 9 billion people on the planet needing food and energy, the idea of an African breadbasket mirroring that of the American Midwest, is a consoling thought. Is it possible? Certainly the opportunity is there.

Another thought to consider: Unlike fossil fuels, which are only found in certain regions, and are extracted with increasing difficulty, biofuel inputs can be grown almost anywhere. This adds a dimension of geographical diversity to our energy supply that we really didn’t have before and which will become increasingly important given the wild swings  our climate can be expected to take.

Novozymes is sponsoring a very interesting, multi-faceted demonstration project in sustainable agriculture in Mozambique which we wrote about last year. We will be providing an update on that project in next week’s edition of this series.

[Image credit: wanderingnome: Flickr Creative Commons]

RP Siegel, PE, is an inventor, consultant and author. He co-wrote the eco-thriller Vapor Trails, the first in a series covering the human side of various sustainability issues including energy, food, and water in an exciting and entertaining format. Now available on Kindle.

Follow RP Siegel on Twitter.


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  • Axton

    I suspect that using our corn for sugar (HFCS) and for cattle feed is a much bigger problem in terms of wasting the crop. How do those uses compare to ethanol? They must be much bigger.

    • RPSiegel

      About 80% goes into livestock feed. Hence the saying, “the corn crop comes to market on 4 legs.” About 12% into various foods, including HFCS, with the rest going into industrial applications, including ethanol.

  • Mythbuster

    According to the FAO, the global food production is enough to feed 14 billion persons – we do not need to produce MORE food – we need to empower the poor. A good way is to make them less dependent of oil at 110 $/barrel