Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Biofuel: Starving the World's Poor Since 2007

I don't have many original thoughts to share regarding the headline, so please read what David Warren has to say on the subject:
A scheme to kill off the world’s poor, through starvation, has already been launched on the advice of environmental “experts,” and is showing promising results.
"Biofuel" is the means. By turning much of the planet’s limited arable land, including especially the lower-cost breadbaskets of the Third World, into grain generators for biofuel, the environmental revolution is creating the conditions for famine on a colossal scale.
Any attempt to use corn to replace or even supplement our supply of petroleum is misguided at best. Proponents hope to capture in our crops amounts of energy rivaling the amount pumped cheaply from the ground in the form of petroleum. The problem is that the amount of energy we get from petroleum is much greater (a gallon of gas contains about 31,000 Calories) than the amount of energy we get from food.*

There is simply no hope of finding enough excess energy in our food supply to shift significantly into our petroleum consumption. We've been trying anyway, and (partially) as a result food prices are climbing worldwide, with results that may prove to be nothing short of devastating.

Biofuels are not a new source of energy. They merely reallocate an old, more valuable source of energy. This is completely backwards, yet it continues to be trumpeted as great progress.

To replace our oil consumption, sources of energy that don't originate in oil must be developed. Nuclear power generates energy from mass (E = mc squared, remember), and we have mass in abundance. The sun radiates more energy to us than we would know what to do with if we could only capture it efficiently. Heck, below the earth's surface geothermal forces move entire continents.

We would be much, much better served in learning to better harvest sources like these, none of which need appreciably emit carbon, if that's what you're worried about. Considering petroleum isn't actually running out at present, there is no need to panic. In likelihood we have a few decades to work things out.

And yes, it would make a lot of sense to stop using oil where we don't need to.

There is much to say on this topic, but for now I'll leave it at this: biofuel is the kind of solution that makes your problem worse, like taking a habanero pepper for heartburn. Except instead of getting indigestion, you make basic nourishment considerably more difficult for billions of people to obtain.

A grave, grave error that should be reversed immediately.

*It's true that to grow our food supply we depend on large amounts of fertilizers derived from fossil fuels. This means it makes even less sense to try to convert crops into fuel, since the way we do things now we are converting fuel into crops to begin with.


Matt Aquiline said...

global warming save the environment far-right-wing anti-science global warming consensus biofuel.

Nicholas said...


JP in PHL said...

Nick - What you said was spot on, but your analysis left out one key distinction -- that not all biofuels are alike. The problem you're highlighting is absolutely true of ethanol, but is not true of most forms of biodiesel or the new biobutanol. Biobutanol is produced from waste biomass, which would include the unusable parts of corn and wheat that are thrown away during the harvest. It also is far more stable for transport via pipeline, which makes it much more efficient to distribute than ethanol, which much be transported by trucks requiring -- fuel.

Should we be diverting all our resources into growing fuel? No. Should be throw biofuels completely out the window? That would be a no as well.

Nicholas said...

Jp - Thanks for the information. I wasn't aware of such distinctions. Any idea where I could read more about these kinds of fuel?

PDM said...

As far as I can tell, based on DuPont's website, who has joined BP in developing biobutanol, the process still uses food crops. It combines food crops with other non-food crops, like different grasses. These crops still must be cultivated (which takes fuel to do) and converted into fuel.

The ethanol push is just silly, but I'm afraid that this isn't a much better solution. It still involves the nasty parts of the ethanol business, like encouraging farmers to plant more and more crops to be used for fuel rather than food. It's a scary day when a country puts its fuel needs ahead of its food needs.

Zachary said...

You are man.
I don't quite understand what Matt said, either, but I think it has something to do with biofuel being the "let's make everybody happy" synthesis between people on both ends of the environment spectrum.

Jonathan said...

See the response on my blog.

And Zach, ethanol subsidies are the result of farmers being a well-organized political force (who vote in early primaries and generally reside in low-population states with disproportionate representation in congress). Ethanol subsidies are designed to raise the value of farmers' land while increasing food prices for everyone else ('everyone else' being a fairly disorganized political group).