Food Security and the Surge Toward Biofuels… and Food Insecurity?

Written by M. Glantz. Posted in All Fragilecologies

Published on October 20, 2009 with No Comments

Fragilecologies Archives
25 February 2008

Chinese translation by Hope at HIT (Harbin Institute of Technology) in PDF

pen6There is a big controversy brewing, and it is going to get much bigger. The controversy centers on whether to grow crops for food and livestock feed or to grow them for conversion to fuel: that is the question. It sounds like an easy problem to solve, food vs. energy. Pick one. However, societies need both. This is an ethical issue, if not now, then in the not-so-distant future. Rich societies can have both food and energy. Poor ones cannot — unless they make sacrifices.


Following such a shift in the use of productive land from food to biofuel production, there would be a cascade of mixes of wins and losses, benefits and costs. And there is strong evidence to suggest that those who “win” from this switch in land use are likely not to help those who “lose.” There are many views on both sides of this issue, depending on one’s perspective. One problem for those of us who are not experts in either food or energy is that each of the competing arguments — in favor of using good agricultural lands for either food crops or for biofuel production — is convincing; that is, convincing until you hear the arguments from the other side.

It is highly plausible that unraveling and clarifying the various aspects of the controversy will not make the decision-making process any easier, but it will help to expose the interconnectedness of food-biofuel-environment interactions.

A root cause of the problem is the high cost of petrol. If petrol prices were not so high (and increasing), it is likely the movement into biofuels would have remained pretty unspectacular. Governments need energy to keep their economies running and growing. At the same time, there are heightened fears about global warming resulting from the burning of fossil fuels, fertilizer use and land-use changes, such as tropical deforestation. Concern about global warming and a chance to save or make money from biofuels has prompted many governments to launch crash (that is, hurried) programs to produce them for domestic use or for export. Some countries focus on converting corn to ethanol (USA), while others focus on sugar cane (Brazil), and still other focus on oil palm (Indonesia). To do so, the land on which to grow this stuff has to come from somewhere and, where there is no suitable land available, food producing areas (as well as nature preserves) become candidates for takeover by relentless pressure on government from the biofuel producers.

An obvious — and not unwarranted — fear is that expanding the amount of land devoted to biofuel production will create a “zero-sum” conflict over land for food production. A zero-sum conflict means that biofuel production gains will be accomplished by the loss of some degree of food security. Biofuel entrepreneurs and other proponents argue that is not the case. They argue that there is available land not presently used for food production that could be used to produce biofuel crops.

Others argue that the problem is not about choosing food versus fuel production, but it really centers on poor (inequitable) distribution of food between those who produce food surpluses and those who need food but are at some distance from where it is produced or to or to purchase it in the marketplace. If it is not a food shortage problem but one of distribution of existing food supplies, then it is not necessary to be concerned about  a “fabricated” conflict between food vs. fuel needs.

Given that most productive land is either already in production, has been set aside for biodiversity protection, or is in forest cover, it appears likely that the desire for benefits right away (increasing exchange earnings from “growing fuels”) will override any serious concerns about the negative consequences on society’s food needs, on the price of food in the markets, and on the environment in the not-so-distant future. The question then turns to the impacts on food security of a shift from the use of land for food or for fuel crop production.

A comment prepared by a spokesperson of the Foundation for Alternative Energy in Slovakia summarized the situation as follows:

The argument should be analyzed against the background of the world’s (or an individual country’s or region’s) real food situation of food supply and demand (ever-increasing food surpluses in most industrialized and a number of developing countries), the use of food as animal feed, the under-utilized agricultural production potential, the increased potential for agricultural productivity, and the advantages and disadvantages of producing biofuels.


There is an argument that there is enough food produced around the globe to supply the world’s population with sufficient nutrition. In theory, that is correct. At the same time much of the food grown in surplus areas goes unsold and is destroyed. The problem is distribution, moving from where it is grown to where it is needed. But the same can be said of lots of commodities — especially water. Because the US Pacific Northwest is a relatively wet area does not relate in any way to the fact that there are constant water shortages in the southeastern US or in other dry parts of the globe, such as the West African Sahel or other parts of sub-Saharan Africa. In theory, water can be shipped, like food, in containers, but who is willing to pay for such shipments from the haves to the have-nots?

There is considerable trade in food and feed, with such shipments responsible for the emission of greenhouse gases. The same will be the case for the production and export of biofuels. Of course, many of the problems related to food — production, trade, aid and nutrition — preceded concern about global warming. Today, however, global warming can be used as an excuse to reduce food and grain shipments from the rich countries to the poor, as the rich countries and the elite in the developing countries cash in on the windfall profits from biofuels.

It is clear that biofuels have had unintended side effects. For example, in the USA using corn to produce biofuels has led to an apparent increase in animal feed, prompting an increase in the cost of meat, milk, and eggs. The point is, as American Ecologist Barry Commoner said in 1971, “there is no free lunch”. And with biofuels it seems that the poor, among others, will pay as global warming continues to increase, as biofuels address only a small portion of the cause.

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