There’s a brewing conflict over the use of “food-based” ethanol. Last week, a couple dozen American senators said they wanted to ease the congressionally mandated ethanol blend of thier nation’s gasoline supply. A Wall Street Journal article noted that:
“The move by the Republican Senate group is the latest sign that Washington’s support for turning corn into motor fuel is wavering in the face of soaring food prices, despite the popularity of ethanol subsidies in farm states critical to the November election?. There are also signs of anti-ethanol backlash at the state level. The governors of Texas and Connecticut have requested that the EPA [Environmental Protection Agency] issue waivers from the mandate, arguing that the ethanol impact on food prices is too onerous.”
Such concern has become global. The World Bank has estimated that corn prices rose by more than 60 percent from 2005 to 2007, largely because of the US ethanol program, combined with market forces. The United States is the world’s biggest biofuel producer, overall.
Is current worldwide food anxiety the result of policy-makers’ lack of attention to the food system and the relationship between food, global warming and fossil fuels? A member of the national American Planning Association’s (APA) Steering Committee on Food Systems Planning, Samina Raja, Ph.D., thinks so.
“The current food shortage and rising prices of agricultural products are very serious problems and are going to get worse now that the use of agricultural land is encouraged for ethanol production,” says Raja. “Although food insecurity in the world isn’t a new phenomena, what is new is that the press and many policy makers — the very people who did not attend to the crisis as it developed and therefore contributed to it — are now alarmed by food shortages, riots and soaring prices.”
Raja notes that in the past, vegetables, flour, meat, fruits and dairy products Americans consumed came from family farms located in local rural areas outside of our cities. “Today’s conventional food system,” she says, “requires the same products to travel roughly 1,500 miles from farm to fork. The transportation of food over long distances requires enormous quantities of fossil fuels, and causes severe damage to the environment and contributes mightily to global warming.”
Raja lays blame for the international food crisis at the door of agricultural policy makers at the World Bank and international development agencies who continue to promote a deeply entrenched industrialized corporate mode of food production, processing and delivery sustained by the use of massive amounts of fossil fuel.
“In our desperation to find alternative forms of energy, we are using vast amounts of farmland for fuel production,” she says. “Land that once grew food or grazed cattle or sheep is now called upon to produce vast amounts of corn and other grains to be turned into ethanol.”
Business Week says “In the most optimistic scenarios, the world will move smoothly to biofuels through increased farm acreage, higher yields, and new crops and technologies. Farmers already plan to seed 10 million more acres of corn this spring. … llinois farmer Steve Pitstick (is) shifting most of his soybean field to corn.”
Corn is poor raw material for fuel because producing 10 gallons of ethanol consumes the energy of 7 gallons of gas, “and greenhouse gas reductions are minuscule.” But there are other options.
Georgia Tech’s Roger P. Webb sees pine groves in the south as a potential fuel sorce. Stanford University biologist Chris Somerville calculates that, with the right plants, 3.5% of the earth’s surface could supply all of humanity’s energy needs, compared with 13% now used for agriculture.
Prarie grasses have deep roots that store carbon captured from the air, improve soils, and require little water. 49 million acres could supply 139 billion gallons of ethanol a year by 2030, according to venture capitalist Vinod Khosla. “Farmers will be better off, the world will be less dangerously dependent on the Mideast, and we will take a giant step in greenhouse gas reductions,” he argues. “There is little downside.”
Journey to Forever has a Food or Fuel page and they have this take. “Food shortages and price increases in Brazil have resulted from a combination of policies which were biased towards commodity export crops and large acreage increases of such crops, hyper-inflation, currency devaluation, price control of domestic foodstuffs etc. Within this reality, any negative effects that bioethanol production might have had should be considered as part of the overall problem, not the problem.”
“The food shortages and price increases that Brazil suffered a few years ago, were blamed on the ProAlcool programme (fuel ethanol). However, a closer examination does not support the view that bioethanol production has adversely affected food production since Brazil is one of the world’s largest exporters of agricultural commodities and agricultural production has kept ahead of population growth: in 1976 the production of cereals was 416 kg per capita, and in 1987 — 418 kg per capita. Of the 55 million ha of land area devoted to primary food crops, only 4.1 million ha (7.5 per cent) was used for sugarcane, which represents only 0.6 per cent of the total area registered for economic use (or 0.3 per cent of Brazil’s total area). Of this, only 1.7 million ha was used for ethanol production, so competition between food and crops is not significant.”
JTF concludes “it is important to mention that developing countries are facing both food and fuel problems. Adoption of agricultural practices should, therefore, take into account this reality and evolve efficient methods of utilising available land and other resources to meet both food and fuel needs (besides other products), e.g., from agroforestry systems.”
But local decisions are often pushed by global interests, reminds Dr. Raja. The World Bank and international development agencies have pushed many developing countries to move from traditional food production systems, to industrialized agricultural systems like the one that is producing the problems we see today. So now farmers are more and more likely to produce cash crops like corn, soy beans and so on for export, instead of fruits, vegetables, grains and animals that can be consumed by the family.”
“To eat, these families now have to purchase what they once grew. When things go awry on the unregulated world commodities mark ets as they have, the price of that food rises so high that people with limited means, including farmers, go hungry,” she says.