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Sunday, March 02, 2008

Food or Fuel

Food or Fuel
Image © Austin Cline
Original Poster: National Archives
Click for full-sized Image

The idea behind biofuels has always been somewhat appealing: if fossil fuels cannot meet our energy requirements, then we can grow plants to fill those requirements. We can't tap the sun directly in a way that works for us, but perhaps we can do it indirectly via plants that grow through the sun's energy. The problem which not everyone noticed is that unless you are using waste products — and even in as wasteful a society as America is, there aren't enough of those — you need land to grow the plants you want to process into biofuels. Land appropriate to growing plants for biofuel is also appropriate for growing plans used for food — and in fact it's often the same plants in both cases.

This presents people with a hard choice: grow plants that feed other human beings or grow plants that feed American cars and SUVs. Well, perhaps the choice isn't that hard because the U.S. Congress has mandated the creation of large amounts of biofuel. Last year 5.6 billion gallons of ethanol was produced from corn; in 2008, 9 billion gallons of biofuels will be mixed with gasoline on order from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and most of that will be ethanol. This is to meet mandates in the 2007 energy bill which requires the creation of 36 billion gallons of "renewable fuels" every year by the year 2022.

It's almost like someone told Congress what a good idea it would be to conserve fossil fuels without also informing them about what the true cost would be: increased food prices for everyone who can buy food and perhaps starvation for those who cannot buy food. It is estimated that poor countries will pay about 35% more for grain imports in 2008, about the same increase they already had to pay in 2007. There are several factors in the price increases, including natural disasters that have reduced stocks and an increase in meat consumption in India and China.

The fact that the U.S., the world's chief producer and exporter of corn, sends nearly a quarter of all corn production to ethanol, is one factor that is under our control. We shouldn't be devoting so much of our grain production for the purpose of fueling automobiles; on the contrary, we arguably have a moral obligation to send even more grains to poor countries to help make up for the problems which our biofuel programs have made worse.

As if that weren't bad enough, the entire process may create a vicious circle: as fuel prices increase, the money which energy companies are willing to pay for biofuel will increase. Both together will drive up food prices — enough to make it harder for people to feed themselves and their children, but not enough to compete with the energy companies. This will encourage more and more land being shifted to biofuel instead of food, making affordable food even more scarce. In the long run, it's not just the poor and already-starving who may lack sufficient food, but also people who assumed that their financial situation was relatively secure.

In a sense, American cars and SUVs are now not just feeding off the planet by harming the environment, but feeding off the human race by consuming the same biological resources needed to feed hungry human beings. Children will go hungry because the corn which might have fed them is instead in the gas being burned by Americans as they drive their kids to the grocery store where all the food prices have increased by double-digit percentages.

The only way this could be more immoral would be if the actual bodies of the poor were ground up and used to feed American vehicles... Exxon Green... is people!

If the wealthy insist on consuming so many basic resources of the poor that the poor feel like they themselves are being consumed, it won't be long before the rich themselves could find themselves on the dinner menu.

Note: I won't be able to post sermons for the next two weeks. Next week I'll be in Minneapolis to give a talk about science & skepticism at the university, then I'll be in Kansas for a few days. Sorry about the interruption...

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We'll try dumping haloscan and see how it works.