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Food versus fuel and other biofuel fallacies

Stevens Point, Wis. - The official bogeyman of Earth Week 2008 is biofuels. A top United Nations official has called use of food crops to produce ethanol “a crime against humanity,” environmentalists are blaming ethanol production for destruction of rain forests, and food riots from Haiti to Egypt are being cited as examples of what happens to prices when land is used to grow fuel instead of food.

It's only a matter of time before the plight of the polar bears is somehow blamed on biofuels, as well.

Somewhere between the irrational exuberance of those who believe biofuels will solve the world's energy problems tomorrow and the equally overblown fears of those who would smother an emerging industry in its crib lies the truth about biofuels. The debate is vital to Wisconsin, where the raw materials, research capacity, and industrial know-how required for production of “next-generation” biofuels is abundant.

Conference of destiny

The food-versus-fuel debate was center stage at last week's Wisconsin Biofuels Destiny conference at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, which attracted 120 people with different stakes in biofuels - from today's corn-based ethanol to future fuels more likely to stem from the state's huge and largely untapped “forest biorefinery.”
Few participants argued that corn-based ethanol would forever remain the world's primary biofuel, given the need for greater energy efficiency and rapid changes in technology. However, those same participants were adamant that other factors are far more responsible for rising food prices worldwide than the intensely local production of corn- or sugar-based ethanol. Some examples:

• Commodity prices typically make up about one-fifth the cost of food to consumers; transportation, packaging, and labor account for the rest. With oil prices surging Tuesday to $118 per barrel of sweet crude, the ripple effect is finally hitting the food chain. If there is a “crime against humanity” to be alleged, perhaps the UN could take a closer look at the major oil-producing countries of the world.

• Global climate change, which increased use of biofuels could eventually help to mitigate, may be causing major disruptions in food production. In Australia, for example, a six-year drought has helped to reduce rice production by 98 percent and mothballed a mill that once processed enough grain to feed 20 million people. The drought alone is not responsible for the Australian rice crop's demise, however. Some rice farmers there have sold their water rights to farmers who grow other crops, such as grapes for wine.

• Demand for food is soaring as the world's population continues to grow. With rice, which is not used for biofuels production, there has been a growing supply problem. Little of the world's rice is exported; more than 90 percent is consumed where it is grown. In the last quarter century, however, rice production has not kept pace with consumption. Since 2000, the New York Times reported recently, global rice reserves have plunged by half.

• Some of the very nations that have rejected genetically modified crops, which are more resistant to climate change, drought and pests, are among those facing food shortages. Resistance to new technologies and processes has contributed to the problem.

Artificial argument

“The food-versus-fuel debate is artificial,” said Greg Lynch, a lawyer with the law firm Michael Best & Friedrich who has worked on a number of biofuels projects. “Recent increases in food prices are primarily the result of increased worldwide demand for protein and increases in energy costs, not diversion of food for fuel.”

Lynch and others believe farmer-owned biofuels plants create a natural hedge against fluctuations in commodity prices, provide a fuel that is environmentally friendly compared to fossil fuels, and act as a check against dependence on foreign energy sources. They're also quick to note that technology is improving ethanol production every day - and “next generation” biofuels produced from non-food sources will eventually come on line, as well. In time, they believe, ethanol subsidies will also disappear.

Wisconsin has the potential to produce next-generation biofuels, such as cellulosic ethanol, from sustainable forests, corn stover, switchgrass, waste from timber harvests and even pulp used for papermaking. Research at the $130 million Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center, headquartered in Madison, will help to remove the bottlenecks in the production of those advanced biofuels.

The same environmental movement that once championed biofuels as an alternative to fossil fuels has decided to make ethanol Public Enemy No. 1, despite evidence that would suggest it has been a relatively minor contributor to rising food prices. In a world that needs both food and fuel, let's not allow either irrational exuberance or overblown fears to kill an emerging solution.

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Tom Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He is the former associate editor of the Wisconsin State Journal in Madison.

The opinions expressed herein or statements made in the above column are solely those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of Wisconsin Technology Network, LLC.

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Bill Dennison responded 7 years ago: #1

Total U.S. Corn Production:

~10% used for direct human consumption

~90% used for livestock feed

"We grow animal feed, not human food in the United States," [Dr Bruce] Dale said. "We could feed the country's population with 25 million acres of crop land, and we currently have 500 million acres. Most of our agricultural land is being used to grow animal feed."

"Ethanol production has been linked to a rise in the price of everything from tortillas to gummi bears. Unfortunately, this argument is very nearly ridiculous. The fact is that very little U.S. corn (about 10 percent) is fed directly to people; most of it is fed to animals." -- Dr Bruce Dale, Professor of Chemical Engineering, Michigan State University

CV and Contact Page for Dr Dale:

* * * * * * * *

Diets are changing radically in nations such as China, India, Brazil and Russia, where economic growth has boosted meat consumption. In China, it is up by 150 per cent since 1980. In India, it has risen by 40 per cent in the past 15 years. The demand for meat from across all developing countries has doubled since 1980.

Because cattle and chickens are fed on corn -- it takes 8kg of grain to produce 1kg of beef -- the price has risen.

* * * * * * * *

Startup Says It Can Make Ethanol for $1 a Gallon, and Without Corn

24 January 2008

A biofuel startup in Illinois can make ethanol from just about anything organic for less than $1 per gallon, and it wouldn't interfere with food supplies, company officials said.

....May Wu, an environmental scientist at Argonne National Laboratory, says Coskata's ethanol produces 84 percent less greenhouse gas than fossil fuel even after accounting for the energy needed to produce and transport the feedstock. It also generates 7.7 times more energy than is required to produce it. Corn ethanol typically generates 1.3 times more energy than is used producing it.

* * * * * * * *

New Method Rapidly Produces Low-Cost Biofuels from Wood, Grass

Wed 09 Apr 2008

George Huber of the University of Massachusetts making biofuels from cellulose, the non-edible portion of plant biomass and a major component of grasses and wood. At $10 to $30 per barrel of oil energy equivalent, cellulosic biomass is significantly cheaper than crude oil. The U.S. could potentially produce 1.3 billion dry tons of cellulosic biomass per year, which has the energy content of four billion barrels of crude oil. That's more than half of the seven billion barrels of crude oil consumed in our country each year. What's more, biomass as an energy crop could increase the national farm income by $3 to $6 billion per year.

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Jim Beal responded 7 years ago: #2

New biofuels source is discovered

Texas researches can now make sugar from blue-green algae using salty water. UW-Madison Chemical and Biological Engineers can make hydrogen, jet fuel, diesel, gasoline...just about anything from sugar. Virent Energy of Madison has commercialized the process.
I'd say the truth is not in the middle. We will figure this out.

Higher Value responded 7 years ago: #3

"Crimes against humanity" does sound a bit over the top. But, I believe that the man from the United Nations was speaking from his heart. Contrary to our own culture, other places in the world do place greater value on people than on things. And with 50% of the worlds population living on less than $2.00 per day, small changes in food prices can have devastating consequences.

The implied question is one worthy of inspection. What is the best use of our agricultural and forest lands? Is feeding our machines more important than feeding people? Do we want to walk blindly down the biofuels path when we already know that it cannot meet the demand of our machines?

How, or where, will we draw the line between these competing constituencies? Will we let our devotion to our economic ideology allow us to sanction forced mass starvation?

Taking the time to have this discussion is valuable. Those who dismiss it out of hand, likely fear the answer that already lies within their own hearts. Not to say that biofuels cannot have a place, but they most likely need to have thoughtfully structured limits. And the mechanisms need to be put in place, to allow us to choose in favor of humanity rather than machines, when push comes to shove.

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