Biofuel's nightmare question: food or fuel?

A major mainstream economic writer has just weighed in on the food-or-fuel debate. That's the monster in the closet of the entire biofuel industry.

A major mainstream economic writer has just weighed in on the food-or-fuel debate. That's the monster in the closet of the entire biofuel industry. Right now in America most biofuel comes from corn which is grown on some of the richest, most productive farm land on the planet. In France they grow considerable rapeseed, also on rich farmland. Food or fuel?

Economist Robert Samuelson points out the new rush to biofuels can only hurt those poor countries that are net importers of grain. As richer countries buy their biofuels, the poorer ones go begging. They certainly aren't going to turn from wheat or soy to even more expensive fruits and vegies. The debate over how we use the limited farmland on the planet is only just beginning. And that doesn't begin to look at the limited fresh water supply. Does some authority start telling farmers they have to sell their corn to food manufacturers when they can make more money selling it for ethanol? Do we chop down rainforest to make way for more palm oil plantations? Do we use water for farming, or make mofre beer? These are the issues our children may face.

I recently blogged about a study showing that a vegan diet is probably NOT the greenest way to salve your hunger. Most vegetables and fruits take far richer farmland to produce, than say goats or sheep who can make do with decidedly marginal pastures. Any farmer will tell you chickens can be the world's finest living garbage disposals. Not so green beans or lettuce. They're picky about where they live.

Currently scientists at UC Davis are trying to sort out the most energy-efficient, pro-planet way for Americans to eat. Weighing energy costs of different products, including the transport needed to deliver them. As this newspaper piece says, the research so far finds that green and local is not always best in terms of energy use. My quibble with the piece: the reporter assumes his personal right to having strawberries or tomatoes fresh at all times. Should we not revert to seasonal foods?

Rest assured there'll continue to be plenty of corn in America, even if less gets exported for humans to eat. Congress is about to assure that federal subsidies continue, and this is one bill the White House will not veto to save money.

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