The Coming Fork in the Road for Biofuels

, Senior scientist | January 22, 2013, 12:39 pm EDT
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For those of us in the business of educating the public and influencing policy makers, feature stories in the New York Times can be game changers. So the story by the Times’ Elisabeth Rosenthal published earlier this month on the cost of biofuels in Guatemala was not only great journalism on an important human rights issue, it also (hopefully) showed our government decision-makers the human cost of biofuels policy at a time when they have a real opportunity to do something about it.

This post is part of a series on The Future of Biofuels.

Government mandates in the U.S. and E.U. increase demand for globally traded food crops, leading to food price spikes that hurt consumers in Guatemala and other parts of the developing world. The 2012 drought brought this issue into stark relief here in the U.S. over the summer, where we are now using around 40 percent of our corn crop for ethanol.

I recently wrote a column for the Christian Science Monitor’s Energy Voices blog in which I discussed how the food versus fuel debate is about much more than corn. What I loved about Rosenthal’s story was that it pulls together the impact of all three major food-based biofuels — corn ethanol, sugarcane ethanol, and biodiesel made from vegetable oil — and puts a human face on it. This is an important point I have been trying to make as well, and another Times reporter, Matt Wald, blogged about it here on Christmas Eve.

The food versus fuel debate is about much more than corn. Image: USDA Agriculture Research Service

Food Street or Fuel Avenue?

Corn ethanol production per se is not a major factor in Guatemala. Most of the corn ethanol is produced in the U.S. Midwest, and, as the ethanol industry points out, the corn used for ethanol is a different type than is used to make tortillas in Guatemala. The two biofuel crops more directly impacting Guatemalan farmers are sugar and palm oil, which compete for the land that poor farmers rely on to grow food.

But in the end, because the markets for these crops are global, it makes little difference whose sugar and vegetable oil is used for fuel, and whose for food, or whether ethanol is made from white or yellow corn. The important point is that with so much sugar, starch, and vegetable oil leaving food markets somewhere, it puts pressure on agriculture everywhere, raising land values and food costs at the expense of the poor and also accelerating deforestation.

You may be saying to yourself at this point, wouldn’t it be great if we could wave a magic wand and immediately stop the use of corn, sugar, and vegetable oil for fuel? Not so fast. If we did that, global prices would crash, leading to a whole host of different problems caused by overly low prices, to say nothing of increasing the need for fossil fuels.

As Rosenthal’s story points out, the low price of corn in the 1990s drove a shift in Guatemala away from producing their own corn, in favor of cheaper imports. This legacy makes them more vulnerable now that prices are high. When people are harmed by either low or high prices, the wise path forward is moderation, balancing competing needs and interests.

The Fix: In EPA’s Hands

The challenges facing poor Guatemalan farmers are complex, and there are no magic wands that can immediately solve them. But there are practical steps the U.S. can take to mitigate the negative impacts of its biofuels policy.

There is a major decision looming on the horizon for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that could open the floodgates for much more food-based biofuel in our fuel supply, magnifying the adverse impacts of the policy. We hope the EPA will act to moderate these pressures, and the law actually leaves them considerable discretion. Our fact sheet on the government mandates for biofuels (under the Renewable Fuel Standard) lays out the problem, and I plan to explore the consequences of their decision further in future blog posts. Stay tuned.

Learn more about the future of biofuels

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  • James Singmaster, III, Ph. D.

    When will UCS and other groups wake up to the forever available biofuel supply line of our biowastes including sewage solids that we waste by dumping that costs billions of $$$$$ to allow unneeded biodegrading to reemit trapped CO2 and energy???? And the dumping often ends up allowing germs, toxics and drugs to escape. Over 2 years ago, EPA started putting limits on several female hormone drugs showing up in some drinking water supplies. I ASK READERS HERE WHAT GOOD WILL THAT DO ?
    I posted recently comments on Alden Meyer’s blog concerning Obama’s legacy pointing how to make biowastes into the KEY SUSTAINABILITY RESOURCE USING PYROLYSIS THAT WILL DESTROY GERMS, DRUGS & MOST TOXICS( An expelled fuel mix gets generated in pyrolysis and may need refining to remove a toxic or two). It is time to moke hydrogen as the fuel of the future as a potent catalyst has been developed to split water wit sun light.(Science, pg. 1321, Dec. 7,2012)
    OVERALL OUR KIDS’ FUTURES REQUIRE MAKING THE SUN OUR SOLE ENERGY SOURCE. Making biowastes(SUN GENERATED, ARE THEY NOT???) into the KEY sustainability resource has to become a major theme for UCS.

    • Using biological wastes to make fuel using pyrolysis does have some attractive cobenefits, as yo udescribe, but biowaste like other biological resources are not limitless. The scale of demand for fuel is quite large, and so we will need address the challenge with a variety of technologies as we describe in our half the oil plan. (see If you have figures on the scale of biowaste resource and the conversion rates to fuel, I would be very interested to learn more.