Monday, July 09, 2007

Will biofuels starve the poor?

The law professor and applied economist C. Ford Runge and the agricultural economist Benjamin Senauer write in the recent issue of Foreign Affairs about "How Biofuels Could Starve the Poor." Quote:
By putting pressure on global supplies of edible crops, the surge in ethanol production will translate into higher prices for both processed and staple foods around the world. Biofuels have tied oil and food prices together in ways that could profoundly upset the relationships between food producers, consumers, and nations in the years ahead, with potentially devastating implications for both global poverty and food security.
Ethicurean links to Will Saletan at Slate and the Washington Post, who dissents ... er, half-dissents.
True, biotechnology can go wrong. But it can also go wonderfully right. Scientists are learning to split corn so it can make ethanol and still feed animals. We're studying the use of microbes to extract fuel from straw and wood waste. We're trying to grow biofuel in algae. We're even learning to make fuel from animal fat and excrement.

Yes, ethanol subsidies are a scam. Yes, we should drop our trade barriers and let Brazilian sugar cane wipe out American corn. Yes, we need solar power, conservation, and efficiency. But don't give up on biofuel. It just needs time to grow.


Janet said...

Although I'm not particularly a biofuels proponent (I'm pretty convinced that corn ethanol is essentially a scam), I do think it's important to consider the potential of other potential biofuel sources. A release posted today on Eureka Alert at adds evidence to the possibilities. What's exciting to me about switch grass and this other grass noted in the release is not only that they are better potential sources than corn, they also are not generally food crops and they are perennial plants, which means they won't consume fuel in their production like corn does.

Please note: I'm so far from being an expert in this field that I hope I'm not misunderstanding what I'm reading!

Tricia said...

I typically buy eggs from a woman at our local farmer's market. Today she had a sign up apologizing for price increases - apparently a bag of chicken feed has gone up $5 since spring, and she finally had to pass on some of that price. I forgot to ask the total price for a bag of chicken feed (is that a 10% increase? 100%?). I don't begrudge her recouping the costs, but it hit me: the price of corn is going up and having an impact on what I eat, in an obvious and measurable way.

cory said...

Currently the U.S. is trying to use corn for food, feed, to make plastics (polylactic acid) and biofuels. Without rolling out the stats I think it's pretty obvious that corn can't do it all. I believe we desperately need to end our reliance on non-renewable resource of energy and that we need to come up with environmentally friendly ways to deliver packaging materials, but corn is not a plausible source material to do all this.