Unsustainable Biofuels

The ongoing famine in the Horn of Africa has raised a number of questions for the international community on issues such as aid dependence, population growth, neo-colonialism and, perhaps most relevant to us, the increasingly unsustainable nature of biofuels. As discussed previously on this blog biofuels have been partly responsible for the ever increasing price of food worldwide. Indeed the World Bank identified biofuels as one of the causes in food price rises in a recent report as more and more arable land, in both the developed and developing world, is turned over to the production of biofuels: “Another factor that adds to the potential upward pressure on the price of maize is the diversion into production of biofuels.”

America is currently the world’s largest single producer of corn. But an increasing amount of this corn is not entering the food markets but being diverted to domestic ethanol production. Indeed current projections estimate American corn ethanol production at 14billion gallons (53 billion litres) for the year. More corn is being grown, US Department of Agriculture figures show that 92 million acres of corn have been planted this year, an increase of 4 million acres from last year, but this increased production is not being felt in the food markets.

Many farmers are now selling the majority of their corn harvests to ethanol production plants. 58% of the corn grown in Iowa (the biggest corn producing state in the US) this year is expected to be used to produce ethanol. Some farmers, such as Arlyn Schipper who owns a 1,619 hectare farm, expect to sell as much as 70% of their crop to these plants.

As a result of this ethanol boom there is less of crops such as soy-beans and wheat being grown as more and more farmers decide to cash in on the high price of corn, adding further pressures to global food markets. Marie Brill, an analyst at ActionAid remarked that”Farmers are tearing up any little bit of land they have and going to corn.”

In the near future even less corn could be entering world food markets from the US. A Swiss company, Syngent, has developed a genetically modified strain of corn, which is already in use in America, that is more easily and efficiently converted to ethanol. However, this comes at the cost of rendering the corn unsuitable for use in food production. A gene has been added to the strain which quickens the breakdown of corn starches to ethanol (normally a process which has to be induced in the factory) but which means that these starches can no longer be used as a thickener in food, or that corn chips can be produced. Brill commented that: “It’s going to put even more pressure on a really tight market. It will be really tempting to farmers to take on this new, more effective ethanol form of corn.” What is more worrying is that some farmers have raised the possibility of cross-contamination  of the new strain with regular strains of corn.

It could be argued, however, that the problems corn ethanol presents for world food markets may be addressed in the future. There is a growing consensus among environmentalists and development charities that biofuels such as corn ethanol are counter-productive to the shift to a more sustainable form of both agriculture and energy generation. Corn is rather impactful on the environment; it requires more pesticides and fertilisers than a crop such as soy beans and uses large amounts of water and energy whilst it is being converted to ethanol. Some groups, due to these facts, have argued that corn ethanol does not offer a meaningful or significant reduction in greenhouse gas emissions Bill Frees of the US Centre for Food Safety commented that: “The research is very clear by now. Turning corn into ethanol is not environmentally sound. It’s really an environmental disaster.” Frees also argued that corn ethanol could only replace, at most, 7% of energy supplied in the US by oil by 2020.

Corn ethanol production has been subsidised by the American Government for around 30 years. Indeed it was Jimmy Carter, in his term as President, that originally introduced the policy. Although the production of corn ethanol was slow to take off it has now developed into a boom. One that is possibly coming to an end, an opinion voiced by Jeremy Martin a member of the Union of Concerned Scientists: “I think we are at a turning point. We are full to the gills with corn ethanol.” Some campaign groups have argued that corn ethanol and its subsidies are now holding back better and more sustainable biofuels. This was an opinion voiced by Shelia Karpf, an analyst for the Environmental Working Group: “Corn ethanol continues to eat up the market and even eat up grant money that could be used to spur the development of cellulose and advanced biofuels.”

Subsidies may well be scrapped but more as a result of the US Governments current financial problems than a change of energy policy. Some expect $6 billion worth of corn ethanol subsidies to be scrapped by Congress as part of the sovereign debt negotiations. Such a move could reduce worldwide food prices slightly: “It won’t make a big difference for American farmers but it could make a huge difference for impoverished countries.” – Marie Brill

Corn ethanol has raised a number of questions about biofuels. Corn ethanol is increasingly looking like an unsustainable biofuel due to the impact it has on world food markets and it’s perhaps questionable status as a renewable source of energy. Biofuels are taking arable land away from food production at a time when the world population is expanding rapidly and more arable land and more efficient agricultural practises are needed. It is clear that biofuels can only have a limited role to play in an renewable energy market. Other forms of generation, such as wind and solar, have far less impact on the quality of life, even the viability of life, for many of the worlds population.

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