Fact Check: Biofuels Done Right

The Full Story on Biofuels and the Food Crisis

Biofuel production is only one small factor in rising food prices worldwide; a look at the facts shows that we can get biofuels right.

Switchgrass, shown here on a sand dune on Long Island, is part of the next generation of biofuels. It can grow on semi-arable land in a way that doesn't compete with the food supply. (Flickr/HidingInABunker)
Switchgrass, shown here on a sand dune on Long Island, is part of the next generation of biofuels. It can grow on semi-arable land in a way that doesn't compete with the food supply. (Flickr/HidingInABunker)

A group of senators wrote to Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Stephen Johnson last week asking him to eliminate congressional biofuel mandates in the wake of rising food prices. The Wall Street Journal’s editorial page today picked up on the theme, echoing the senators’ sentiment that biofuels are to blame for the food crisis. “American families are feeling the strain of these food-to-fuel mandates in the grocery aisles,” said the editorial.

It’s true that the food crisis is disproportionately affecting poor families in America, and that the effects of rising prices have spread throughout the world. But biofuels do not tell the whole story—not by a long shot.

Biofuel production is only one small factor in rising food prices worldwide. Blaming the food crisis on biofuels and using it as an opportunity to circumvent sound policy intended to reduce our dependence on oil is irresponsible. Instead of offering reasonable paths to solutions on food prices, global warming, and oil costs, the senators and the Journal’s editorial page writers are creating more roadblocks along the way to the transition to a low-carbon economy.

Our fact check of the Journal’s editorial, below, details exactly why they have it wrong and what we can do to get biofuels right:

“The world is suddenly awakening to the folly of subsidized biofuels. All it took was a mere global ‘food crisis.’”

Food prices have risen 83 percent worldwide since 2005 and some staples such as rice and wheat have risen 141 percent and 130 percent respectively in the last year alone. Yet only 4 percent of world grain is currently being used in biofuel production. These numbers just don’t add up.

So what are the main causes of the food crisis? The answer: changing diets, global warming and drought, high energy costs, and (as our sister organization the Center for American Progress Action Fund points out) investors fleeing the dollar and going into commodities.

Changing Diets: Meat is highly inefficient; it takes 8.3 grams of corn feed to produce 1 gram of beef. Global demand for meat is increasing with changing diets, particularly in countries such as China. where vast quantities of grain are going to livestock over humans.

Global Warming: Drought and volatile weather in key grain producing countries such as Australia and the Ukraine have also limited supply. As Australia enters its 10th year of drought, many analysts predict that climate change will exacerbate competition for natural resources and reduce crop yields in sub-Saharan Africa by 20 percent in some scenarios.

High Energy Costs: High energy prices have increased costs at every stage of agricultural production from the farming itself to the transportation. This in turn bumps up the price for food. Yet since most consumers are similarly strapped by the high price of gas and energy, they’re also less likely to be able to afford the increased cost of food.

The tremendous recent growth in first generation biofuels is certainly playing a role in planting decisions and global grain prices. But at present it’s only a very small slice of the problem.

“The perfect biofuel is always just out of reach, only a few more billion dollars in subsidies away from commercial viability. But sometimes even massive government aid can’t turn science projects into products.”

Who said there was massive government funding for biofuel research? The president’s 2009 budget actually allocates only $225 million to biofuel research and development. To put that in perspective, that’s only 0.375 percent of what the Bush administration has spent so far on operations in Iraq.

“There’s no getting around the fact that biofuels require vegetation to make fuel.”

Sure, biofuels can broadly be defined as energy derived from biological material, or vegetation, but what if that vegetation was grown only on semi-arable land that can’t be used for food crops? What if the fuel was created only from non-edible materials? Or even better, what if the energy was created from the waste created from food, such as corn husks? This is what the next generation of biofuels is all about.

We can and should transition beyond corn and strive to produce only advanced biofuels that deliver measurable life cycle greenhouse gas reductions, utilize non-food based feedstocks, adhere to certifiable environmental safeguards, and grow on semi-arable land that does not compete with food or feed. Congress should begin to phase down ethanol subsidies and reduce tariffs on biofuels produced overseas in a sustainable manner.

“Even cellulosic ethanol, while more efficient than corn, will require countless acres of fuel if it is ever going to replace oil.”

First of all, most next-generation biofuels are not grown on land that is arable. Second, cellulosic ethanol—or even corn ethanol—is not a magic bullet for solving dwindling oil supply and rising greenhouse gas emissions. Instead, next-generation biofuels, developed from, for example, jatropha, a tough shrub that grows in arid soil unsuited for agriculture, and inedible grasses such as switchgrass in the United States and miscanthus in Europe, are just one critical component of a strategy to diversify energy sources. Adopting these fuels, along with other sources of renewable energy, will ultimately help the United States reduce greenhouse gas emissions and transition to a low-carbon economy.

Reducing demand for oil will also be a critical factor in reducing both the price of food and increasing our food security. The increasing price of oil has contributed to the food crisis, increasing costs at every stage of agricultural production and transportation.

With prices showing no sign of decreasing any time soon—some analysts predict oil could reach $150 per barrel within the year—it’s even more critical than ever that we invest in ways to reduce demand. Making our cars go farther on a gallon of gas, giving consumers tax credits for purchasing more fuel efficient cars, and adopting and investing in new technologies such as plug-in hybrids are vital steps toward this goal.

“The last thing the poor of Africa and the taxpayers of America need is another scheme to conjure gasoline out of corn and tax credits.”

Hunger isn’t the only problem that the world’s poor have to deal with. Poor people living in developing countries bear the brunt of the effects of global warming. They are also more susceptible to increased frequency and intensity of disease outbreaks and El Nino-type extreme weather events such as droughts, storms, floods, and heat waves.

What’s more, economies across Africa are grinding to a halt under the burden of soaring energy costs. High oil prices slam the door on prospects for economic development in poor countries. The poorest of the poor will not feel the immediate effects this summer, but the urban poor and working classes who are just high enough up the economic ladder to marginally benefit from basic modern services and transportation will be bitterly squeezed by rising oil prices.

For more information on our energy policies and analysis, see our Energy and Environment resource page.

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