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?
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.