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Food Security and the Biofuels Challenge

By C. Ford Runge, Distinguished McKnight University Professor of Applied Economics and Law,
University of Minnesota

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If agriculture rests on intensive energy inputs or drives expanding cultivation because of the pressure of biofuels, only to produce plant-based fuels with less energy content than coal or oil, it is hard to imagine how or why carbon credits are due.

The declaration issued by G8 agriculture ministers on 20 April 2009 acknowledged an increase of 100 million hungry people in 2009, bringing the number of malnourished above 1 billion. The G8 ministers noted that the food situation had not markedly improved since the crisis summer of 2008. But they failed to acknowledge biofuel’s role in the price increases – estimated at 30 per cent of the total by the International Food Policy Research Institute. Instead, the declaration called for a ‘balanced combination’ of food and renewable energy from biomass, emphasising second-generation biofuels from non-food crops. Since then, 2009 has delivered what promises to be a bumper harvest, alleviating for the moment the food crisis atmosphere of last season. Even so, biofuels continue to demand more than a third of the US maize crop. Relief in the form of non-food cellulosic biofuels is still years away. Meanwhile, the US and other G8 countries continue to subsidise and mandate food-competing biofuels. A recent estimate of the costs of ongoing biofuel subsidies and mandates in the US, by Earth Track of Cambridge, MA, conducted for Friends of the Earth, puts the total from 2008 to 2022 at $400 billion. If President Barack Obama’s proposed increase in the US biofuels mandate of 60 billion gallons a year by 2036 is met, these costs will approach $1 trillion, a diversion of funds sorely needed for other national and international needs. Poor people’s need for food, increasingly challenged by rising prices, is less of an international issue than the debate over biofuels and energy and the role of carbon emissions resulting from fossil fuels. Yet they are all related. Food is, after all, energy itself, measured in caloric units. Its production consumes energy, produces carbon emissions and leads to carbon sequestration over short periods. The fact that food crops such as maize, soybeans, rapeseed and palm oil are now the primary biofuel sources means that their prices and the price of oil now move together. But it is the huge demand for crops to feed the maw of biofuels production that is of concern.

The food versus biofuel debate underlines only one aspect of the challenge facing the G8, and now the G20, to balance and coordinate energy and food policies at the national or international level. At the national level, agriculture and energy portfolios are separate, with little real integration. Internationally, the Food and Agriculture Organization remains unmatched by a comparable United Nations energy agency and cannot make energy policies part of an already overburdened bureaucracy.

Four aspects of the food/energy challenge merit attention. The first is the role of energy in agriculture and the sustainable level of hydrocarbons used to produce, process, store and transport food. The second is whether using plant biomass as a source of fuel is truly renewable or whether it will displace the crop production needed to feed a growing world while contributing to even greater greenhouse gas emissions. The third is the heavy emphasis on energy inputs to agriculture, which have substantially boosted yields since the 1960s and may have created the illusion that humanity has outrun the Malthusian spectre, discouraging investment in agricultural research and technology when it is most urgently needed. The fourth is how agriculture and energy will come together in response to global climate change.

Food takes energy to produce. While much of this energy is solar, plants are relatively inefficient converters of the sun’s energy. To boost yields, modern agriculture has borrowed from accumulated energy stores in oil and other hydrocarbons to supplement soil nutrients and to plant and harvest using large machinery. Harvested grain is dried using natural gas, processed using energy-intensive methods, packaged, transported, refrigerated and cooked before being eaten. Energy related to food production and consumption represents about 10 per cent of the total energy consumption in the United States.

Plants used for biofuels not only require substantial amounts of energy (mainly natural gas) to produce; but the energy in biofuels is about two thirds that of gasoline. The land area needed to substitute biofuels for petroleum fuels is vast. In the US, even a 10 per cent substitution of plant-based fuels for gasoline is estimated to require 43 per cent of cropland, whether the biofuels are produced from maize or switchgrass.

Whether biofuels will improve greenhouse gas emissions is also highly questionable, since to meet global food demands, land elsewhere will be needed. Additional land clearing will emit carbon dioxide, making biofuels greenhouse gas negative. And if intensive fertilisation of crops for food or fuel results, according to Paul Crutzen, the resulting nitrogen oxide emissions will contribute greenhouse gases at a level 296 times more harmful than carbon dioxide.

When it appeared that the world was winning the fight against hunger, government funding for agricultural research flagged. Despite marked expansion in G8 agricultural subsidies, spending on agricultural assistance and research has fallen. In real 2008 dollars, US investment in agricultural development abroad fell from $400 million a year in the 1980s to $60 million in 2006. In rich countries, public investment in research shrank by 0.5 per cent annually between 1991 and 2000, compared with annual increases of 2.3 per cent in the 1980s. Total global official aid to developing countries for agricultural research fell by 64 per cent between 1980 and 2003. This decline was most marked in poor countries, especially in Africa. This research pays high rates of return per dollar invested – estimated at between 25 per cent and 100 per cent. But it can take a quarter century for maximum pay¬off, suggesting the need for a rapid acceleration now if the spectre of hunger is to be kept at bay.

Food and energy should be considered jointly at upcoming climate talks in Copenhagen in December 2009. But if agriculture rests on high and intensive energy inputs, or drives the expanding cultivation of previously uncultivated areas because of the pressure of biofuels, and then produces plant-based fuels with less energy content and more disturbance than coal or oil, it is hard to imagine how or why carbon credits are due. By contrast, if agriculture is to substitute genomic innovations for energy and land and reduce agriculture’s carbon output, it may move in tandem with energy conservation in the rest of the global economy.

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