Biofuels will play a role in a super-low-carbon energy system, according to many energy studies. For some uses, like freight and aviation, few alternatives exist. These vehicles need energy-dense liquid fuels to operate. If we are to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions by the 80 per cent required to avoid two degrees of warming, we will have to consider the most environmentally and socially friendly biofuels among the available energy options. The challenge is to minimize the ecological and food system impacts.
In light of this, my interest was captured by a blog post someone sent me about the environmental and social impacts of biofuels. In the post, author David Blume, a biofuels expert, makes some against-the-grain but interesting arguments about why biofuel production isn't nearly as bad as many people say it is. I'd like to address some of his points about the food-fuel nexus that he claims is not a problem.
One of reasons biofuels are so controversial is because they exist within our food and energy systems. Blume says that biofuel production has few impacts on the food system, but I don't think he peels back the layers enough. His main point is that the U.S. does not export much corn and does not use much of its corn for human consumption. That's fair. But what he does not mention is what role subsidies have had in distorting the market away from the production of other food crops. Farmers face a classic opportunity cost decision over which crops to grow. Corn subsidies encourage farmers to produce corn at the expense of other potential food crops. With ethanol production, farmers are growing a crop that is not valued as a food crop internationally and is arguably supporting underproduction of other productive food crops. The underproduction of other staple food crops in the U.S., one of the world's largest grain exporters, will lead to less supply and higher food prices. Subsidies for corn explain in part why so much corn goes to animal feed, as the international market for corn is not as robust.
Blume also argues that all this corn helps with the production of meat. But producing more meat is not an efficient alternative from either a food security or environmental perspective. Meat is not a staple food. It doesn't help the poor, who are most affected by high food prices, and Blume ignores the environmental impact of meat production. In fact, a 2006 UN report estimates that global GHG emissions from livestock were higher than from the transport sector. If we look at the full lifecycle cost of corn production beyond just ethanol, then the subsidized overproduction of corn allows the meat industry to enjoy input costs that are lower than the "true" market price. This in turn reduces the cost of meat and allows for overproduction of meat and the amplification of all of the associated environmental impacts.
But beyond the economics, my main point of contention is that this is a U.S.-focused analysis when it needs to be broadened. Under Myth #2, for example, Blume demonstrates that there's more than enough land to grow ethanol feed stocks and food. But what about elsewhere? Say in Brazil, for example, where higher ethanol prices will increase the pressure to convert natural forest land to produce ethanol feed stocks. Is this desirable? Broad expanses of American territory have already been alienated for farming, so it's not as salient of a problem in the U.S. But that's not the case in many countries that could be large producers of ethanol feed stocks. Considering that this land in the U.S. has already been converted, shouldn't we be growing food on it as well to lower the pressure in other parts of the world to convert natural land to farm land? I don't necessarily know the answer to these questions, but I think they're food for thought.
In the end, the production of ethanol needs to move beyond food crops to biomass wastes, grasses and other feed stocks that won't impact our food system as much. Making the argument that there's nothing wrong with using corn potentially delays us in moving forward toward the next technological era of biofuel production. David Blume and all concerned environmentalists realize that should be the goal.
If you want to get deeper into the technical issues of producing biofuels or the role they will play in a low carbon future, you can check out the Cowichan Valley International Collective Biofuels Conference hosted by Cowichan Energy Alternatives. Read more about it at cowichanenergy.org.