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Fuel from food crops

November 13, 2008

The conversation over lunch today turned to biofuels. ‘I just don’t think it’s right to turn food into fuel,’ said one of my colleagues. Others nodded in agreement.

This is perhaps one of the less vigorous indictments of the growing push to make fuel from food crops.

Morally inappropriate!’ pronounces Eric Holthusen of Royal Dutch Shell.

A crime against humanity!’ says Jean Ziegler of the UN.

Crazy!’ says Douglas Casson Couts of the UN World Food Program. ‘Until recently, fuel was oil from the ground and was used to make power or run automobiles, and food was for people. Never the two shall meet…’

Imagine my horror, then, to learn of the evildoings of Dan West, an orchardist from Macon, Missouri, who converts waste fruit into ethanol to power his farm machinery. ‘It’s exciting,’ says the hardened practitioner of this crime against humanity, ‘I also thought it would be nice to be self-sufficient, using our ethanol to power our mower and tractor.’

Mr. West obviously lacks the refined ethical sense of Royal Dutch Shell, the UN’s sense of history and proportion, and the common sense of my lunchtime tablemates.

If you detect a note of sarcasm here, please don’t take it as evidence that I am insensitive to the plight of the world’s hungry. The spike in commodity grain prices this summer caused further insecurity among those already living on the edge of survival, and sparked very justifiable food riots in places like Egypt, Haiti, Bangladesh and Mozambique. America’s corn-to-ethanol program contributed to the spike.

Let me suggest that the true injustice is more complex then the fact that a food crop was used to make fuel. The recipe for disaster had several steps.

Recipe for Disaster
  1. Subsidize production of grain for export. Dump low-cost grain on world markets until most farmers go broke. Create global dependence on a few giant farms producing a few grain crops in a few  countries. Make these farms dependent on fossil fuels to operate with very little human labor.
  2. Adopt trade and immigration policies that promote the free flow of money, not people. Keep most wages low enough to ensure that most people spend most of their money on food, and rely on a few cheap grain crops for most of their calories. Keep grain prices low enough to ensure that it’s still more rational to buy imports than to grow your own. Actively prosecute countries that attempt to support their own grain farmers by placing tariffs on imports.
  3. Concentrate control of resources in the hands of a wealthy few who are insensitive to the cost of grain because it is a tiny proportion of their budget. Design a society in which these elite depend on cheap fuel to maintain their resource-intensive lifestyle.
  4. Rapidly boost the price of grain by turning it into fuel. Defend this decision as a quest for ‘energy independence,’ which is a far more worthy goal than ‘food independence.’

I want to argue that making fuel from food is no more immoral than making linen from flax, making vodka from potatoes, or feeding grain to draft horses. For a brief period in human history we’ve had the luxury of fueling our machinery with stored products of photosynthesis from ages past. That won’t last. The problem today is not just that the US makes ethanol from corn; it is that we first promoted global dependence on cheap American corn then jacked up the price. One might liken this to the drug pusher giving his product away until his customers are addicted.

Lest I be accused of an anti-American rant, let me emphasize that I see the world’s wealthy nations as both perpetrator and victim of addiction. While promoting dependence on cheap grain, we have become dependent on cheap fuel. Since we cannot satiate our current demand for non-renewable energy with any combination of renewables we must simultaneously reduce our energy consumption and explore the broadest possible range of renewable alternatives. Ruling out food crops as a potential energy source won’t help.

When Mr. West converts fruit into ethanol he is turning food into fuel. I believe this is ethically distinct from turning 25% of America’s corn into fuel because:

  1. The world does not depend on Mr. West’s fruit.
  2. Fruit prices are usually high enough to keep Mr. West selling his best products as food. Only the culls go to fuel.
  3. Mr. West is closing resource loops by using the fuel he makes to run his own farm machinery. He is promoting agricultural diversity by making fuel from a wide range of perennial species. I tend to believe in the principals of closing resource loops and promoting biodiversity.
  4. Mr. West’s facility is not propped up by government subsidies or ethanol mandates. He operates at a small enough scale to have flexibility in the face of changing circumstances.

Some may concede my point but argue that we should still strive to make fuel from non-food crops, like switchgrass or algae. I am skeptical about the technological feasibility of these projects, and don’t think that they will allow us to step around the ethical dilemmas posed by the food/fuel debate, even if they are successful. Fermentation of ethanol starts with sugar. If we can devise an economical means of breaking cellulose down into sugar, wouldn’t that sugar be better used as human food than fuel feedstock? Similarly, algae have been proposed as potential sources of oils and proteins for human consumption. If we can get edible oils from algae, why would it be more ethical to dedicate these to fuel instead?

I suspect it will always take more energy to get sugar from cellulose for fermentation than to get it from high-carbohydrate plants, which tend to be food crops.

A good argument for switchgrass as a feedstock is that it is a native perennial that grows well in mixtures and does not demand a lot of water or fertilizer (Yes, I’m back to biodiversity and resource cycling). But the same could be said of native fruit crops like pawpaw. We might be able to extract more sugar per acre from the cellulose in switchgrass than from pawpaw, but extracting sugar from pawpaw would likely require less energy. In other words, switchgrass could be more land-use efficient, while pawpaw could be more energy efficient. Which crop we use would depend on which resource is most limiting.

America’s farms produce roughly 15 pounds of food and animal feed per person per day. About 3 pounds are exported, mostly as grain, and 2.5 pounds are eaten by Americans. Everything else is ‘lost‘ between the farm and the fork. Roughly half is burnt up by the metabolism of our farm animals, which convert it into carbon dioxide and manure.

The people at my lunch table were eating fried chicken as they decried those who would turn food crops into fuel. Although some of the corn that fed those chickens eventually made it through to the meat they were eating, the vast majority was lost to support the animals’ metabolism. To me, the decision to dedicate most of the nation’s grain to animal production is no more ethical than the decision to dedicate some of it to fuel. There are certainly more sustainable biofuel feedstock crops than corn, but they may well be food crops, like sweet sorghum, sweet potato, or pawpaw.

In the long term we need to move beyond dependence on internal combustion engines that require liquid fuels. In the near term we can begin to wean some of these engines from fossil fuels using biofuels. Food crops likely represent the most sustainable way of producing the raw materials, since humanity has already invested millennia in developing these crops for oil and carbohydrate production. The ethical approach to addressing competition between food and fuel uses is to work toward a world where people can afford the food they need before waste and excess is dedicated to fuel. In economic terms, that means higher farm gate prices for food than for biofuel feedstock, and lower retail prices for food than fuel. This can only happen if the cost of processing crops into fuel is higher than the cost of getting them to the dinner plate, which would tend to be the case if biofuel processing were not subsidized by governments.

If fuel is given a higher priority than food we’re in trouble. Our stomachs can be filled, but a century of cheap fuel has shown that our appetite for fuel is virtually limitless.

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