GSA meeting: Biofuels vs. food - developing countries suffer most

by Megan Sever
Thursday, January 5, 2012

HOUSTON – Perhaps it’s because the Geological Society of America’s annual meeting is being held in conjunction with the Soil Science Society of America, the American Society of Agronomy and the Crop Science Society of America, or perhaps it’s because it has been a much-discussed topic this year, but biofuels are big at this meeting.

I’ve sat through sessions examining everything from water use, feedstock, and crop rotation and soils, to life cycle analyses of the carbon emissions and energy used to grow and produce biofuels, all to determine whether the energy biofuels produce is actually better than that from fossil fuels. The presentations yielded heated discussions and little consensus on solutions.

But at least everyone’s talking about the challenges. And one particularly contentious topic involves food and whether biofuels take food away from the mouths of the poor, especially in the developing world.

Rapid expansion in biofuels mandates in the United States, United Kingdom and Europe over the last couple of years have coincided with 30 to 60 percent increases in food prices, as well as with the loss of tropical forestland. “That’s directly due to biofuels,” said Peter Hazell, an economist at the Centre for Environmental Policy at Imperial College London, in a presentation Tuesday.

Countries like the United States and many in the European Union don’t really have to worry about whether or not we’ll have enough food, but for developing countries that are net food importers, the issue of food security is “immediate,” Hazell said. When food exporters change land from food crops into biofuels, there is less food to export, so developing countries that rely on our food are in trouble. They’ll either have to learn to grown their own food, or will have to rely on handouts, he said. Alarmingly, he noted, a 1 percent increase in the price of food directly correlates with a half-percent decrease in calorie consumption by the poor, according to the World Bank. So even if there aren’t shortages, higher food prices mean that the poor are getting less food.

There’s also “an alarm bell going off” about the loss of tropical forests, as land is cleared for biofuels crops, Hazell said. We have been losing tropical forestland, such as in the Amazon, for decades anyway, he said, but biofuels expansion is accelerating the lost. One big issue is the divergence between national and international issues: People in Brazil, for example, want to clear the land, plant crops and sell them — for them, it’s just making a living. But the rest of the world wants Brazil to keep their forests to help us offset carbon emissions. That’s not fair, he acknowledged, and we need more equitable agreements and plans.

Like most of the talks I heard, Hazell didn’t offer any solutions, but he did offer some steps forward. First and foremost, he said, agricultural researchers need to get involved. Since the 1970s, researchers have found ways to increase yields of food crops. “If we can do for biofuels what we did for food, we could make a huge difference,” he said. Another idea is to develop crops that can grow in less-favorable locations, such as drought-prone areas or marginal farmlands; thus, those crops would not be in direct competition with food crops. And we need policy research to help determine how best to manage both the environmental and social issues of biofuels.

The desire for biofuels is driven by the transportation energy sector, Hazell said. “It’s more about cheap energy than clean energy,” he said. “It really has very little to do with the environment. The reality is that we have rapidly growing demand for energy and no viable commercial sources to meet that demand” other than traditional fossil fuels, “so biofuels look attractive.”

As such, biofuels are here to stay, and significant amounts of cropland will continue to be diverted to biofuels from food sources, he added. But we are also going to see continued upward pressure on food and energy, and prices for both will remain high. “So, we need to learn how to manage this situation effectively.”

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