Last week, the Huffington Post published an article of Lester Brown (Director of the Earth Policy Institute at Columbia University and founder of the WorldWatch Institute) about the impact on the food market of biofuel production. While I consider myself an environmentalist and I dislike to take a stance against an environmental policy that is extremely popular in Europe and USA I must side with the new “disident” environmentalists as Lester Brown and take a stand against biofuel.

Presently there´s enormous investments being undertaken to build biodiesel plants in Europe and the States. In Europe this is more the case because of the frenzy of trying to meet Kyoto Protocol standards not by truly cutting emissions by increasing public transportation or reducing engine size but by keeping current practices and replacing carbon fuel for biofuel. But I believe that the small benefits to the environment of using biofuel as a means of transportation do not compensate the negative impact that its use has in making it harder to fight malnutrition around the world. Already cows in the European Union receive more income in the form of farm subsidies than what people make earn in Subsaharan Africa. In the case of biofuel you can replace cow for car and the results are the same. Cars are chosen over people while many people still starve.

There is a lot of misinformation about biofuel that has made policy makers make the wrong decisions in Europe and USA. The main argument for the use of biofuel is that as opposed to carbon fuels they are carbon neutral. When we use gasoline we add CO2 to the environment but when we use biofuel what we add when we use the car is offset by what we took out when we made Ethanol. But what this argument is not taking into account is that the world simply does not have enough arable land for both, cars and people to be “well fed”.

Ethanol is made from products rich in saccharine like sugarcane, molasses, and sorghum, following a similar fermentation procedure to the one used to make beer: starch is converted into sugar, sugar fermented into ethanol, and ethanol is then distilled down to its final form. Bio-ethanol can also be created from the rich quantities of starch found in cereals (corn, wheat, and barley) and tubers (cassava, potato). Bottom line is that ethanol is made from food. Now is it ethical to feed food to cars when are about 2 billion people in the planet who would like to get this food and are suffering from malnutrition? While there are ways of making biofuels from non edible biomass including the production of bio-ethanol made from rich prime materials found in cellulose, taken from agricultural and lumber waste, this is not economical. The conversion of cellulose into fermentable sugars is so complex and costly, however, that for now, it is not a feasible means of producing bio-ethanol. It seems that the same challenges faced by humans in getting energy out of these materials is faced by chemists when trying to convert those into biofuel. So what we cannot eat the biofuel industry cannot easily digest either. If they could though I would of course support biofuel made of non edible materials. But this is not where billions of refinery investments are going these days.

As Environmental Action explains it: “Although biofuel can be attained from local products in order to solve energy problems on a local level, the problems intensify as the scale increases. In order to supply the energy needs of the entire global community in an effective enough way to reduce global warming, millions more hectares of land would be needed, thus signifying the destruction of natural ecosystems, and global repercussions on the production of food.

Shell, the huge oil company is also the world´s largest producer of biofuels. Still one of its top managers Eric G Holthusen declared that at Shell

“We think morally it is inappropriate because what we are doing here is using food and turning it into fuel. If you look at Africa, there are still countries that have a lack of food, people are starving, and because we are more wealthy we use food and turn it into fuel. This is not what we would like to see. But sometimes economics force you to do it.”

Lester Brown of the Earth Policy Institute summarizes the problem well: “To fill a car’s 25 gallon gas tank with bio-ethanol, you would be robbing one human being of enough food to last him an entire year. To fill the tank for two weeks, you would be robbing 26 people of a year’s supply of nourishment.”

The complication is that the European Countries, in their furor to fulfill the obligations of the Kyoto Protocol, are dedicated to transforming their fossil fuel energy systems to bio-fuel. Although they cannot keep up with its production, Europeans have seen in biofuel the possibility of maintaining their current lifestyle, without increasing their emission of greenhouse gases. Yet, in all of Europe there is not enough land to produce the quantity of biofuel that would be necessary. So the Europeans would have to rely on importation and this imports come from countries in which malnutrition is still a major problem but a few wealthy landowners control most of the land and are happy to grow the latest cash crops to make biofuels.

The US on the other side has enough land to “feed” its cars, but its energy consumption is so high that it would also be forced to turn to imports. But where would these biofuel imports come from? From Latin America, Asia, and Africa, regions of the world in which many are still malnourished.

The expansion of the use of bio-ethanol would mean that acres of land that are currently being used to produce food in some of the poorest countries in the world, would be dedicated to the more lucrative business of fuel. As Lester Brown described it, “We are confronted with a competition between the 800 million drivers who want to protect their mobility, and the 2 billion poor who want to survive.”

Here´s an article from the Herald Tribune supporting my views.

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euronerd on January 27, 2007  · 

Lester Brown is an interesting person.
He fills his 25 Gallon fuel tank 26 times in 14 days.
Makes me wonder what kind of car he drives to use about 47 Gallon a day.
My car would need to drive about 3000 km a day to use that amount… impossible in Dutch traffic.
If that Earth Policy Institute uses the same kind of math for the rest of their policy-making, the human race must be doomed.

On a more serious level: I don’t see the quoted text in the “huffington post”article. Was it there before and did somebody notice the gross miscalculation, or is it from a different source ?

In general, I think we can survive with less traffic with more fuel-efficient vehicles, preferably not “family-” cars.

And bio fuel, or better: bio energy, can very well be part of the solution, next to other energy sources (solar, wind, water, tide) and a lot of efficiency improvements in various area’s (heating, cooling, production, (tourist-)traffic).

Anyone still flying (privately) for pleasure ? Or using a private yacht ?

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Martin on January 27, 2007  · 

Sorry, I think the argument ‘cars or people’ is rarther nieve.

Many BioFeuls are grown in place of food, others are not. Specifically BioFeul from Algae.

Like everything it is about a series of steps, the first BioFeuls only have small Co2 benifits. Yes, we need to ‘power-down’ and have life style changes to minise car use and transportation emmissions. However we also need to ‘power-up’ new sustainable technologies. BioFeul, specifically from Algae is one of the technologies to help complete the picture.

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Antoin O Lachtnain on January 27, 2007  · 

It is definitely true that we need to address the demand for energy more than the supply side.

I don’t know if I agree overall though. There isn’t a world food shortage; the problem is with the distribution of food. Some places have too much food and the people are getting fat; other places don’t have enough.

There are many other strains on the world’s fuel supply apart from biofuel and these are far more important. It takes an enormous amount of land mass to produce meat for example; the same land could feed many more people under tillage.

There is the same distribution problem with energy as there is with food. We in the West are getting more than our fair share of the energy; the people in the third world are getting almost none and this is going to cripple their economics in coming years.

I am really afraid that opposing biofuel production will hit the less well off (who are close to the energy breadline) rather than the big energy consumers, who consume far to much energy and can easily cut down.

There are many other environmental difficulties with biofuel; for example I understand you can buy palm oil in SE Asia for around 10c/liter, and this can be used directly in a car, or converted into diesel. The problem is that tropical jungle was cut down to make way for the palm plants, and this almost certainly hastens global warming.

I don’t see how food vs non-food crops is at all relevant. It’s the land use we have to consider, and whether the land would be better used in a different way.

It is in fact possible to use cellulose as biofuel; you can burn it and use it to drive electric turbines.

So it is a complicated debate. We definitely need to think hard about how we use the land – how much should we dedicate to food production, fuel production, fuel, conservation and so on.

We also need to address transportation but in a pragmatic way. Transportation is at the core of global trade and progress.

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killy-the-frog on January 28, 2007  · 

Poor countries can not rely on import of food (given for free or not) to feed their population, because as we see, the donation of food is high when international crop price is low, and donation of food decrease when the international market price increase.
This variation of export of food destroy partly the local agricultural which is not competitive when the import of free food is high. Thus this farmer can not earn enough and can not invest to increase the production of food in his country.

So, now, even without biofuel the excess of food produce in rich country is useful only on short term action, but many time destroy agriculture of poor country.

Further more should you be against the production of coffee, cacao, etc… Because they are produce in poor country to be export while some of the people in their countries do not eat enough.

Personaly I am not crazy about biofuel because of the pesticide use to grow the raw material. are we going to polute more the river and water to limit global warming ?

To summarize I think: The different countries should not rely on food import, which should be limited to fight a crisis. The rich countries should invest in south to develop their own agriculture. The excess of food in on country can be use to do biofuel. But of course the best is to limit the consumption of car, or limit their use.


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steven on January 28, 2007  · 

Due to “offer & Demand” lot of food is currently /destroyed/ to keep prices above costs…

If they could offer their “food” not only to the “food market” but also to the “fuel” market… then less is destroyed…

In the past that food had been transported to those countries which lack food… What happened
1) they imported it back in our country under another name to have profit (hence they received it for free and can get money for it… and we always buy the cheapest)
2) the farmers in those countries go bankrupt they can’t sell anything to cover their costs

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David Oliver on January 28, 2007  · 

Coming from a farming background, and having travelled through places like the Ukraine and Africa where there are huge tracts of underutilized land, I would say that there is plenty of land available for both food production and biofuel.

People in places like Africa go hungry because of their own poor governments and infrastructure, but another big factor is the agricultural policies of the EU and U.S. and their policy of dumping food surpluses on world markets or “donating” the food to poor countries. How do you expect farmers in poor countries to survive, let alone prosper, when market prices are depressed by the policies of rich countries?

If the price signals are there and they improve their farming techniques then these farmers in poor countries can produce more to feed their own people.

I don’t know if biofuel is the answer but it is probably part of the solution. Getting people to drive their cars less would make more sense but that’s doesn’t seem likely to happen.

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Martin Varsavsky on January 28, 2007  · 


Reading this I thought that maybe the solution is that biofuels should be grown only in the countries who consume them. But even then you have Brazil, enormous production of biofuel since the 70s, gigantic food exporter and serious poverty and malnutrition problems.

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Antoin O Lachtnain on January 28, 2007  · 

Since Brazil is an exporter of food, it sounds like the poverty problem has more to do with economic and political structures (which is a polite word for greed and selfishness I suppose) rather than because of an actual shortage of food. There is the environmental issue too; if food and biofuel production has a negative impact on the rainforest, then the whole effort is going to create more co2 than it eliminates.

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Yffic on January 29, 2007  · 

David Oliver is 100% right !!!!

The agriculture policy of EU oand USA makes that a lot of African farmers can simply not sell their production because the EU and the USA heavily subidise their own productions.

2 negative effects : a) EU and USA farmers think they have an economical role in their country, while this is 100% fake.
b) if a truly free market existed, African farmers would be able to sell their production to us, EU and USA, instead of reverse.

By having new outputs for agricultural production, and having more demand than offer, EU and USA won’t have to subisidiez their farmers any more, and we would have a truly free market.

2nd consequence : African farmers would supply the additional production needed, being finally able to have a viable agricultural activity.

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JNA on January 29, 2007  · 


Since right now the heavily subsidised german sugar production (from sugar-beets) has been doomed by politics opening the sugar market to brazilian and (all other) cane sugar, which is in fact more efficient than growing the less-efficient beets here in “cold” germany, farmers already hope for subsidised biofuel use of their beets.. what a pity nobody tries to understand that we have a serious problem here. Already, subsidised overproduction is used to feed the poorer parts of the world, but not nearly enough- then again, next problem. US-American GMO Corn is sent to starving people around the world, which often use this for seeds, making them vulnerable for Monsanto copyright claims as well as destroying Crops breeded sometimes over thousands of years. Disaster strikes in IRak, everybody knows that, but considering the fact that already, from the beginning of the US interventions in Irak, several hundreds (!!) of (highly specialized, place-specific, hand-bred) crop species disappeared, it seems a little ironic to wonder what should be done with the biodiesel. actually, I think the way it would work is: secure the self-sufficiency of (now starvation-prone) Farmers around the world, put Farmers in Competition by a total and global subsidy ban, so they have to act as economic as needed, making them think about better ways to produce important articles rather than those with the highest subsidies, which could lead to a lot of (higher priced, but also:) higher quality food in the western industrialized countries produced locally, use biofuel for whatever you need it for, but try the hell to get off any dependance on fossil fuels.. but dont stop moving on switching to the next generation of mobility energy and the nourishment problem should be none. Whatever, when will foneras be able to build a mesh network.. this could be crucial in the above plan!

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Aravind on January 31, 2007  · 

The argument is ridiculous. Obviously, the energy conservation is multi-pronged strategy. We need not shut out other options while favoring bio-fuels. Why does Michael assume that Ethanol is the only bio-fuel we have?

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Karl-Friedrich Lenz on January 31, 2007  · 

You might be interested in looking at the EU Commission “Long term renewable energy roadmap” of January 10, available at

They want to push biofuel to 10 percent of all energy used by transport by 2020.

I agree with your position that food should go to people, not cars.

I also think some kind of large-scale hydrogen project might be an interesting alternative to biofuel.

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Martin Varsavsky on January 31, 2007  · 


Here is my answer to you…

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jack hidary on February 1, 2007  · 

correct that biofuel make from food sources is not sustainable or advisable.

the good news is that the near future will be quite different from today’s crude methods.

1. cellulosic and enzymatic methods will allow us to use organic waste to generate fuel without touching the food supply or using land that is better used for other purposes. it will also get rid of a lot of material that would end up in landfills.

2. algae will become a primary feedstock – initially for biodiesel. see

algae can be produced in areas that have no food supply growth potential. often land that is unusable for any other purpose (former chemical factories, etc.)

palm and soy only can produce 500 gallons per acre per year and do so while destroying ecosystems. algae can produce upwards of 10,000 gallons of raw oil per acre per year. new growing techniques will push that up beyond 20,000 gallons.

i sit on the signatory committee of – you can check there for more info.


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ashant chalasani on February 9, 2007  · 

Joseph Stiglitz made a remarkable point that free markets are successful in creating new wealth, but they don’t work when it comes to distributing it evenly.

I come from India, a country that is getting richer by the year, but at the same time where there are about 600 million people subsisting on agriculture; practiced it as it was in the 1800’s in Europe. There is a crisis in the country that farmers are not able to sell their produce, which is actually due to many different reasons, but one primarily is because their cost of production is above what the market offers. Farmers are so desperate that about 1000 of them commit suicide yearly because they cannot pay bills or service their loans. At a human level, that’s a shame. A hard working individual does his job well, produces what he can from the means available to him – but cannot escape desperation and deprivation. Ya, that’s definitely a shame.

When I first started reading about biofuels, I thought this would be a great opportunity and hope for those India farmers, as also millions of them in Africa and parts of S-America – because if they can’t sell their food produce, maybe they will have a more favorable market selling biofuel raw-material. But then, there is a catch. I suspect, within no time the big capitalistic machinery will roll in, buy out farm-land and create massive raw-material harvesting operations, usually employing machinery. I really have nothing against machinery and capital, but I’d be happier to see a 100 of those farmers have a full day’s work and a FULL DAY’S PAY instead of one profitable machine. Sounds stupid, but that’s distribution of wealth for me!

I started off quoting Stiglitz because I think in any of the developing/under-developed economies, it is (probably solely) in governments’ (and international institutions like World Bank, IMF, UNDP etc) hands to deliver this historic new opportunity of a 2nd Green Revolution to those who will benefit most from it – the 100’s of millions of people who still live off that peice/patch of land they own. If left to the market, I suspect this will turn into any other disruptive business opportunity – making the rich richer and kicking the poor further down.

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omid ghadiri on November 29, 2007  · 

I am interested in publications regarding auto bio-fuels or any other alternative fuels for cars. So I was wondering if you have any electronic version of these kind of publications or not, and if I can subscribe for it. I do appreciate your help and consideration.
Thanks and have a great time
Best Regards
Omid Ghadiri

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Andre-John Mas on March 30, 2008  · 

I dislike the notion of biofuels, because there is no guarantee that it is being harvested from environmentally friendly sources. We can’t even be sure the source for half of our foods and whether or not they are GMOs, so how can we be any more confident about the fuel source. When we take into account all the factors around traditional petroleum fuels and biofuels, can we be sure that biofuels are really the miracle energy source? You have need to also look at the social factors and not just the chemical factors.

Better sources of fuels include rubbish dumps that are already creating methane through decomposition. At the very least, this could be used for city transportation solutions. At least this would help in reducing the methane which is already contributing to green house gasses.

We really need to stand back and look at the solutions we have and those that are being proposed and decide which is really the best solution. Using a solution simply to spin the figures is not a real solution. The only real solution is reduction in energy usage, but until then lets really think about whether the alternatives are helping.

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