A new report from Oxfam rightfully raises concerns about the potential effects of unmitigated commodity speculation, escalating oil prices, underinvestment in agriculture technology, and climate change on future world food supplies. But the report misses the mark when it makes unsupported claims about the effect of biofuels on global food supplies. Global biofuel production is a means to enhancing global food security and tackling problems of climate change.
According to an UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) report released just last week, “…investment in bioenergy could spark much-needed investment in agricultural and transport infrastructure in rural areas and, by creating jobs and boosting household incomes, could alleviate poverty and food security.”
“American ethanol production has helped spur needed investment and research into dramatic advances in farming technology that have allowed U.S. farmers to double their production on the same amount of land from a generation ago,” said Renewable Fuels Association President and CEO Bob Dinneen. “The same opportunities at varying scales are available to farm communities in developing nations. Together with improved farming technologies, local biofuel production can provide developing rural economies with the kind of economic prosperity needed to become more food secure.”
Global hunger issues have long existed, fueled in no small measure by inept and too often corrupt food aid programs, rampant food waste, commodity speculation and volatile energy prices. A recent FAO report noted that 1/3 of all food produced for human consumption is wasted – either thrown out or left to waste in fields or in storage. The World Bank and the British government concluded that speculation, not biofuels, were main drivers in food prices increases in 2007-2008.
Additionally, Oxfam notes in their new report, “Only 40 cents of every US taxpayer dollar spent on food aid actually goes to buying food,” with the remainder spent on securing transportation – a highly energy-intensive endeavor. Oxfam further notes that, “The dependency of the food system on oil for transport and fertilizers is a key factor in both, as oil prices are expected to rise in the long term and to become increasingly volatile.”
Troublingly, many non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have chosen to scapegoat American ethanol production as a driver in perceived food shortages and price increases rather than tackle the true challenges to feeding a growing global population. A study entitled “Battles over Biofuels in Europe: NGOs and the Politics of Markets” and published in the journal Sociological Research Online on Aug. 31, 2010 found that much of this biofuel angst was driven by perceived political vulnerability in biofuel policy, not underlying data supporting anti-biofuel rhetoric.
For example, the US uses just 3 percent of the world’s grain on a net basis (U.S. producers do not use food grains like wheat and rice) to produce more than 13 billion gallons of ethanol and nearly 40 million metric tons of livestock feed. In the U.S. specifically, ethanol production utilizes 25 percent of the nation’s net corn crop, not the 40 percent frequently trumpeted by biofuel opponents.
“Meeting growing global demand for food, feed, and energy necessarily requires addressing a number of key issues simultaneously,” said Dinneen. “Narrowing the focus to isolate one aspect, such as biofuel production, without addressing the dangers posed by a growing dependence on petroleum, will continue to have us chasing our tail. The continually evolving biofuels industry is one tool that should be used to improve rural economies, increase on-farm productivity, and provide impoverished nation’s a means to become more food and energy self-sufficient.”