Study Claims Biofuel Production May Increase World Hunger

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A recent study found that biofuel production diverts crops and crop land from food production and increases food prices for impoverished people in developing countries. Other reports suggest that biofuels are not solely to blame for rising food prices. Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Lars Plougmann

Biofuels are touted as an energy source that can cut greenhouse gas emissions and reduce our dependence on foreign oil. But could replacing fossil fuels with biofuels raise world food prices and cause hunger and poverty in developing countries?

Dr. Indur Goklany, Ph.D. in Electrical Engineering, discusses biofuel’s unintended consequences in a study recently published in the latest issue of the Journal of American Physicians and Surgeons.

As the U.S. government encourages the use of biofuels, more crops and crop land are diverted to biofuel production, according to Dr. Jane Orient, managing editor of the Journal. Demand for crops as both food and biofuel drives up world food prices, making impoverished people in developing countries unable to afford food, she says.

“When you’re putting ethanol into your gas tank, you’re making corn tortillas more expensive in Mexico,” Orient says.

Goklany’s study argues that the expansion of biofuel production and the resulting increase in food prices may have caused an estimated 192,000 deaths in the developing world in 2010. According to his study, biofuel production may have also caused an increase in disease in the developing world, resulting in the loss of 6.7 million disability-adjusted life-years in 2010 – a cumulative sum of the number of years lost due to premature death from disease and the number of years spent in a disabled condition due to disease.

To reach his conclusions, Goklany relied on various studies to estimate the number of people in developing countries that have been pushed into poverty due to high food prices, as well as statistics from the World Health Organization and the World Bank on poverty’s contribution to death and disease.

Yet other studies have found that increased biofuel production is just one of the many factors causing recent rising food prices, according to Paul Winters, director of communications for BIO, an organization that represents biotechnology companies, academic institutions and related groups. According to a report conducted by the Congressional Budget Office, he says, biofuels caused only 10-15 percent of food price increases from April 2007 to April 2008.

“Other more important factors [in increasing food prices] are rising oil prices and food companies simply raising their prices,” Winters says.

The U.S. expanded its Renewable Fuel Standard in 2007, boosting domestic biofuel production. The policy increased the required volume of biofuel to be blended with conventional fuel from 9 billion gallons in 2008 to 36 billion gallons by 2022.

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  1. Do you believe part of the problem is that corn is being used for biofuels rather than sugar cane? I’ve heard – but I could be wrong – that sugar cane makes a more effective biofuel but corn is being used because of tariffs against importing sugar cane into the United States. Do you know if that’s true?

  2. Food, corn, and oil prices rise at the same time. The question must be asked – which causes the others to rise?

    I submit that corn prices rise because of oil prices – not the other way around. Rises in corn prices do impact food prices to some degree but not to the extent normally attributed. The corn used in biofuel production is maize – not a food crop – and the byproduct of maize ethanol production is 600 lbs. of high-protein animal feed (distillers dried grains or DDGs) for every ton of maize (30%). Maize harvests in the U.S. has risen through productivity gains, not more acreage. Corn exports are roughly the same as before. Meanwhile, the rise in the cost of oil makes distribution of food much more expensive and the added burden results in hunger in areas where infrastructure is weak.

    To advocate reducing the production of biofuels is counter-productive if you wish to mitigate the rising price of food. First, the use of ethanol reduces the cost of fuel in the U.S. for example by 17¢-50¢ per gallon (according to whom you listen to – the more conservative number comes from the US EIA). Second and more important, we have seen oil prices ratchet up significantly several times in the past five years. Each time invites global economic catastrophe and political unrest. The price of distribution of food skyrockets and the poor suffer. Why is maize the scapegoat when oil price spikes are the primary cause of hunger?

    The world needs more choices at the pump so that we are not so dependent on oil. Poor nations need to be able to produce their own fuels to make their distribution of food less vulnerable. The only liquid fuel alternatives are biofuels and, unlike oil, they can be produced wherever there is biomass.

    You are either pro-biofuels or pro-oil – there is no middle ground. Less biofuels means ceding more control over our energy, food, economic, and national security to oil. Is that what you advocate?

  3. Please be aware that the AAPS and their journal, which is cited here, are a political, rather than a medical group (I didn’t say that, the New York Times did). The group are known “AIDS deniers” with ultra-right-wing agendas and significant political ties to the GOP, especially in the oil-rich state of Texas.

    Please, please, PLEASE point this out – these people DO NOT speak for America’s doctors, scientists, or any other reasonable human being.

    My full response to this bogus paper is located here, if you’re interested:

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