Biofuels: A Crime Against Humanity?

Bryan RNovember 6th, 2007
By: Bryan R

It may seem odd to accuse biofuels of being a "crime against humanity." According to a recent UN publication, however, increasing our biofuel consumption may be more detrimental to our global society than we realize. This may seem strange since many consider biofuels to be the future of the automotive world -- a way for global warming and car ownership to finally be friends.

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A soybean biofuel farm

Biofuels, including ethanol and biodiesel, are so named because the raw material for creating the fuel comes from plants. Ethanol is produced via fermentation from several sources, the most common being sugar-producing plants such as sugar cane and sugar beets, or starchy plants such as corn and cassava. On the other hand, biodiesel is produced from processed vegetable oils from soybeans, palm, and even peanuts. However, like Dr. Jekyll, biofuels have a Mr. Hyde side.

A recently released report by UN reporter Dr. Jean Ziegler paints an ugly picture of a world overly dependent on widespread biofuel usage. In short order, Dr. Zielger describes, "The sudden, ill-conceived, rush to convert food " such as maize [corn], wheat, sugar and palm oil -- into fuels is a recipe for disaster. There are serious risks of creating a battle between food and fuel that will leave the poor and hungry in developing countries at the mercy of rapidly rising prices for food, land and water."

The numbers are startling. In 1996, the UN World Food Summit reported some 842 million men, women, and children as "gravely undernourished". By 2004, this number grew to 852 million, with approximately 36 million deaths from starvation each year.

Meanwhile, biofuel production and consumption has been on the rise. For example, ethanol consumption in the US increased by 139% between 2000 and 2005, while biodiesel consumption increased by even greater amounts.

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Some of the world's 2 billion poorest

Currently, it hasn't been proven that there's a direct connection between widespread starvation and the production of biofuels. Whether there exists a relationship between the two requires more research and investigation. However, if the trends continue, a conflict over fuel versus food could erupt especially so since many fuel crops, such as corn, are also important food sources. As Lester Brown (from the Earth Policy Institute) says, "[T]he stage is now set for direct competition for grain between the 800 million people who own automobiles, and the world's 2 billion poorest people."

For example, with current commercial technology it takes about 500 pounds of corn to yield 13 gallons of ethanol. This much corn, a little less than one full-tanks worth, would be enough to feed a person for a year. Using corn-derived ethanol, the average US car would burn roughly 27,000 pounds of corn per year… enough to feed a small village. *

Joachim von Braun, director of the International Food Policy Research Institute, has announced, "The days of cheap food are over." Evidence of this is already beginning to surface. According to Dr. Ziegler's UN report, global corn prices have already doubled because edible corn farms have switched over to growing industrial corn types. In February 2007, Mexico faced food riots when corn tortilla prices increased by over 400%. Tortillas are a food staple in Mexico for many families; roughly 45% of income is spent on tortillas. A 400% price hike is understandably very stressful. Unfortunately, prices are predicted to only rise.

Biofuels certainly have a role to play in the future. However, similar to oil, their overuse comes with considerable risks. If we don't heed the warnings from Dr. Ziegler and others, we could inadvertently turn a runaway environmental problem into a runaway humanitarian crisis instead. With strategies such as reducing net consumption, additional scientific research, and careful planning this potential crisis can be averted.

*According to the Dept. of Transportation: In 2002, the average US car consumed 551 gallons of gasoline. Pure ethanol has 70 percent the energy content (by volume) of gasoline. Therefore, it is approximated that the same car would burn 716 gallons of ethanol. Thirty-eight pounds of corn produces 1 gallon of gas, so 716 gallons would equal roughly 27,000 pounds of corn.

A hungry child due to biofuels?
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