Biofuels May Push 120 Million Into Hunger, Qatar’s Shah Says: “The era of low food prices … is over.”

Biofuel policies in countries from Australia to the U.S. may push 120 million people into hunger by 2050 while doing little to halt climate change, said Mahendra Shah, an advisor to Qatar’s food security program.

So-called first-generation biofuels produced from commodity crops compete with food for land use and fertilizers, resulting in higher grain prices and increased deforestation, Shah said at the MENA Grains Summit in Istanbul today.

World food output will have to rise by at least 70 percent by 2050 to feed a growing world population, according to Shah. The use of crops for biofuels is forecast to raise food prices by 30 percent to 50 percent in that period, Shah said, citing a study by the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries Fund for International Development, or OFID.

I am not a fan of our corn ethanol policy as I made clear during the last food crisis (see “The Fuel on the Hill” and “Can words describe how bad corn ethanol is?” and “Let them eat biofuels!“).  In a world of blatantly increasing food insecurity — driven by population, dietary trends, rising oil prices, and growing climate instability — America’s  policy of burning one third of our corn crop in our engines (soon to be 37% or more) is becoming increasingly untenable, if not unconscionable.

Earlier this year, Bill Clinton warned that too much ethanol could lead to food riots (see “The Corn Ultimatum: How long can Americans keep burning one sixth the world’s corn supply in our cars?

Now Bloomberg reports, “Biofuels May Push 120 Million Into Hunger, Qatar’s Shah Says.”  Here’s more of that story:

“The first generation, we should never have done it,” said Shah, a policy advisor. “Biofuels will trigger an increase in agricultural prices. Biofuels will result in another 120 million people hungry, just because we’re growing biofuels.”

Shah said the world food system is in crisis because natural resources are limited, land quality is worsening and water is scarce, meaning high food prices are here to stay.

“The era of low food prices that we saw until the beginning of the millennium is over,” Shah said. “We’re not going to go back to an era of declining prices.”

Government plans to boost ethanol and biodiesel production and mandates on using them in transport fuel will increase deforestation by between 20 million and 24 million hectares (49 milion to 59 million acres) by 2050 and increase fertilizer use by 10 million tons, the OFID study showed, according to Shah.

Biofuels Versus Food

“Biofuels are also starting to compete with food use, and the question is, how far we will take these biofuels?” Shah said. “If you look at the cereal price index itself, prices will increase substantially over the period. We know that the first generation is not sustainable in the long run.”

… Climate-change mitigation from biofuels will be “very limited” before 2050, partly because the corn and sugar cane used to make fuel are high in nitrogen-fertilizer consumption, according to Shah.

“We will make no greenhouse-gases savings for the next 20 years by implementing biofuel policies, because they are working with first-generation crops,” Shah said. “It particularly defeats the whole purpose of saying we’ll use biofuels to reduce climate change.”


As an aside, conservatives like to claim that it is environmentalists who gave us our current biofuels policy, but in fact I never have met an environmentalist who thought we should mandate anywhere near the current amount of corn ethanol.

The only reason environmentalists and clean energy advocates even tolerated energy deals with corn ethanol mandates is the hope that jumpstarting the infrastructure for corn ethanol would pave the way for next-generation cellulosic ethanol.  That turned out to be a mistake (see “Are biofuels a core climate solution?“).

We have gone far beyond what is tenable.  Yes, peak oil (and the energy-intensive nature of food production) means that oil prices will rise in tandem with food prices, thus increasing the profitability of biofuels.  And yes, we are a rich country, the  breadbasket of the world, politically far more impervious to higher food prices than higher oil prices.

But as population grows, developing countries’ diets change, and the extreme weather of the last year increasingly becomes the norm in a globally warmed world,  food insecurity will grow and our biofuels policy will, inevitably, collapse.  It must.

28 Responses to Biofuels May Push 120 Million Into Hunger, Qatar’s Shah Says: “The era of low food prices … is over.”

  1. Chris says:

    The U.S. still uses far more grains for meat than biofuels – shouldn’t Climate Progress be just as critical of the industrial meat industry? Where’s the calls to change those policies, or for more people to eat only grassfed beef or go veg?

  2. Joan Savage says:

    “First-generation” might be last generation. The risk of crop failure due to heat affects either food or biofuel.

    Once again, as mentioned in a House hearing earlier this year, the corn-soy-cotton commodity crops have upper temperature limits for growth.

    This means that during at least a few hours of daylight in the growing season, the minimum temperature has to be less than 29C (84F) for corn to conduct photosynthesis. Hotter than 29C (84F) and the corn’s growth stops.

    For soy the temperature cap is 30C (86F) and cotton, 32C (90F).

    “The evoloution of heat tolerance of corn: implications for climate change” by Michael J. Roberts and Wolfram Schlenker.

  3. Joan Savage says:

    A history of daylight-only daily minimum temperatures would be invaluable, as would a modeled projection.

    Attention has been rightly given to the rise in night time minimum temperatures, a sign of the GHG feedback, but I have not found a proofed subset of minimums during daylight. It is so vital that I’d like to believe one or more exists and I just haven’t found them.

    A study of corn under a range of temperature and light/dark regimes shows the importance of this kind of information.

    Effect of high temperature on photosynthesis and transpiration of sweet corn (Zea mays L. var. rugosa)

    J. Ben-Asher, A. Garcia y Garcia and G. Hoogenboom. Photosynthetica Volume 46, Number 4, 595-603

  4. cervantes says:

    Well, we just need to hope for that technical fix — biofuels from cellulose and lignin. Wood waste, corn stalks, grasses from semi-arid, non-arable land — those sources of biomass could give us a net benefit and not compete with food crops — in fact they could make some crops more profitable for farmers while keeping the edible parts in the food supply. So let’s cheer them on, they’re getting close.

  5. Lazarus says:

    If biofuels are to form part of the future energy mix they should only be made with none food crops on none arable land. There are plenty of options for this without using corn etc such as waste vegetable oil, food, wood, manure etc, biogas, and newer developments like algae.

  6. Joan Savage says:

    evolution not evoloution

  7. Joan Savage says:

    Biofuels need reliable water and nutrients. The willow project at SUNY ESF has developed varieties of willow that grow quickly and can be machine cropped, but they still need reliable water and nutrients. What are the limits of reliability on those under the perturbed conditions of climate change?

    By the way, a recently harvested field of willow looks like a cross between a corn field (yellow rows of stubble) and a warfare nightmare (thousands of sharp wood spikes sticking up from the rootstock).

  8. Florifulgurator says:

    Food scarcity, riots and starvation would have come anyway. Biofuels just made us aware of that earlier. That’s the actual great benefit. Mankind might perhaps be better prepared now. (Sorry for unwarranted optimism.) The starvation number will grow in the decades to come, even without biofuels.

  9. SecularAnimist says:

    Piling on to Chris’s comment #1 — the EPA web page, “Major Crops Grown in the United States”, states that “According to the National Corn Growers Association, about eighty percent of all corn grown in the U.S. is consumed by domestic and overseas livestock, poultry, and fish production. “

    According to the Encyclopedia Brittanica, 98 percent of the US soybean crop is used for animal feed. And the United Soybean Board reports that “livestock and poultry consume more than 70 percent of the soybeans worldwide” and that increasing consumption of meat in the developing world represents a growth opportunity for US soybean exports, as more and more of the world’s soybean production will be diverted to animal feed.

    This massive diversion of grains and legumes to meat production results in the loss of up to 90 percent of the original protein value of the crops, drives up food costs, reduces the availability of the food, promotes epidemics of entirely preventable degenerative disease, and is a huge contributor to a host of environmental problems from topsoil erosion to water pollution, and of course is a major source of GHG emissions (comparable to the entire transport sector, according to the UN FAO).

    I don’t in any way mean to suggest that use of agricultural land and resources to produce biofuels is not a problem that needs attention. But the negative impacts of animal agriculture — especially modern, industrial animal agriculture which is necessarily dependent on massive fossil fuel inputs and massive diversion of valuable food crops to animal feed — has long since deserved the kind of focused attention that is now being given to the as yet smaller problems of biofuels.

  10. Joan Savage says:

    OK, one more thing. Qatar is among the countries buying or leasing agricultural land in Africa and is obviously also an oil-producing country, so let’s take the report as politically and economically compatible with Qatar’s other activities.

    2008 The Telegraph (UK)

    Qatar to lease 100,000 acres in Kenya in return for port loan

    Qatar and Kenya are in negotiations that would see the Gulf state lease 100,000 acres of land and fund a new £2.4 billion port on the Indian Ocean island of Lamu to help the east African country cope with increasing trade volumes.

    1:36AM GMT 03 Dec 2008

    The deal is the latest of a series of instances of wealthy countries leasing land in the developing world to secure food supplies in the face of rising prices.

    A statement from President Mwai Kibaki’s office said the Kenyan leader made a “strong” proposal to Qatari Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani during his visit to the Gulf state.

  11. Leif says:

    Not only does it take water to grow bio-fuels, it also takes lots of water to refine those stocks into usable fuel. No free lunch.

    Society currently allows millions of people to die of starvation. Why will we be more distressed with 10s of millions?

  12. caerbannog says:

    A bit OT, but Michael Mann has just opened a can of whup*ss on a denier in an opinion piece that he got published in the (Colorado) Vail Daily:

    Linky here:

    Excerpts here:

    An individual named Martin Hertzberg did a grave disservice to your readers by making false and defamatory statements about me and my climate scientist colleagues in his recent commentary in your paper.

    It’s hard to imagine anyone packing more lies and distortions into a single commentary. Mr. Hertzberg uses libelous language in characterizing the so-called “hockey stick” — work of my own published more than a decade ago showing that recent warming is unusual over at least the past 1,000 years — as “fraudulent,” and claiming that it “it was fabricated from carefully selected tree-ring measurements with a phony computer program.”

    These are just lies, regurgitation of dishonest smears that have been manufactured by fossil fuel industry-funded climate change deniers, and those who do their bidding by lying to the public about the science.


    Mr. Hertzberg’s lies are pernicious. Their intent appears to be to do convince you that there is no harm in our continued unfettered release of carbon into the atmosphere.

    It is not only us, but our children and grandchildren who will suffer the consequences of devastating changes in our environment in the years and decades to come if we listen to charlatans like Mr. Hertzberg.

    The piece deserves wider circulation, so definitely pass it around. It’s very clear that Mann has run completely out of patience with the deniers. Given the tone of his response, I wouldn’t be surprised if he hauls at least one denier into a US court in the near future.

  13. Tim says:

    Photosynthesis is an intrinsicsally inefficient process for producing energy. Plants have evolved to survive, not make biofuels. Even from cellulose or lignin, the net conversion of sunlight to useable energy in fuels is poor. It’s fine to convert waste plant cellulose into biofuels, but any more than that is almost always a waste of land needed for agriculture, for example. The prospects for that changing are quite dim, even if cellulosic ethanol becomes cost efficient for waste cellulose.

  14. Hank says:

    Glad to see Joe taking a stand against biofuels! It’s a policy that has grown way out of hand.
    If we put our efforts towards fuel efficiency we could easily make similar savings on fuel.

  15. catch22 says:

    Algae biofuels grown in land based seawater tanks are a highly promising source of fuel. They wouldn’t use arable land. They wouldn’t necessarily consume potable water. And they have the potential to scale up enormously. Some species of algae are very simple to refine into diesel; the fuel they produce even contains octane.

    Of course, the main problem is the mechanism for farming them, for preventing invasive species from growing in the tanks, and for building the tanks in an economical way. But I believe that these obstacles can easily be overcome.

  16. Patrick Mazza says:

    A paradigm for biofuels is:
    -Go for organic waste streams first – massive amounts now go to landfills.
    -Plant deep rooted perennial crops that accumulate more carbon in soil than carbon released in fuel use – Use this to restore marginal lands.
    -Add rotational crops that eliminate a fallow and improve agronomics.

    A paradigm for biofuels use is:
    -Electrify as much ground transport as possible.
    -Make all vehicles as efficient as possible.
    -Use biofuels in sectors where there are no easy replacements – aviation, shipping, heavy ground vehicles.

    Finally, don’t blindly oppose biofuels. The world will demand liquid fuels, and if sustainable bio options do not exist, the action will move to tar sands, coal and other high ghg unconventionals.

  17. Rice dog says:

    Every time something is planted it takes lots and lots of energy. A tractor which burns fuel, fertilizer (nitrogen) which comes from natural gas, water which has to be conveyed with either diesel gear heads or electricity are all energy which is channeled into another form of energy, bio fuels. This is a bad deal for everyone but my fellow farmers in the mid-west that produce corn and benefit from the higher prices and subsidies.

    Let’s get farmers back to producing food and leave fuel production to experts that dedicate their lives to efficient energy production.

  18. David B. Benson says:

    As has been thoroughly researched and mentioned many times and places, malnutrition is a result of maldistribution, not insufficient supply. Approximately 35% of all the food grown in the world is wasted due to poor storage and transportation. It is conceivable4 that at some point in the future food and biofuels wil actually compete, but in the meantime do somethng about that wasted 35%, hmmm?

  19. John Tucker says:

    Also much of the leftovers of biofuels are added to animal feeds. 40 million tons of feed additives are contributed by the ethanol industry, which is about 1/3 of source material.

    Unfortunately we are still in something of a animal feed shortage this year because of crop problems.

  20. Jimmy the Geek says:

    I advocate biofuel. We should put tanks on top of very building in cities and grow algae in the tanks that are engineered to produce oils that can be converted into bio-diesel.

    That will leave all that field corn available for human consumption… not that humans can digest field corn.

  21. Zach says:

    Using fertile farmland for fuel is incredibly stupid. We will never be able to meet our liquid needs with crop biofuels (biofuels that don’t need fertile land are a different story, like algae biofuel). It also is dumb, considering that two perfectly good energy producing technologies are (solar and wind) are ready to meet energy needs without using valuable croplands. Using fertile land to grow fuel will mean that more deforestation will occur to make room for growing food, so it’s all around not a good idea. Also, aggressive efficiency in vehicles that require liquid fuels could offset any need for these biofuels (see RMI’s Winning the Oil Endgame). Efficiency is the best short to mid term strategy in fighting climate change. We have the technology now to produce super-efficient, fuel-sipping cars, so we can focus on efficiency in our cars/buildings until green energy is ready to take over the rest.

  22. Roger Blanchard says:


    Frontier Renewable Resources is trying to put in a cellulosic ethanol facility not far from where I live. It will use ~1.63 units of energy for every 1 unit of energy contained in the ethanol. According to Frontier, they have state of the art technology. If this is the state of the technology, they have a long way to go.

    Roger Blanchard
    Sault Ste. Marie, MI

  23. John McCormick says:

    Tanks Jimmy.

  24. John McCormick says:

    Caerbannong, here is a bit more nonsense from Martin Hertzberg aka Doctor Kaboom.

    from a 2009 piece he penned:

    “Heal thyselves, you bunch of scientific illiterates!”

    It never ceases to amaze me how many otherwise intelligent people have been completely duped by the Gore-IPCC-Hansen clique of propagandists.

    They say that “greenhouse gases” absorb infrared (IR) energy emitted by the earth and cause warming. Yet, in comparison to water in all its forms (polar ice, snow cover, oceans, clouds, humidity), human CO2 emission is as significant for weather as a few farts in a hurricane. The earth’s IR energy absorbed by greenhouse gases is reradiated to free space as soon as it is absorbed.

    The notion that the colder air above can radiate energy back to heat the warmer air below violates the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics. Heat flows spontaneously from a higher to a lower temperature, never the reverse. But the Senate can solve that problem and justify its proposed legislation by simply repealing the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics!

    Well, truth be told. Stratosphere is not getting warmer. Getting colder.

    Guess I’ll throw out my sleeping bag.

  25. Dr.A.Jagadeesh says:

    Good Article. There is Agave(Americana),Sisal Agave which is a care-free growth plant which can be potential biofuel sources as it has cellulose and fermented sugars.Mexico is 8utilising this plant on a massive scale.

    Dr.A.Jagadeesh Nellore(AP),India

  26. Colorado Bob says:

    PARIS — Farm chiefs have a narrowing chance to diversify vital crops at rising threat from drought, flood and pests brought by climate change, food researchers warned on Monday.

    The world’s nearly seven billion people are massively dependent on a dozen or so crops that, thanks to modern agriculture, are intensively cultivated in a tiny number of strains, they said.

    When climate change gets into higher gear, many of these strains could be crippled by hotter and drier — or conversely wetter — weather and exposed to insects and microbial pests that advance into new habitats.

    “Farmers have always adapted, but the pace of change under climate change is going to be much greater than in the past. There’s going to be a real need to move fast,” Bruce Campbell, head of a research programme called Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS), told AFP.

    In a series of studies, the experts highlighted the risk for staples such as wheat, corn, bananas and cassava.

  27. Hot Rod says:

    Joe, congratulations. I disagree with you on most things, but your honest stance on biofuels is one of the things that keeps me coming back.

  28. mary dicerni says:

    If the corn was not used for animal feed, there would be enough to make bio-fuel. Grass-fed meats are more tasty. I do not buy corn-fed meat.