Biofuels Versus Food Production: A Zero-Sum Game?

Oil prices and climate change are incentivising big companies to invest in biofuels – a highly controversial industry.

The world’s fuel demand will increase by 33% in 25 years, according to the Energy Information Administration.

Today, about 10% of global energy use comes from biomass, producing as much energy as wind, solar, hydro and geothermal combined, according to  National Academy of Engineering.

To meet this demand, organizations such as the National Corn Growers Association and companies like British Petroleum are pushing for the use of biofuels – which are made from crops such as sugar, wheat or corn.

The U.S. government has also supported biofuels, passing the Energy Independence Act of Security in 2007, which required that the U.S. use at least 36 billion gallons of biofuels by 2020. However, the EPA has reduced US biofuel output from the original targets, for various reasons.

Advocates say it’s a clean, organic, and cheap alternative to burning fossil fuels.


Biofuels Controversy

Opponents, however, say that in a world where almost a billion people are starving, it’s wrong to grow fuel on land that could be used for food.

In 2007, 2.85% of the world’s arable land was used for crops to produce the fuels – a figure that has likely increased since.[contextly_auto_sidebar id=”tQR5LwlcGyqb6GpMiqqRXjmw38nUDuYD”]

In North America, 8.1% of the arable land was used for this purpose. But even if the entire grain harvest of the U.S. was converted to biofuels, it would only produce 16% of its domestic auto fuel needs, according to the Earth Policy Institute.

Biofuels have also been linked to rising food prices, specifically corn, wheat, and soy, which have all more than doubled over that last decade.

A study by the World bank found that food prices rose between 35%-40% between 2002 and 2008, and that 70-75% of that increase was attributable to biofuels.

This chart from the paper, for instance, shows how the percentage of corn use for these fuels has gone up, despite overall increases in yield:


Chart courtesy of (pdf) the World Bank.

Additionally, if only 5% of world road transport was powered by these fuels, growing the biological material would take up 20% of the world’s agricultural water use, according to the U.N. World Water Development report.

Jean Ziegler, an independent rapporteur for the U.N., even called for a five-year global ban on biofuels because of their impact on food prices.

The ban never happened, although the U.S. EPA did  recommend (pdf) reduction of the 2020 biofuel target.


What’s next?

As more attention has been drawn to the potential detrimental effects of biofuels, more development is put into making them sustainable.

So-called second generation biofuels, or advanced biofuels, are currently under development by several companies such as BP, Shell, and RTI International.

These fuels promise (pdf) to be far more sustainable by, for instance, using residues from current agricultural production rather than requiring its own land.

By using only 10% of the world’s agriculture residue for these fuels, 5% of road transport fuel needs could be met, according to the International Energy Agency.

For now, so-called first generation of these fuels will remain part of the fuel industry, especially in the U.S. and E.U. where mandates are in place requiring their use. But in the future, these technologies may fulfill their promise of sustainability.


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Ole Skaar