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Thursday, August 7, 2008
Biofuelishness: A darker shade of green

SOMETIMES THE CURE is worse than the disease; sometimes the side effects are more deadly than the malady itself.

I like the concept of renewable energy in general and converting plant matter into fuel in particular. But sometimes it isn't as simple as, "We can just grow our own fuel."

Consider this question: How many people are biofuel production facilities likely to kill over the next several years? The answer: More than you want to know.

Benjamin Senauer, a professor of applied economics at the University of Minnesota, reports that biofuel production is a direct cause of rising world food prices. Between 2002 and 2008, basic global food commodity prices rose by 220%. Global production of biofuels, specifically ethanol and bio-diesel, rose from less than eight billion gallons in 2004 to an estimated 18 billion gallons in 2008. Much of the rapid increase came from production of ethanol derived from corn in the United States, rising from about three and a half billion gallons in 2004 to an estimated nine billion in 2008, consuming 30% or more of the U.S. corn crop.

Senauer quotes Josette Sheeran, executive director of the World Food Program, warning of a "tsunami of hunger" sweeping through the poorer countries of the world, and cites Robert Zoellick, the president of the World Bank, saying that as many as 100 million people in the world have been forced into dire poverty and hunger and even starvation by increasing food prices.

Here's the equation: When your family lives on a dollar a day, and a day’s worth of food costs two dollars, somebody starves. Sadly, this formula fits to millions of families in our world today.

The International Food Policy Research Institute, using a complex model of global agricultural commodity supply and utilization, estimates that 30% of the increase in the prices of the major grains is due to biofuels. Senauer says other unpublished forecasts by the World Bank suggest that biofuels have forced global food prices up by 75%.

How could this happen? The U.S. Congress mandated ethanol in all gasoline sold in the U.S., then, via the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007, increased the mandate to fifteen billion gallons of corn-based ethanol and one billion gallons of bio-diesel by 2015 and 36 billion gallons by 2022.

The ultimate but unintended result? Professor Senauer's own research suggests that 390,000 additional children under the age of five will die because of increased malnutrition due to the impact of biofuels on food costs. And if current biofuel development trends continue, child deaths will rise to 475,000 by 2010.

So, are renewable fuels evil? No, but food for the world's humans should never have been diverted into the tanks of our automobiles. (And note how little the increased supply of corn-based ethanol appears to have done to reduce gasoline prices. That's because, most analyses show, it takes about a gallon's worth of petroleum energy to produce the equivalent in ethanol.)

Are no biofuels possible alternatives to petroleum? Sugar cane, switch grass and other sources of cellulose, and bio-diesel from algae are some of a number of possible alternatives to petroleum and food-based ethanol that may work without taking needed food from hungry children.

And other substitutes for oil are possible as well. See the recent news stories on legendary oilman T. Boone Pickens’ innovative plan to use wind energy to replace natural-gas powered electrical power plants and then use the gas to run our cars, trucks and busses.

What can we do now to minimize the damage this mandate has already done? Congress gave the EPA the authority to waive the ethanol mandates or structure them differently if the law resulted in adverse unintended effects. In consideration of that, on May 2, 2008, senators Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX) and John McCain (R-AZ) asked in writing that the EPA waive these mandates in letter signed by 22 other senators, including ours, Richard Burr (R-NC) and Elizabeth Dole (R-NC). So far no action has been taken by the EPA.

It is inhumane not to recognize that mandated biofuel production has led to significant increases in world food prices and that in turn has led to hunger and death from starvation in the poorest parts of the world. We should demand that this mandate be rolled back.

Sadly, these hundreds of thousands of starving children may be the first deaths attributable to global warming, or more precisely, attributable to misguided government attempts to fix it. After we fix this so-called fix, we should beware of other government-mandated cures for global ills that may be far worse than the diseases.


Gary D. Gaddy, who worked as an energy-conservation and solar-energy consultant 30 years ago, now works as a consultant with Help for the Hungry, a fledgling international nutritional rescue program. (See  for information on this program.)

A version of this story was published in the Chapel Hill Herald Thursday August 7, 2008.

Coyright  2008  Gary D. Gaddy 

Authored by Gary G. Gaddy at 8:24 AM EDT
Updated: Sunday, August 3, 2008 8:43 AM EDT
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