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Articles > Politics May, 30, 2012

Why biofuels are bad

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To some people biofuels look like a brilliant idea – a renewable source of fuel that we can grow on demand – reducing our demand for oil and saving the planet at the same time. Now there are two ways you could look at this – the first is that the people who really believe that have horrendous foresight, the second is that they’ve got a hand in the production of biofuels and seek to exploit its financial potential. The reality is probably a combination of the two.

Photo by Erin! Nekervis

Here’s my first problem with biofuels: the worlds population is growing at an unprecedented rate, from 2.5 billion in 1950 to well over 6.5 billion today with the majority of this increase taking place in less developed or “developing” countries. All these extra people are going to need food or else they’ll die, and it needs to be affordable or they simply won’t be able to feed themselves or their families. So in no way does it make sense to begin diverting scarce farmland and resources away from farming corn for use in foodstuffs to farming corn for biofuel production. Basic textbook economics clearly states that if you reduce the supply of a good (in this case the supply of corn for foodstuffs) then prices will rise, the same is true if demand is also rising (a common side-effect of having a population that has increased 260% over 50 years) – so common sense and economic theory would suggest that this diversion of resources makes no sense whatsoever; but textbook economics rarely satisfies the majority, and common sense is all too often a scarce resource in itself – so lets have a look at the figures.

Firstly, some concrete evidence of the reduction in supply: in 2009 the US set aside nearly 1/3 of it’s corn output to make 9.3 billion gallons of ethanol. Secondly, further concrete evidence of the rise in prices: between 2006 and 2011 the price of corn has risen 163%. In 2007 a classified report from the World Bank was leaked to the Guardian newspaper, in it was the shocking revelation that the WB believe biofuels have forced world food prices up by 75%. Now, in recent blogs i’ve talked about barriers to less developed countries progressing in the modern world, and rising food prices is about as high a barrier as you can get – if your people can’t eat, they can’t work, they can’t innovate, they can’t work machines or build new roads and schools, without affordable foodstuffs your economy risks grinding to a halt.

Having looked at the consequences of an increase in biofuel production you would have to presume that the benefits of biofuels must outweigh the costs to the billions affected by rising corn prices. The party line on this issue from supporters of biofuels is that the new fuel leads to a dramatic reduction in CO2 emissions and is a sustainable long-term alternative to crude oil. However, more and more research seems to doubt this claim, the following is an extract from a report from experts at Princeton University:

“Prior analyses made an accounting error, There is a huge imbalance between the carbon lost by plowing up a hectare [2.47 acres] of forest or grassland from the benefit you get from biofuels. Ethanol demand in the U.S., for example, has caused some farmers to plant more corn and less soy. This has driven up soy prices causing farmers in Brazil to clear more Amazon rainforest land to plant valuable soy. Because a soy field contains far less carbon than a rainforest, the greenhouse gas benefit of the original ethanol is wiped out. Corn-based ethanol, instead of producing a 20 percent savings [in greenhouse gas emissions], nearly doubles greenhouse emissions over 30 years and increases greenhouse gases for 167 years. We can’t get to a result with corn ethanol where we can generate greenhouse gas benefits.”
– Tim Searchinger

So why do governments still insist on setting targets for biofuel usage? I strongly believe that the answer lies, particularly in the US, in the size of the agricultural lobby because it’s important not to forget that in amongst all this there is one very clear group of winners: farmers in the developed world. By reducing the supply of corn available for use in food stuffs the price will naturally rise – making it far more profitable for farmers, in agriculture an increase in profitability in one area (e.g. corn plantations) often leads to an increase in competitors joining the market (as the study mentioned in the above paragraph highlighted – soy farmers switching to corn) which over time would in theory drive down the price, however with the price increasing on such a massive scale this is unlikely to reduce the price by a noticeable amount and any reduction could be cancelled out by rising prices in the markets they’ve left (like the Brazilian soy plantations mentioned earlier). An increase in biofuel production is therefore in the best interests of farmers’ across the US and last year they spent a massive $60m lobbying the government trying to align its point of view with theirs’.

The biofuel lobby are probably right when they argue that our demand for oil will fall – what they fail to tell you is as will the life expectancy of those living in less developed countries. To summarise what is going on in a line: the majority are suffering for the benefit of a minority who use the veil of global warming to mask the shortcomings of biofuels – to invest in biofuels is to risk the economic development of the developing world which in turn is to risk the development of the world economy as a whole.

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  1. Nia

    lack of resources isn’t the problem …

  2. Ben

    Fair points but *IF* biofuel production displaces farmland for food. It doesn’t have to. Much of the research into biofuels is trying to find ways of getting fuel out of production tanks of specially engineered algae. The idea is that the algae will be efficient at yielding oil – more so than, say corn. The objective is to harvest in a continuous process rather than presumably more expensive batch processing.
    The answer to our problems is solar. The greatest potential lies in the Sahara. Cover 1% of the sand with PVs and you’d get enough electricity to power the whole planet. Clean free energy forever. It will happen!

    • Thanks for the response. You make a fair point, but unfortunately the situation at present is not a case of ‘if’ but ‘is’. I would be foolish to say I oppose investment in researching new sources of energy, but what is happening in the world at present is beyond a ‘research’ project. I refuse to believe that we should blindly accept the doctrine that biofuels are currently beneficial to the human race given it’s glaringly obvious short comings and negative externalities (for example, and without being too alarmist – mass starvation), purely because one day we might be able produce it at a lower human cost. Let the research come first, before the implementation. The human race is not to be treated as a subject in a science experiment. I appreciate the need to find sources of sustainable energy, but this is not the way to go about it.

  3. Neglectant writer

    The exploiting of LEDCs have never been fair, though this is an example of the more condemnatory practices inflicted upon those countries.
    The production of alternative fuels is merely a procrastination to convince that supporting such a vast herd is possible, let alone preferable – it isn’t. The efficiency of human mass culling however is severely underrated – especially seeing as humanity shows little sign of changing. Sufficient intelligence is theoretically present to regulate our own species abundance, but with this misguided ‘morality’ endowed upon taking life unnecessarily, there’s no adequate equalizing stratagem to prevent gratuitous procreation and we’re doomed until someone realizes the best course of action involves at least 1 in 2 of the world population to be succinctly gutted: we’ll flip a coin or something for each person.
    Solve food problems, land take, ecological pollution severity, etc somewhat and the only thing stopping it is an inherent belief in the ‘right to live,’ that was given up with a total lack of decorum in constantly spawning and abusing the status afforded as the dominant species. Genocides have never seemed so beneficiary.
    Informative article. ^_^

    • Before I reply I would like to wholly condemn any view which advocates genocide as a means to address a population issue. You’re making the same points as Thomas Malthus did back in the early 1800s when the world population was a mere 1bn people. His views were discredited over the two centuries that followed as technological advances allowed the world to increase the production of food at an unprecedented rate. Yes there is a problem now (as there was then) with a significant proportion of the population going hungry, but unfortunately history has shown that no matter how quickly the average world income rises or productivity increases, there has always been ‘poor’ people – at least relative to others within their country. Our responsibility to the world community is to establish means through which we can help cater for a population which is growing at an undeniably fast pace. Under no circumstances or conditions would a mass-genocide of the world’s hungry be even a remotely useful idea and anything but a gross, unforgivable abuse of power. In fact the very idea itself immediately detracts the focus away from what really matters – investing in means to increase our productivity. I would like to categorically rebuke any suggestion that my article supported or even proposed any form of ‘mass human culling’. There are parts of the world struggling with population issues, but in these cases I would advocate increased investment in education to help bring the issue under control – women who have been through the education system statistically choose smaller family sizes. Human beings are not cattle, they are tomorrow’s innovators, teachers, doctors and entrepreneurs; and their fate should not be pre-determined at birth. There is no excuse to neglect the issue of feeding parts of an increasing world population just because it could be difficult, and in fact scientists are continuously making breakthroughs which each bring us one step closer to this goal:

      • Neglectant writer

        A fair and considered reply; though the reference to Thomas Malthus is slightly harsh though the links are understandable. This isn’t an issue of whether we CAN sustain population levels, it is a matter of whether we SHOULD. The technological manipulation of food supply should never condone a species’ prolonged survival, especially when that same breed created Frey Bentos pies in a cheap attempt to satiate appetites.
        Humans ARE cattle: our dominative position over the food chain does not change that, it has merely afforded us the time to make a spear and use a breville, which are hardly characteristics praise worthy in a bumbling populace. The control of other animal populations via culling only makes human existence more painfully ironic in the refusal to control our own likewise.
        You misunderstand my ideal of genocide anway: I’m not proposing a focus on the poorer comunities, as any possible culling would be indiscriminate regardless of location or status.
        In short; humankind is despicable and no amount of scientific progress is likely to alter that. Such a shame…