UNITED NATIONS, MediaGlobal News—The last decade’s global quest for sustainable energy has put crop-based biofuels at the forefront, and with it, the longstanding “food vs. fuel” debate – the dispute on whether to divert crops to feed vehicles instead of feeding households.
With developed countries investing heavily in biofuel production, there are rising concerns for the developing world, which will bear the brunt of increasing food prices and declining food quality.
“If food reduction occurs because of higher prices, it’s generally the world’s poor who are eating less,” scientist Timothy Searchinger of Princeton University tells MediaGlobal News.
In his recent analysis, “Understanding the Biofuel Trade-offs between Indirect Land Use Change, Hunger and Poverty,” Searchinger draws out in simple terms the inevitable outcomes of the continuous and increasing use of food crops for biofuel: “One involves the likely consequences of biofuels for greenhouse gas emissions because of the plowing up of forests and grasslands and their release of carbon. The other involves the consequences for hunger and poverty.”
Today, the most common forms of biofuels are ethanol and biodiesel. Two key factors dictate the suitability of crops for biofuel use: the amount of fuel it yields per acre, and the net energy produced by the resulting biofuel, minus the energy used in the production process.
Sugarcane, cassava, corn and wheat are among the crops that produce the most fuel yield in ethanol production, and palm oil and coconut in biodiesel.
Between 2001 and 2011, biofuel production jumped from 20 billion liters each year to over 100 billion liters annually. The biggest leap was in 2008 when production surged by 44 percent as the world struggled with economic recession and the oil price bubble.
Expectedly, food prices also went up. Cereal prices oscillated annually between 2008 and 2012, always remaining 2 to 2.5 times higher than their prices in 2004. The price of sugar has steadily increased by 80 to 340 percent annually since 2000.
In terms of net energy gained, ethanol from sugarcane in Brazil is the most energy-efficient, producing eight units of energy for each energy unit used in its production and distillation. However, the widely produced corn-based ethanol offers only 1.5 units of energy for each unit of energy invested.
“It takes an extraordinary amount of crops to make a small amount of fuel,” Searchinger tells MediaGlobal News.
To paint a more complete picture, the United States, for example, used 32 million tons of corn to create 3.4 billion tons of ethanol in 2004 – a considerable harvest that could have fed over 100 million people. Additionally, the recent crop-based ethanol expansion has burdened import-dependent developing countries with higher costs of basic food commodities.
Searchinger explains these impacts by outlining the three basic alternative responses to the diversion of food to biofuel production: the crops are replaced by indirect land use change (ILUC), the crops are replaced by jacking up production on existing agricultural land, or the crops are not replaced at all.
The first two scenarios mean releasing more carbon to the atmosphere and destroying biodiversity. They also mean competing for land use over other agricultural activities, possibly leading to the displacement of nutrient-rich crops such as vegetables. In his report, Searchinger points out that the impacts on food quality, nutrition, and economic value are greater than the advantages gained from using food to create biofuel.
On clearing up forests for agricultural use, Searchinger says, “Yes, we save on fossil fuel. But we do it at the expense of losing this big sink of carbon, which is critical in holding down climate change.”
The third scenario poses a great challenge to the global issue of hunger and food security.
“When crops are used for biofuels, the first direct impact is to reduce food and feed availability,” according to a UN report on biofuel and food security released last month.
The world needs to boost agricultural productivity by at least 60 to 110 percent to feed the entire population by 2050.
“In theory, if you could produce that 60 percent more food in the same agricultural of land and go beyond that yield, you might be able to use some of the crops for biofuel,” explains Searchinger.
“But the first question is – is that possible? The answer is, it’s unlikely. And the second question is, if you were to do that, how would you make that happen?”
While there have yet to be definite answers to Searchinger’s questions, there is a more certain projection that ethanol and biodiesel production will expand from 113 billion liters in 2012 to180 billion liters by 2021.
Searchinger says that it is a matter of people losing track of the numbers, but more important is getting on the right track to ensure food security. He surmises, “People forgot a very obvious point that when you use food for fuel, something else has to happen.”