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