Food Vs Fuel

There is no debate at present about the benefits of biofuels in the modern fuel mix, just in relation to food price increases and about the amount of raw food produced in the world each year. It is taken as a given that biofuels displace food crops when biofuels are actually using between 1 and 3% of world food crops (UN food and ag statistics) and opens up another market which helps make farming economically viable so farmers can produce any food at all. If you don’t know that most farms are hardly financially viable and most farmers are in serious debt in Australia, go meet some.

Consider this: Half of the world’s food crop is fed to cattle (UN food and ag statistics). If you really care about food shortages or prices, go vegan.

We can feed 10 people with the grain the cow eats or 1 person if the grain is turned into meat. Think about that, 90% of half the world’s food crop is used up by cows to produce meat because we like to eat meat instead of grains. Based on this information alone, Biofuels have an insignificant impact in comparison.

If you genuinely care about feeding the world’s population then go vegan, stop eating meat, free up cattle food for human consumption and stop feeding ruminants food they don’t normally eat. Cows have evolved to eat grass.

Grown Fuel has also over the years been involved in helping farmers stay on the land by finding a way to make their farms viable so they can produce food and fuel. We will not produce more food for people as long as farms continue to be financially enviable.

The Austrian Biofuels Institute produced a paper in 2008 titled “The Sustainability of Biofuels – Issues to consider”. The following points summarise the main findings of this paper:

World agricultural output has exceeded world population increases since 1750 (UN Food and Agricultural Organisation Statistics Authority)

  • World agricultural output has exceeded world population increases since 1750 (UN Food and Agricultural Organisation Statistics Authority)
  • The world’s population increased from under 1billion in 1750, to over 6 billion in 2007 (UN Food and Agricultural Organisation Statistics Authority)
  • Since 1961 world agricultural output has exceeded population increase during the same period; in 2005 there was 2 ½ times more food produced than in 1961, compared to the doubling of population over this time (UN Food and Agricultural Organisation Statistics Authority)
  • In 1970 the global area harvested for food production was 700million hectares and in 2005 this had increased to 800million hectares
  • In 2005 the newly emerging biofuels industry accounted for 1.3% of raw food production
  • Biofuels may have had some recent impact on the increased cost of food, however there are also other factors involved in this, such as the increase in fuel fertiliser and pesticide costs.
  • Spikes in agricultural commodities have occurred in the past before biofuels and are likely to continue in the future regardless of the impact of Biofuels; the price of fossil oil has a huge impact.
  • In 1972 and 1995 agricultural spikes were seen due to poor harvests in 1973 due to the oil crisis

Impacts of drought and foods are unpredictable and the potential increase in occurrence of these weather events due to climate change are important issues to consider in relation to renewable fuel sources – When using used cooking oil or tree oil to make biodiesel less carbon emissions occur reducing climate change impacts. This however would be negated if further forest clearing were undertaken to grow biofuel crops, such as oil palms (see Choose your feedstock wisely).

Global issues of food scarcity and starvation in some countries are due to economic, free trade, globalisation, the dominance of multinational corporations and political issues, not the amount of food produced in the world.

Buy locally, buy organic
While biodiesel has many benefits over fossil diesel, it will never be able to replace the fossil litre for litre, as there is simply not enough arable land on earth to meet our current levels of consumption. We must also avoid fuel crops competing with food crops. The reality is that in order to mitigate global warming and respond to peak oil, we will need to decrease our consumption of all grains and fuels.

An intriguing example of how this can be achieved comes from the way in which Cuba responded to its own peak oil crisis in the 1990s. The US trade embargo and collapse of the Soviet Union cut Cuba’s oil imports by half. The small island then had to restructure its agriculture and transport systems, transitioning from a highly mechanised, industrial agricultural system to one using permaculture farming methods and local, urban gardens.

For more information about sustainable biodiesel, see Grown Fuel’s book: Grown Fuel – Biodiesel in Practice.