When Food is Fuel

Keith Bradsher wrote in yesterday’s New York Times about what happens when we start using food for fuel:

In some poor countries, desperation is taking hold. Just in the last week, protests have erupted in Pakistan over wheat shortages, and in Indonesia over soybean shortages. Egypt has banned rice exports to keep food at home, and China has put price controls on cooking oil, grain, meat, milk and eggs.

According to the F.A.O., food riots have erupted in recent months in Guinea, Mauritania, Mexico, Morocco, Senegal, Uzbekistan and Yemen.

“The urban poor, the rural landless and small and marginal farmers stand to lose,” said He Changchui, the agency’s chief representative for Asia and the Pacific.

A startling change is unfolding in the world’s food markets. Soaring fuel prices have altered the equation for growing food and transporting it across the globe. Huge demand for biofuels has created tension between using land to produce fuel and using it for food.

Further reading:


  1. I would like climate change and alternative energy discussions to be more about rational choices and less about emotionalism and impulsive decisions with unintended consequences.

    If you use some percent of corn or palm oil for fuel instead of for food, at least in the short term, you have less for food.

    I hope that your book addresses what the tradeoffs are in the climate change discussion.

  2. This topic is a lot more complex than most discussions make out. As usual, The Economist has useful things to say.

    1) Farmers have often traded off food and fuel. I grew up on a farm, and there were parts of the farm we kept as trees for firewood. I have no love of the (generally-messed-up) farm subsidies in the US; I certainly have sympathy for farmers.

    2) People need to know where corn goes.

    In the US, most of it goes to feed animals and to make High-Fructose Corn Syrup. Are there any problems in the USA with obesity?

    3) Finally, while one can build (small/medium) electric tractors, I don’t know how to do that for a 400HP+ combine with a 300-gallon diesel fuel tank. We’re headed into Peak OIl, if we’re not already. I in the US, we essentially eat a lot of petroleum, and that’s not going to last. It is (relatively) easy and useful to do PHEV and EV cars, and even delivery trucks. Class 8 trucks are another story, and it takes a lot of money to electrify the whole US railroad system, and it will likely never make sense to do the large number of shortlines out there.

    4) It makes no sense to grow crops if you can’t get them to the consumers, which implies very serious rethinking of agricultural systems, especially in N. America. A lot of people in NYC think food appears in the grocery stores… 🙂

  3. Yes: R&D progressive commitment is a good thing:
    basic research
    applied research
    exploratory development

  4. John Mashey,

    I always learn from you more than I think I want to know.

    Food-to -uel is a disgraceful, destructive (some would say depraved) option and policy driven mainly by ADM, Bush and Democrats.

    That said, youhave raised a far more profound issue:

    fuel to food (farming and transport)

    Until you mentioned it, I had never given a thought to the inevitablity of fertilizer and food transport constraints — be it fuel availability (including JP8) and increasing cost of fuel affecting food costs at the market.

    I watched the media and the pols poke at the sub-prime issue with ten foot poles but they were either too dim-witted or delusional to put the brakes on those stupid loans or provide protection soon enough to the 2+ million borrowers who either lost or will lose their homes.

    Now, about food and fuel; same players, same script and likely same consequences.

    Who is leading this march and why do I hear people way up ahead of me screaming?

    John L. McCormick

  5. Well, it’s not necessarily that bad. Among other things, farmers are businesses, and will grow what makes sense to them. There have been some pretty strong misinincentives, and if you have no familiarity with ADM & Cargill, you might want to learn.

    If you haven’t already, read The Omnivore’s Dilemma.
    Personally, if it turns out that the US needs to allocate a certain amount of farmland to fuel, with the result that there is less HFCS and less corn-fed beef, it wouldn’t bother me at all.

    Really, the high-energy, industrial corn monoculture style of farming seen in the US is a very recent thing, historically. But the need for fuel exists elsewhere.

    I’ve been on islands where the villages (mostly) grow subsistence crops locally … but if there isn’t a (liitle) fuel for moving crops to market via truck or boat, and a (little) fuel for getting the food they can’t grow, life is going to get real bad. Norman Borlaug has said that one of the worst problems for African farmers is (not just the lack of fuel, but) the lack of roads.

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