Food vs fuel: Ethics and sustainability

biofule

Does biofuel production contribute to global food shortage and hunger, or not? Dr Seona Candy steps us through the pros, cons and complexities of using food crops for biofuels.

In a recent edition of ReNew (ReNew 127), an article describing the use of grain as fuel for wood pellet stoves was published. It inspired some opposing comments regarding the use of food for fuel. Although I can’t comment directly on this particular case of burning grain for space heating, I can perhaps provide some insight into the complexity, ethics and sustainability of the wider debate.

The ‘food vs fuel’ debate, as it is commonly known, is mainly concerned with first-generation liquid biofuels. These biofuels are derived from various agricultural crops that can also be used for food and feed, and have been developed primarily for transport uses. This is the case because there are already considered to be sufficient renewable energy options available to provide stationary energy.

The central argument in the ‘food vs fuel’ ethical debate is about whether the development (or not) of biofuels will cause people to go hungry. Critics of biofuels argue that diverting food crops to biofuel production will increase food prices and cause hunger, particularly among the global poor. Advocates of biofuels argue that their development will help mitigate climate change, and its potential future impacts on agriculture and food production, thus avoiding hunger for everyone (the global poor included) in the longer term.

The first of these two arguments seems fairly straightforward. Indeed, biofuel development in the early 2000s did precede significant rises in the prices of staple crops, causing the 2007/08 global food crisis and food riots in many countries. But it is not safe to assume that biofuels alone caused food prices to rise or that the impacts of rising food prices were negative for all groups who make up the global poor.

According to a report from the International Food Policy Research Institute, the 2007/08 food crisis was primarily driven by a combination of rising oil prices, a greater demand for biofuels and trade shocks in the food market.

Rising oil prices led to increased costs of cereal production, as conventional agriculture is an energy-intensive enterprise. Higher energy prices increased the demand for biofuels, which became more competitively priced when compared with oil. At the same time, cereal demand increased from oil-producing countries and weather shocks reduced the supply of some grains, increasing prices further. This led to a ban on exports by producers and panic buying by importers, which only increased prices yet again.

These increased prices led to food riots in developing countries. As Thompson2 argues, though, increased food prices negatively impact mainly the urban poor, who must purchase their food. For the rural poor, however, who produce and sell their food, rising food prices could be an advantage. It would increase their income and ability to buy food that they don’t grow themselves. Since the rural poor make up around 80% of the global poor, fewer people may in fact go hungry due to rising food prices.

Read the full article in ReNew 130.

EOFY ReNew 2017

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