Biofuels argument stalls UN food action

I found this article from BBC News pretty interesting. The UN is currently working on a resolution to counter rising food prices, and Latin American is holding out because of its language regarding biofuels. Brazil produces ethanol from sugarcane, and is one of the leading producers of biofuels in the world. Delegates from the region are apparently worried that the resolution will add to the “demonising” of biofuels.

Here’s the offending passage from the resolution, as quoted in the article:

It is essential to address the challenges and opportunities posed by biofuels, in view of the world’s food security, energy and sustainable development needs.

Seems spot on to me. Simple economics dictates that biofuels will drive up food prices. Land that might be used for producing food gets converted to producing biofuels, reducing the amount of food produced in total. The supply goes down, and the demand remains the same. Add to this the fact that a lot of fossil fuels are burned in the production and distribution of biofuels, and I for one begin to wonder exactly how they alleviate any problems.

Would Brazil lose any export income if it went back to producing sugarcane for food? I don’t know. Biofuels seem to me to be nothing more than a way for politicians and governments to look like their doing something about climate change and the energy crisis, when in fact it’s more of a hindrance than a help.

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3 Responses to “Biofuels argument stalls UN food action”

  1. Paul Hutch Says:

    Generally I agree that biofuel programs like those proposed for the USA have too many negatives to carelessly jump on the band wagon. Biofuels do have the advantage over fossil fuels in that they are renewable and the carbon emitted from them is recaptured by the next crop grown for fuel production. But as you pointed out there are many downsides that need to be studied more carefully.

    That said, my research on this topic over the last couple years makes me feel that the way Brazil is doing it is OK. This is because sugar cane has vastly more potential energy than crops such as corn, yielding a very favorable energy input to output equation. Sugar cane also is a terrible food crop as far as nutrition goes and the land suitable for sugar cane growth generally is not suited for growing other food crops. The Wikipedia sugar cane article is a good introduction to the unique properties of sugar cane that differentiate it from other sources of biofuel.

  2. soulbiscuit Says:

    Thanks for that comment, Paul! I’ve come to realize that one of the big reasons I keep this blog is the hope that people who know a lot more than me (a rather large group) will stop by and set me straight on topics like this. I will indeed look more into sugarcane as a biofuel crop.

    Does a lot of forest get cleared in favor of growing sugarcane, or are the fields in place used season after season?

  3. Paul Hutch Says:

    AFAIK, the fields are reused and some have been in service for centuries (started by the Portuguese during the colonial period). Rain forest land is not favorable for sugar cane growth so that has so far kept that potential problem at bay. Of course the tropical grasslands that are favorable and the wetlands they drain into are at risk for the type of damage done by the US sugar industry in Florida. Since we screwed up Florida so bad in the past and have since recovered fairly well I hope our experience will help Brazil to avoid those mistakes.

    Here’s another good article at Wikipedia specifically about ethanol production in Brazil.

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