Environmental Economics Biofuels

The biofuel economy is definitely leading to unintended consequences, but those consequences should have been obvious from the beginning. Using corn, wheat, soy as the well known foodstuffs that can be used to make fuel that burns more cleanly was bound to cause competition with other markets and to wreak havoc with prices.

As an example, turkey and other meat prices rose from competition for corn. The cost of a turkey was said to have risen by about $5 US in 2007 because of the competition for corn, which is the major source of Turkey feed and which accounts for about 60% of the price of the turkey. This is not a lightweight matter when one of the largest turkey growers reported a cost increase of 100 million dollars, US, from rising grain prices.

Add in the fact that sucrose is derived from the foodstuffs that are most desirable for biofuel production, and the vast array of food products that have sucrose in them were also going to rise in price.

The simple rise in demand for meat as countries became more prosperous also contributed in the rise in meat prices, but meat animals require grain from an increasingly competitive grain market. But as meat prices rise from demand, people stop eating as much meat. But going back to more grain is a problem because the grain prices are high also.

In areas where food crises are serious, the competition for seeds and grain has become a problem. The biofuel industry was introducing competition for grain and even the seeds, land and water to grow the grains for food.

In 2008, the International Food Policy Research Institute called for changes to the biofuel policies in light of the glaring inequality of food distribution throughout the world. Biofuel production was believed to have contributed greatly to rises in food prices everywhere. Some of the proposed biofuel policy changes included moratoriums on biofuel production, or limits, import tariffs, various blending mandates and other ways to take biofuel down as a force in rising food prices and unavailability of seeds and grains. 

At the same time, biofuels demand is on the rise. Farmers and other industries have had great success in using biofuels to reduce their operating costs, but this also drove up demand. As a result, demand for biofuel has been rising sharply along with the demand for more grain fed protein, sucrose and whole and processed grains for human consumption.

 But farmers are also compelled to produce more biomass by greater profits from the competition for their grain. This results in stressing the land and water resources. This could cause soil depletion and water availability problems, especially in more arid areas.

The economy of the grain, meat, biofuel triangle thus has some who prosper and some who lose in the final balance. Even those who prosper at one time can fail at another if the soil quality and water is compromised.

The amazing development is that there is a longer list of items that are normally grown for food or drink that can be made into biofuel. This can contribute to rising competition and thus rising prices for a host of foods, from grasses, beer, coffee, even dairy milk! The list goes on to organisms, fungi, vitamin E, lignin, kelp, sawdust, fecal matter, sugar beets and wine. The Japanese have a vast amount of used wooden chopsticks that offer sources of biofuel.

Apparently, most living things or their waste can be converted to biofuel. But now the problem has created an economy of no net gain: biofuel or food! Thus, the promise that biofuel offered years ago is now the challenge of the future: do we suffer rising food costs or do we come to rely more upon biofuel to reduce our dependency on oil and  carbon footprint?

Katie Fehrenbacher, “One Stiff Bird: Ethanol Drives Expensive Turkey”, Earth2Tech, 22 November 2007

International Food Policy Research Institute, “The What, Who and How Of Proposed Policy Actions”

Adena DeMonte, “An A to Z of the Biofuel Economy”, Earth2Tech, 29 August 2007