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.