Fueling hunger? Biofuel grain “could feed 330 million”

Over a billion people already suffer from hunger, and food security in 70 developing countries is projected to deteriorate over the next decade according to USDA’s Economic Research Service.

It’s not that there isn’t enough food. A new study by the Earth Policy Institute  shows that the grain grown by US farmers in 2009 to make biofuels was enough to feed 330 million people at average world consumption rates.

The report argues that in a fight between cars and people, the cars would win. The amount of grain needed to fill the tank of an SUV with ethanol just once could feed a person for a year. Even if the entire US grain crop were converted to ethanol, it would satisfy at most 18% of US automotive fuel needs.

The grain needed to fill an SUV’s tank with ethanol just once could feed a person for a year

So are people going hungry to keep cars running? Biofuels push up prices for agricultural commodities, but as an OECD report  points out, this is only part of the explanation.

Food is a relatively minor item in the spending of most families in OECD countries. It represents only 10% to 15% of the household budget, and as this post shows, much of the food bought is thrown away. (That said, the USDA estimates that 14.6% of US households were “food insecure” at some time during 2008.)

In developing countries, food represents half to three-quarters of budgets, so anything that pushes up prices has a more dramatic effect. Moreover, the diets of lower income families have higher shares of cereals, roots and tubers. Prices of these staples tend to increase more strongly due to biofuel expansion than meat and dairy products.

On the other hand, most of the poor in developing countries live in farm households, so higher prices for agricultural commodities  can create new opportunities, at least for farmers with a surplus to sell and the means to get it to market.

The increase in the prices farmers get for their products, whether due to biofuels or not, may help some rural households. But for most people, especially in rapidly expanding urban centres, it’s bad news, and being poor makes it even worse.

Useful links

OECD Agricultural Outlook 2009-2018 on food, feed and fuel

OECD on bioenegy

Patrick Love

13 comments to “Fueling hunger? Biofuel grain “could feed 330 million””

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  1. Michael - 25/01/2010 Reply

    Expect corn prices to fall dramatically for 2010. The American farmer has just produced the largest corn crop in history despite weather conditions that would drive most folks mad.
    Do not expect food prices overall to decrease. While the American consumer spends 11% of their income on food, the farmer only gets 17% of that. The largest amount of your food $ goes for packaging and distribution costs, both heavily dependent on the petroleum industry. The fact is that the ethanol industry, consuming excess corn that was not needed for food production, actually reduced the fuel price and kept food prices from going higher.
    The ethanol process only uses the starch in a kernel of corn. We have plenty of starch in our diet already. The protein in that kernel of corn is available for use in livestock feed. Thus helping to feed more people.

  2. Wendy Baty - 25/01/2010 Reply

    Use of biofuels not only pushes up the price of food on the world market, it also threatens overuse of scarce water resources and diverts our attention away from alternative sources of energy with much lower environmental costs. Additionally, biofuels are touted as THE “green” alternative to petro-fuels while little attention has been paid to the degrading effects modern agri-business farming techniques have on the environment.

    While the above comment might be true in regards to our starch intake, livestock production is not an efficient use of our resources when it comes to feeding the world. The cost of transporting the animals, producing 4 to 16 pounds of grain for every one pound of beef (depending on who you ask), the land space required for housing the animals, greenhouse gases produced by farm animals, clear cutting of forest land for grazing space and the scarce water resources used throughout the whole process cost more than the previous comment would lead one to believe. (Not to mention that animals which aren’t grain fed tend to be healthier for us to eat.)

    Bottom line: we can do better than biofuels as a solution to our limited oil resources.

    • Michael - 25/01/2010 Reply

      You are true in a few respects, but lack the hands on understanding in others. You should look into how much water is used in the production of gasoline. It takes many more gallons to produce a gallon of gas than a gallon of ethanol. That and the fact that oil all to often comes from countries where they don’t like us a lot.
      We on the farm would do nothing to endanger the land. We need it for our children’s future. Many of the ills that are claimed for farmers are based on out of date information from the 30’s and earlier. We now produce many times more bushels of corn, soybeans and wheat per acre, with less fertilizer and chemicals, than we did only ten years ago.
      Grain feeding cows is not cost effective. They eat many more pounds of grass, corn stalks, wheat straw and the left overs from the production of ethanol (DDGS) than they do corn. All of it blended to be the best possible diet for the cow. They eat healthier than most humans.
      The green house gasses you refer to are not much different than the gas passed by the human animal. There were once more buffalo on the plains than there are now cattle. Perhaps we should check into how much greenhouse gasses they passed as compared to cattle.
      I do deplore the cutting of forests in the Amazon for fields, but the clear cutting of forests by people who do not understand what they were doing is being stopped as the government of Brazil gets a better hold on the area,
      I do agree that we can do better than biofuels. Biofuels are a temporary solution while we look for better. It takes a product that is in oversupply and fills a need. Besides, I would rather use a fuel produced from a yearly renewable crop than release all of that carbon into the air that is stored in coal and oil.
      Farm animals take food that you cannot or would not eat and convert it to meat. They provide a service.
      Water is not a scarce commodity where I live. We have lots of it. Right now everyone seems to want to live in a desert or large city. Neither is good for raising animals.
      A lot of critical land and water is being used to produce artificial play spaces like lawns and golf courses. We are paving over farm fields everyday to put up houses, highways and malls. Americans are going to have to decide one day how they are going to do all of that with out oil and still eat well.

  3. DEOM jean paul - 26/01/2010 Reply

    y a une question a aborder c’est est ce la vocation des USA et de l’Europe d’exporter a bas prix des denrées alimentaires qui stérilisent les productions locales et modifient les gouts alimentaires des pays du 1/4 monde afin de les rendre dépendantes de l’import?

    We should look at the question of whether the USA and Europe should be exporting cut-price food commodities that sterilise local production and change food preferences in 1/4 world countries to make them dependent on imports.

    • Michael - 26/01/2010 Reply

      In deed we should. It’s the old give a man a fish and feed him for a day, teach a man to fish and he can feed his family argument. That will work where there are resources to feed the people. Unfortunately in some places the land will not support the population at it’s current level. When the rains do not fall how can you farm. When the river is dry how can you fish.
      In places we need to do a major reforestation to keep the sand from moving. If the trees are allowed to grow. The charcoal industry is currently stripping the hills in sub Sahara Africa. People need fuel to cook with. They cut down trees.
      Rifles have made the killing of monkeys and apes that some societies like to eat much easier. How do we tell them that their family should starve when they have the means to feed them.
      A bigger problem may be the carbon footprint of the food that is shipped all over the world.
      As long as fuel remains cheap, and some areas of the world have excess production while others cannot feed themselves. we will have food moving to population.

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