Royal Society Call for Coherent Policy on Biofuel Sustainability

In November the EC (European Commission) recently qualified its previous position on greater biodiesel usage. It confirmed a target of 10 percent biofuels; and, proposed that the fuels must be sustainable, not just renewable. More recently, a Royal Society report called for more research and coherent policy to realize potential “Sustainability Benefits” from biofuels.

Lester Brown favors plug-in hybrids, but these won’t haul the freight or plow the fields.

I took issue with a comment by Henrik to a Green Car Congress post. The GCC story1 reported that a working group of experts, convened by the UK’s Royal Society, has concluded that important opportunities to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from biofuels, and to ensure wider environmental and social benefits, may be missed with existing policy frameworks and targets. I took issue with his assertion that, so far, the food for fuel issue is an unimportant factor in the current rise in food prices.

I contended that there certainly is a connection between oil prices and food prices. A recently announced, Renewable Fuels Foundation funded study2 showed a weak correlation, and other studies*, e.g., from the Earth Policy Institute, could indicate further evidence of a link.

* Note: I became aware of the Informa study when POET challenged a warning from the Economist about “The End of Cheap Food3” and the assertion that a “tank of ethanol equates to food for a year.”

Autoblog Green contributor Sebastian Blanco has been following the issue in the media. In addition to covering the story in the Economist and the objection by Renewable Fuels Foundation, he also had relayed information from a previous Associated Press story, which stated that the rapid increase in corn ethanol production is affecting people at the grocery store. Despite a weak U.S. dollar, high fuel prices and China’s growing economy, explained AP writer Lauren Villagran, the “worst bout of food inflation since 1990? does have something to do with all those millions of gallons of ethanol.

And, are you ready for this tidbit? “China will import almost 50 percent of the world’s oilseeds within a decade, becoming the world’s largest importer, according to estimates from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.” That will affect food and biofuels, no doubt.

Perhaps, due to the recent, dirty energy bill and current debate over the farm bill, there has been considerably more discussion about biofuels. For instance, GreyFlcn provided a comprehensive comment to a post by Gristmill contributor Vinod Khosla4 and his advocacy of ethanol as an alternative transportation fuel. GreyFlcn is a vociferous critic of Micheal Wang’s GREET model and challenges the assertion by Khosla that corn ethanol reduces carbon emissions (on a per-mile-driven basis) by almost the same amount as today’s typical hybrid, because Grey Flcn perceives it as predicated on an incomplete and less than honest representation of the facts by Wang.

Nevertheless, commentary on the ethanol advocacy by Khosla focused upon food versus fuel. Yet there are permutations to the agricultural analysis, so even the connection is complex. For instance, the commentary by Henrik in response to the call by the Royal Society for more detailed assessments of biofuel sustainability focused upon energy intensive farming practices and increased demand.

The price of food have increased because of increasing cost of the energy intensive farming and more importantly because as the Chinese and Indians raise their annual incomes by about 10% per year they start to eat more meat and less grain and this is driving and the explosive demand for grain for meat production. As a rough estimate I would attribute 60% of the price increase in food prices to demand shifts cause by China and India, 30% to increasing fuel prices, 5% to demand from food for biofuels and 5% to various other issues.

The problem is that this important demand change from grain food to meat food is going to continue for years to come and I therefore expect food prices to go much higher in the coming years. They will even continue to rise if oil should go down. This price increase will bring an end to further production of biofuels from food. In fact in the US the least modern corn ethanol facilities are being closed as we speak because they are no longer profitable at $5 per bushel.

My point is that food for biofuels will end all by its selves but the price of food will continue to rise because an increasing number of wealthy people on the planet will compete for a fixed amount of farmland to produce their meat rich food.

Henrik focused his GCC commentary upon livestock sector, something that has been a previous GCC topic. According to a report published by FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization), not only is the livestock sector a major contributor of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions—18%— as measured in CO2 equivalent, but it also is a major source of land and water degradation. Most of the air and water pollution comes from manure.

When emissions from land use (such as production of feed crops and grazing land) and land use change are included, the livestock sector accounts for 9% of CO2 deriving from human-related activities, but produces a much larger share of even more harmful greenhouse gases. It generates 65% of human-related nitrous oxide, which has 296 times the Global Warming Potential (GWP) of CO2.

Similar Posts: Way Back in the 1960’s B40 in New Madrid Buses The Downside of Biofuel Climate Change and World Agriculture Take My Beet… Please

1Biofuel Area Requires Detailed Assessments 2Corn ethanol not culprit for food inflation 3The End of Cheap Food 4Pragmatists v. environmentalists, part I

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