"Let them eat biofuels!"
… a series of poor harvests in the area led to soaring bread prices, provoking food riots…. A worker’s daily bread took 97% of his income…. With bread prices at record levels, hungry mobs attacked the gates … where customs collected taxes on incoming grain convoys. They raided every possible source of arms, ending up with capturing the Bastille prison.
Oh, sorry, that was 1789. No worries, then. Not like that lead to a violent revolution or anything.
Anyway, the Washington Post has a terrific front-page article, “The New Economics of Hunger: A brutal convergence of events has hit an unprepared global market, and grain prices are sky high. The world’s poor suffer most,” which is the first in a series.
No, national and global mandates for biofuels (= bad energy policy) aren’t the only reason for this emerging catastrophe. Obviously, high oil prices (= bad energy policy) play a role. And then there are those poor harvests in places like Australia due to climate change (= bad energy policy). OK — the last one was kind of a stretch, given that the amount of climate change to date was probably all but inevitable. But my point is that if we don’t drastically reverse our self-destructive energy policies soon, things are going to get much worse….
We have mandates for far more biofuels (see “The Fuel on the Hill — The Corn Supremacy), and we are going to see much higher energy prices (see “Peak Oil? Bring it on!“) and much worse global drought and desertification (see The Century of Drought“).
What they heck are people supposed to eat then — Biofuels? Apparently that’s what politicians in this country and Europe think. Heck, in a Friday article, “IEA warns against retreat on biofuels,” the International Energy Agency, based in Paris, ironically enough, has this to stay:
Biofuel production is critical to meeting current and future fuel demand in spite of its possible role in driving up food prices, the west’s energy watchdog has warned.
Some may believe that biofuels are not a major contributor to the recent food price spike, but the conservative European magazine, The Economist, certainly does (see “The End of Cheap Food,”), calling the price rise “the self-inflicted result of America’s reckless ethanol subsidies” and pointing out last December the amazing statistics:
In other words, the demands of America’s ethanol programme alone account for over half the world’s unmet need for cereals. Without that programme, food prices would not be rising anything like as quickly as they have been. According to the World Bank, the grain needed to fill up an SUV would feed a person for a year.
The head of the International Monetary Fund shares this view, writing in the Financial Times last week (here):
Higher food prices over the past few years in part reflect well-intentioned, yet misguided policies in advanced economies, which attempt to stimulate biofuels made from foodstuffs through subsidies and protectionist measures.
And Prime Minister Gordon Brown says the British government “is concerned that biofuels are stimulating inflation and pushing up food prices around the world.”
The consensus among leading biofuels experts presenting at an American Meteorological Society seminar Friday I attended (see here, I’ll post the video when available) was that governments should ban all biofuels made from crops or on productive lands — in part because such biofuels almost certainly don’t provide a net reduction in greenhouse gas emissions and in fact probably increase emissions.
One thing seems very clear to me — if we don’t get on the path to 450 ppm atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide immediately, then we are facing a future of 9 billion people and soaring energy prices and drastic reductions in arable land and water. In such, a future any competition between food and fuel will easily be won by food, as it should be.