Monday, April 11, 2011

Food Versus Fuel

There seems to be a lot of hype right now about the use of biofuels in the automotive industry and the implications the growing biofuel industry has on the global food supply, specifically in developing countries where citizens already struggle to feed themselves. Corn has been the primary crop targeted for use as fuel in the form of ethanol. As the industry grows each year, a higher percentage of the world's corn, cassava, sugar and palm oil is being diverted from the food chain to use for biofuels. We seem to be in the midst of a cold war for biofuel technology, with developed countries passing more and more laws allowing the use of non-fossil fuels in order to keep their cars, businesses and industries running.

Essentially, biofuels are any fuel that is derived from a renewable biological mass, aka from plants, animals or microorganisms. These fuels can potentially take the place of petroleum. There is much debate about whether the use of biofuels is actually advantageous or not. On one hand, they provide an opportunity to reduce dependence on foreign oil and provide fuel that won't contribute to climate-warming emissions. On the other hand, since the majority of biofuels are distilled from crops like corn and sugar cane, the industry drives up food prices.

The increase in biofuel production in Europe and the US has been said to be responsible for the steep increase in global food prices in the last few years. Ambitious goals for biofuel use in combination with less than
stellar harvests of key crops may likely be contributing to increasing food prices, hunger and political instability. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, food prices rose 15% from October to January, a change that could mean an additional 44 million people in low and middle income countries dip under the poverty line. How do we justify using a significant portion of food crops to fuel our vehicles when there are millions of hungry people who could benefit from them?

Global food security is way to complex a problem to simply blame the rise in biofuel production for hunger. There are many factors that contribute to this issue such as failed crops, floods, droughts, unfavourable weather conditions, pest infestations and the cost of transportation of foodstuffs. Agricultural export policies must also be considered. But with countries such as the US, China, India, Indonesia and the European Union having all established biofuel targets in the last few years, there is no doubt that the increased demand of edible goods for uses other than actual consumption by people has a huge impact on the food system. What we don't know, however, is how much of an impact it's having.

There are valid arguments for both sides of the debate, and it's clear that a consensus will not be reached on the issue in the near future. I originally thought that we should feed our people before our cars, but I'm beginning to realize that the issue isn't about how much food is being grown, rather it's about how this food is distributed. The problem with issues like this is the more you read and research, the further you get from developing a definite opinion. Unfortunately, for the time being, all we can do is wait to see what happens. We don't know what impact the growing biofuel industry is going to have on world hunger or the environment and the prediction of these impacts vary significantly. For the time being, I'm definitely going to keep my eyes and ears open for new research on the matter. My hopes is that we don't realize that the industry has irreversible detrimental consequences after it's to late!

Question of the day: What has to happen before we give up on biofuels and decide that the industry is far to detrimental to global food supplies to continue? What's your stance on food versus fuel?

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