Should We Be Growing Crops for Fuel or Food?

Spencer Thomas via Flickr
Spencer Thomas via Flickr


Crops For Fuel or Food?

Which is more deserving of being fed, an SUV in the United States or a malnourished villager in a developing nation?

Of the estimated 29 percent of the earth’s surface covered by land, we can grow crops on a little more than one-third. Not all agricultural land is dedicated to growing food – take cotton, for instance … or corn for ethanol.

Why care? Because the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that 1 out of 7 people worldwide suffers from chronic hunger. For young children, early malnutrition can be irreversible – leading to stunted physical and mental development.

Now, consider that in more recent times, companies have devoted considerable swaths of land to growing crops that don’t feed people, but rather, cars and trucks. More specifically, crops such as corn, sugarcane and soybeans that provide the raw materials (or feedstock) for biologically derived fuels – known as biofuels. These fuels have generated tremendous interest in sustainability circles, and the opinion of them isn’t always positive.

One central question drives the debate: should we really be growing crops for transportation fuel, rather than for food that can alleviate the suffering of real people?

The Earth Policy Institute offers some fairly shocking interpretations of the data linking biofuels and food prices. According to the sustainability think tank:

  • The 107 million tons of grain that supplied U.S. ethanol distilleries in 2009 could have fed 330 million people for a year
  • The quantity of grain needed to fill the tank of an SUV with ethanol, one time, could feed one person for a year

Far From Cut-and-Dry Solution

Biofuels come in a wide variety and from many different sources: ethanol from corn or sugarcane; biodiesel from soybeans, waste vegetable oil or even algae; and biogas from naturally produced methane. (Fermented cow patties, anyone)?

Biofuels can claim a few distinct advantages over traditional, petroleum-based fuels:

  • We can grow more plants for biofuels as we consume them for fuel. By contrast, there’s but a limited amount of crude oil we can extract. When it’s gone, it’s gone.
  • Biofuels produce fewer greenhouse gas emissions than gasoline or ordinary diesel when burned, in some instances, substantially fewer.
  • In many cases, biofuels take what would be a waste product (like used fryer oil), and turn it into something useful and valuable.

What’s not to love, then, about biofuels? Well, by some people’s accounting, they’re not very energy-efficient. Cornell University emeritus professor David Pimental, an outspoken critic of crop biofuels, told PolitiFact it would take “1.5 gallons of gasoline equivalents to produce 1 gallon of ethanol.”

In other words, you’d lose energy (and money) in the process of making the fuel. Cornell and the University of California-Berkely published a study in 2005 that showed corn ethanol, soybean-derived biodiesel, and other fuel crops to be massively inefficient. Follow-up research, Pimental later said, showed even greater inefficiencies than the researchers had originally thought.

The U.S. Department of Energy disagrees, noting in one summary that, “the preponderance of the recent studies show that ethanol has a positive net fossil energy value.”

Disputed math notwithstanding, biofuels can claim one highly desirable feature. We can produce them domestically – regardless of supply disruptions and manipulations by foreign oil-producing states. More than a few in the U.S. military view our dependence on foreign oil sources as one of the top threats to national security. The so-called Great Green Fleet (itself the subject of some controversy), is built on the idea of making the U.S. Navy immune to foreign oil shocks.

Meanwhile, food prices exploded between 2002 and 2008, a period coinciding with increased biofuels demand in the United States and Europe. A World Bank research paper concluded that the events were strongly linked – providing significant evidence that fuel crops divert land from food crops and cause hunger. Organizations including the Earth Policy Institute and the Union of Concerned Scientists say unequivocally that growing crops for fuel puts pressure on food prices. That, in turn, causes people to go hungry.

In 2009, the population of the world’s hungry spiked to exceed 1 billion for the first time.

It’s certainly hard to argue with the statement that feeding people should come before making fuel for machines. Perhaps it doesn’t have to be an either-or proposition, though. Sustainable agriculture techniques such as urban farming, vertical farming and algae production (both for food and fuel!) could potentially meet the demands of humans and machines. Modern, “horizontal” farming has been around for thousands of years but it’s terribly inefficient — considering the technology we have today.

Maybe the path of wisest stewardship lies in innovations that multiply the area and output of our farmable land. If so, we could sustain the benefits we enjoy from commerce and transportation while providing enough food so that everyone on the planet can eat.

Where do you stand on the issue? Does it make sense to pursue biofuels? Are there environmentally sensible alternatives? Have your say in the comments.