Guess who loses the Food versus Fuel smackdown

Climate Progress is no fan of using food crops for fuel. Neither, it seems, is the New York Times or the world’s undernourished, with this long article, “An Oil Quandary: Costly Fuel Means Costly Calories.” The whole story is worth reading, especially for biofuel fanatics (you know who you are, Vinod), but I’ll just reprint the opening here:

Rising prices for cooking oil are forcing residents of Asia’s largest slum, in Mumbai, India, to ration every drop. Bakeries in the United States are fretting over higher shortening costs. And here in Malaysia, brand-new factories built to convert vegetable oil into diesel sit idle, their owners unable to afford the raw material.

This is the other oil shock. From India to Indiana, shortages and soaring prices for palm oil, soybean oil and many other types of vegetable oils are the latest, most striking example of a developing global problem: costly food.

The food price index of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, based on export prices for 60 internationally traded foodstuffs, climbed 37 percent last year. That was on top of a 14 percent increase in 2006, and the trend has accelerated this winter.

In some poor countries, desperation is taking hold. Just in the last week, protests have erupted in Pakistan over wheat shortages, and in Indonesia over soybean shortages. Egypt has banned rice exports to keep food at home, and China has put price controls on cooking oil, grain, meat, milk and eggs.

According to the F.A.O., food riots have erupted in recent months in Guinea, Mauritania, Mexico, Morocco, Senegal, Uzbekistan and Yemen.

“The urban poor, the rural landless and small and marginal farmers stand to lose,” said He Changchui, the agency’s chief representative for Asia and the Pacific.

A startling change is unfolding in the world’s food markets. Soaring fuel prices have altered the equation for growing food and transporting it across the globe. Huge demand for biofuels has created tension between using land to produce fuel and using it for food.

A growing middle class in the developing world is demanding more protein, from pork and hamburgers to chicken and ice cream. And all this is happening even as global climate change may be starting to make it harder to grow food in some of the places best equipped to do so, like Australia.

3 Responses to Guess who loses the Food versus Fuel smackdown

  1. David B. Benson says:

    Indonesian palm-oil-to-biofuel producers have or are shutting down. They cannot afford to purchase the palm oil at current prices. It is all going to food.

    Except in the United States, with a quite stupid policy in place regarding corn, it seems to me the food problem is primarily due to too many people (some of whom, like me, eat too well).

    Going to go have a big lunch, with meat, just now…

  2. Earl Killian says:

    The usual knock against biofuels is the food vs. fuel tradeoff, but the bigger issue is that biofuels cannot do the entire job (except perhaps in one case, and there they will probably be too expensive). They will never be more than a niche technology. Niche technologies are OK for what they do, but public policy should be looking for something more. For example, it would take hundreds of thousands of square miles of land to produce cellulosic ethanol from switchgrass (one of the best cases) to fuel U.S. passenger travel, even assuming improved MPG, far more than is practical.

    It is not even the case that all biofuels have food vs. fuel problem. Algae biodiesel, for example, would not be produced in soil, but in “bioreactors” (one of the original proposals was to use the Sonoran desert).

    The bigger issue stems from the fact that plants are an inefficient way to harvest sunlight, because photosynthesis is usually only 1% or so efficient at turning sunlight into biomass. That inefficiency translates directly into land area. Algae are interesting because efficiency can be as high as 7.5%, but even that pales compared to Concentrated Solar Power (CSP). For example, Stirling dishes are approximately 30% efficient at turning sunlight into electricity. That’s a factor of 4 to start (and CSP is getting better). But then combustion fuels can only be converted into work at efficiencies that are one fourth to one half of electricity. (While the efficiency of “heat engines” can be better than what we have in our vehicles today, there is a theoretical limit to heat engine efficiency from thermodynamics called Carnot’s theorem. Practical efficiencies are lower than Carnot’s limit though, e.g. approximated by the Callen efficiency.) In contrast electricity can be turned into work at very high efficiencies. Multiply the factor of 4-16 to start with 2-4, and you get a factor of 8-64 gap between biofuels and electricity. This is demonstrated by doing real calculations using yield data from the literature.

    In contrast, just deploy today’s technology (no research required), and you find it would only take a few thousand square miles of CSP to power 420M Americans in 2050 driving 9,300 miles per year. CSP powered passenger travel, in contrast to biofuels, is not a niche technology; it is a solution. Remember also that land area equates to cost. CSP powered travel is several times cheaper than gasoline-powered travel today; in 2050 it should be enormously cheaper.

    Fuel cells are not subject to Carnot’s theorem (they are not heat engines). However, they do have efficiency problems (much of the energy ends up as heat, rather than work). Since electricity is the most efficient way to get energy from the sun (e.g. wind or PV or CSP), converting it to hydrogen and then from hydrogen back to electricity introduces two conversions that are guaranteed to to lose efficiency (thermodynamics again). Keeping the energy as electricity is the best choice. If you don’t, and you make your hydrogen from renewable electricity, you’re going to pay three times per mile what it costs to use electricity directly. That makes no sense.

    And then there’s the water issue. Where will all the water for biofuels come from in a global-warming drought-suffering world? Even using water to make hydrogen for fuel may be unwise given other pressing uses for water.

  3. David B. Benson says:

    Earl Killian — Perhaps in the United States, blessed with ample potential for both wind and solar, bioenergy will only play a small part. I opine that world-wide bioenergy will play a substantial role.

    Try following

    for awhile and you’ll see what I mean.