From claims that obese Westerners are devouring the world’s produce to pleas that panicked developing nations stop hoarding it, recriminations were flying at a two-day UN conference focused on soaring international food prices this week – and The Guardian reports that anger ran highest over US policies aggressively promoting biofuels farming. Small wonder: the International Monetary Fund has estimated that the trend toward farms producing fuel instead of food is responsible for 20-30% of recent price spikes, the International Food Policy Research Institute, a US think tank, came up with 30%, and the clean-energy research firm New Energy Research offered a more conservative 8%. But US agriculture secretary Ed Schafer would own up to only 3%.
And while the food riots resulting from price rises are easy to see, the environmental benefits of biofuels are not. Report after report this year has warned that flight from fossil fuels to biofuels could see forests cleared and cropland diverted while both food costs and greenhouse emissions rise.
Ethanol fuel made from corn – big business in the US – has taken particularly heavy blame for food prices, as it uses up grain that could feed people and livestock, and fields that could be planted with other edible crops. Last year’s US energy bill included a full-steam-ahead target to quintuple ethanol production in 15 years – a commitment that John McCain and 23 other Senate Republicans last month urged the EPA to ignore because of the food crisis. Across the pond, the EU is still trying to figure out how to insert sustainability caveats into its controversial plan to make 10% of all transport fuel renewable (i.e. plant-based) by 2020.
Aside from the ethanol acrimony, the UN meeting heard another strident message: Ban Ki-moon’s call for 50% more agricultural production by 2030 to support a rising global population. To make this much food, the world may not be able to spare many fields for ethanol.
For more on what’s driving food prices – including the possibility that we’ve lost some arable land to global warming and are set to lose more – Grist’s breakdown and this International Food Policy Research Institute report are good places to start. And this recent Nature News story (subscription required) has a look over the biofuel industry’s horizon.
Photo: Harvey Leifert