skip to main content

→ Top Stories:
Clean Power plan
Safe Chemicals

Nathanael Greene’s Blog

The dangers of the food vs. fuel debate

Nathanael Greene

Posted April 20, 2008

, , , ,
Share | | |

A quick review of a Google news search for "ethanol" and "food" is instructive. Here's an excerpt of the results:

(Got to love that last one -- Fair and balanced as long as by "fair" you mean shill for the looney neocons and and "balanced" you mean gleefully biased.)

The food vs. fuel fight is in full swing. I've weighed in on it before and I'm working on an editorial with a friend to try to raise the profile of a few critical points:

  1. There are many reasons food prices are high and the poor are starving including energy prices, increasing demand for meat as part of changing diets in developing countries, extreme weather events probably linked to global warming, misguided national and international agricultural policies, and certainly making biofuels from food crops too.
  2. While corn ethanol consumes about 24% of US corn production and US corn production is about 40% of world corn production, ethanol consumes just 4% of world grain (corn, rice, wheat, soy, etc.). Common sense suggests that food-crop derived biofuels would a similarly small role in overall grain prices. While inelastic supply and demand curves can lead to disproportionate impacts, economic modeling confirms that biofuels are a modest part of the food price picture.
  3. Nevertheless, just as we strive to develop biofuels with the largest greenhouse gas benefits, we should simultaneously strive to develop biofuels that don't interfere with food markets.
  4. Fortunately, the solution to these twin challenges are the same--developing and deploying as quickly as possible biofuels made from the non-nutritive part of plant culled from our waste streams, grown on lands that have been degraded by poor management but have not reverted to their natural state, or integrated into food production in a way that neither diminishes food production or the quality of the land.
  5. The RFS just adopted is not perfect, but it is the first biofuels policy to mandate a shift in our production practices in a way that will address these challenges. The minimum GHG standards, which require EPA to address both emissions from direct and indirect land-use, and the land-use safeguards (see our new factsheet on these) will over time make biofuels that do not compete for prime arable land or ecologically sensitive lands the only ones that can comply with the federal fuel mandate.
  6. Now we need to take the next steps on our policies including adopting a federal low-carbon fuel standard and revamping our ethanol and biodiesel tax credits (and our ethanol import tariff too) to be performance-based and technology neutral.

While I worry that the current mud-fight over food vs. fuel will lead to dangerously blunt policies that would throw out the biofuels baby with the bath water, I worry more that the mud-fight will distract us from doing something serious about world hunger. The argument that we should address the starvation being caused by current high prices through minimizing the production of biofuels from food crops is wrong and distracts us from the real solutions. This argument is basically calling for addressing world hunger by encouraging overproduction here in the U.S. (Less corn ethanol means more supply, more supply means lower prices -- or so the argument goes.) But overproduction in developed countries comes at a high cost to our environment, to farmers around the world, and ultimately to the economies of the countries with the most hungry. Overproduction is what we’ve had for decades, and it has crushed farmers in developing countries around the world. Subsidized overproduction and the resulting cheap food does trickle down to feed more people, but it’s not sustainable -- nor is it the most effective way to feed the poor.

We can, and must, move biofuels as quickly as possible to non-food biomass grown and harvested in ways that does not aggravate the competition for land; we have to do this both to fight global warming and to disentangle biofuels from food prices. But scapegoating biofuels just distracts us from the policies that move the big levers. I'm not a hunger or poverty policy expert, but it seems obvious to me that in the short term dramatically increased food aid is key. And in the mid- to long-term keys would include ag development aid, better nutrition policy here at home to change our diet, and reducing oil consumption through vehicle efficiency, VMT reduction, electrification of transportation, and getting biofuels from non-food crops.

U.S. consumption of meat and oil are ultimately the biggest culprits here. The idea that changing our biofuels policy is the only thing the most affluent country on earth can do to make sure the poorest have enough food is just an abdication of responsibility.

Share | | |


Switchboard is the staff blog of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the nation’s most effective environmental group. For more about our work, including in-depth policy documents, action alerts and ways you can contribute, visit

Feeds: Nathanael Greene’s blog

Feeds: Stay Plugged In