Food Riots: Caused by Biofuels?

A few weeks ago on The Jew and the Carrot, I wondered if biofuels were actually the green mitzvah they were touted to be — an ethical alternative to greenhouse gas-belching fossil fuels — or if they were a mitzvah ha’ba b’aveirah, a “mitzvah” coming out of a sin, the sin of unchecked environmental havoc due to biofuels’ “non-toxic” by-products.
The new waves of global food riots, though, have made me much more concerned, and much more wary of entrenching myself in the pro-biofuel camp.
The 2007 “tortilla riots” in Mexico, where some 75,000 Mexicans protested the rising cost of tortillas in Mexico City, followed an astronomical increase in the price of corn — some 400% in a three month span. The cause for the price hike lay north of the border, farmers planting “industrial corn” to be processed into ethanol, replacing the lower-priced food staple relied upon by millions of Mexicans.
Cooking oil is also turning into the world’s “other” oil problem. In Mumbai, India, residents are forced “to ration every drop” of cooking oil, with the price of palm oil having risen 70 percent in the past year. One store in Chongqing, China saw three people killed in a stampede when it offered a “limited promotion” on cooking oil. Half of the increase in worldwide demand for vegetable oils, the New York Times says, is because of biofuel demand.

US farmers’ dedicating 20% of the American corn crop to ethanol-producing corn resulted in the price of the staple doubling in a year on the world market. And considering the EU goal of replacing 10% of all its gasoline with biofuels, the situation may get worse before it gets better. As of December 2007, 37 countries faced food price crises, and food riots claimed two lives in Egypt and, along with fuel prices, dozens of lives in Cameroon. 10,000 textile workers protested food prices this weekend in Bangladesh, and eighteen people were injured over the course of the week-long food riots in Haiti, which would culminate in the death of a UN peacekeeper and the ousting of the Prime Minister Jacques-Édouard Alexis.
Major rioting is occurring virtually every month somewhere in the world by an increasing populace unable to afford its staple foods, and increasingly, financial and environmental leaders are pointing the finger at Western economies’ love affair with biofuels as the reason:

“Turning food into fuel for cars is a major mistake on many fronts,” said Janet Larsen, director of research at the Earth Policy Institute, an environmental group based in Washington.
Indian Finance Minister P. Chidambaram last week criticized major grain producing nations of the world for diverting farm products to produce biofuels, saying this had led to soaring global food prices globally.
“It has been estimated that nearly 20 percent of corn grown in the United States is diverted for producing biofuels,” he said in his speech to academics, students and diplomats. “As citizens of the world, we ought to be concerned about the foolishness of growing food and converting it into fuel,”…Speaking at a forum after his speech, the Indian finance chief termed the approach to convert food into fuel, as very selfish. “I think it is the most foolish thing that humanity can do,” he said. “I think it’s outrageous and it must be condemned.”

Perhaps it is easy to speak highly of biofuels when one is in a rich economy not faced with the prospect of spending 73 percent of one’s income on food (as is the case in Nigeria), and where soybean production presents few people with a life-or-death dilemma. But we are, at the end of the day, “citizens of the world”, and a reduced carbon footprint gives no one carte blanche to contribute to the impoverishment of millions or the displacement of 5 million indigenous people (as in Borneo). Our social and ethical responsibilities do not stop at the earth, they must extend to its inhabitants.
(crossposted to JCarrot.)

5 thoughts on “Food Riots: Caused by Biofuels?

  1. Excellent post, Yitz. As you wrote, “our social and ethical responsibilities do not stop at the earth, they must extend to its inhabitants.” But if that isn’t incentive enough (and unfortunately, for many it is not) these are issues that affect the U.S. directly, and it is in our own best interest, economically and politically to address them. I don’t know why U.S. politicians and mainstream press have yet to connect the dots.
    Farm subsidies are creating the economic feasability for the scale of U.S. biodiesel production. Both those subsidies and the lowered supply of corn as food are impoverishing Mexican farmers, who then must come north to work in the U.S. illegally.
    The U.S. tax breaks for biodiesel exporters are undermining trans-Atlantic trade ties by undercutting competitors in Europe, according to the E.U. (http://www.reuters.com/article/reutersEdge/idUSN1044351220080311),
    where stiffer policies are being enacted to ensure that biofuel production is environmentally sound.
    U.S. food prices are also rising dramatically, though many haven’t yet noticed because American consumers spend a smaller percentage of their income on food than elsewhere.
    Prices will continue to rise domestically, and countries that import American soybeans will feel the pinch soon, because, according to Celsias.com:
    We enter this new crop year with the lowest grain stocks on record, the highest grain prices ever, the prospect of a smaller U.S. grain harvest as several million acres of land that shifted from soybeans to corn last year go back to soybeans, the need to feed an additional 70 million people, and U.S. distillers wanting 33 million more tons of grain to supply the new ethanol distilleries coming online this year. Corn futures prices for December 2008 delivery are higher than those for March, suggesting that market analysts see even tighter supplies after the next harvest. (http://www.celsias.com/2008/01/25/why-ethanol-production-will-drive-world-food-prices-even-higher-in-2008/)
    From an foreign policy perspective it is in our national interest to ensure that countries facing food shortages are not destablized.
    Here are a couple more great articles: http://www.nytimes.com/2008/03/09/business/worldbusiness/09crop.html?hp

  2. While you seem to only have a problem with corn ethanol, your post title doesn’t make that clear. Additionally, you say nothing about the potential for algae biodiesel or Brazil’s successful use of sugarcane for ethanol…this isn’t exactly the most balanced blog post.

  3. I basically agree — the biofuels craze is one of the silliest environmental fads to arise recently. I think this one has been more harmful than other enviro fads though. Biofuels are ultimately about filling our gas tanks with corn and wheat: in other words burning food to move cars. It’s the same effect as using loaves of bread to fuel home furnaces. Crops are now viewed not only as a food necessity but also as a fuel source and will be bought and sold accordingly.
    If ethanol and biofuels do take off, legitimately, it will be through cellulosic refining processes that enable the breakdown of non-edible organic materials into fuel. That kind of technology would enable serious progress in moving away from Middle Eastern oil and would not require us to use food as vehicle fuel. Other technologies like hybrid/all-electric vehicles could in the meantime begin to move us away from needing so much oil.
    A really exciting technology that environmentalists should be all over is the PBMR reactor system which looks capable of producing enormous amounts of electricity on a small plot of land safely and pretty cheaply with zero CO2 emissions. They’re starting out with it in South Africa and it may be the most powerful electric generation technology out there. In the (near?) future we’ll maybe get to see things like “Power Chips” which would really shake things up electricity wise.
    Good electricity generation combined with good electricity storage will be a very strong and sustainable way to move us away from carbon-based fuels. Fads and hysterias are not.

  4. Obviously the use of “food to run cars” is ludicrous. But there are more issues when we zoom out. We need cheaper energy because there is more demand for it. THis demand is due to the rising standard of living in the third world. So is the hike in the prices of beef and dairy products. Essentially, if we don’t curb demand in the third world – by limiting its (and our) prosperity and quality of life, the ethanol factor will be a blip on the radar screen.

  5. There is no free lunch to getting off our automobile addiction. All avenues must be explored, and cost — even a terrible cost — must be incurred.
    The cost will be massive. Almost unthinkable. It is vastly better than the alternative.
    Those starving in India and Nigeria will be the least of our problems.

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