Biofuels – crime against humanity?

According to a United Nations food expert, Jean Ziegler, to convert food crops to fuel is a “crime against humanity” and he’s pushing for a five-year moratorium on biofuels.

It’s a pretty strong statement; but I don’t think it’s an over-exaggeration. The demand for feed stock for biofuels – often cereal crops; is behind some of the price rises we’ve been seeing for food lately.

Using food as fuel doesn’t just impact on prices of the grain and staples such bread, but a stack of other products such as beef, chicken and eggs. In fact, with corn and grains playing a role in so many products these days, the impact is felt across a wide spectrum of goods. A few cents here and a few cents there really adds up.

In Australia, we’ve seen the price of a dozen eggs go up by around 70 cents in the last 10 months; much of it due to grain price increases from pressure borne by the ethanol industry. This chart tells the story in the USA:

While the increases are an added burden to the average family, imagine what it’s like to those families not doing so well or in developing countries.

US Farmers were expected to plant plant 90.5 million acres of corn this year, the largest area since 1944 and 15% up on last year. How much of that will wind up as biofuel I don’t know.

Biofuels do have their place and I certainly don’t begrudge farmers making decent cash, but when it impacts on food prices like this, it’s a real worry – not to mention the added toll on the environment. It takes over 26 pounds of corn to make 1 gallon of ethanol. 26 pounds feeds a lot of people. It takes an acre of corn to produce 300 to 330 gallons of ethanol fuel.

According to the Energy Information Administration; around 3.9 billion gallons of ethanol and 91 million gallons of biodiesel were produced in the United States in 2005. Ethanol production capacity could rise to about 7.5 billion gallons and biodiesel capacity to about 1.1 billion gallons by 2008. You can start to imagine how much good farmland is being used to generate the feedstock for this sort of output. There’s not just the land area to consider, but also water usage, herbicides and pesticides; plus the fuel required to tend to these crops and the energy expended in processing. The recent corn boom has contributed to record levels of pollution in the Mississippi River and Gulf of Mexico due to fertilizer runoff.

Turning plants into gas sounds like a wonderfully simple solution to allow us to continue with current consumption levels; but biofuel production an incredibly complex issue – and not all that “green”. The biofuel industry as it stands now, for the most part, is simply a band-aid over a gaping wound.

We need to look more towards non-food crops that can be grown on barren land or on land we’ve already ruined for supplying the biofuel industry with feedstock. Thankfully, there are many researchers investigating these possibilities; even the possibility of cultivating algae for biodiesel production. We need to develop more electric cars. Again, we’re starting to see some movement in this area too; but it’s not happening quickly enough.

Most of all, we need to start saving gas right now as our consumption is far outpacing the implementation of new clean and green fuel technologies – and that’s something all of us who drive cars can do by following some simple gas saving guidelines.

Food as fuel is simply not on.