Food for Thought: How Green Are Biofuels?

Includes: FUE, GEX
by: Praveen Jaiswal

“This is the first age that’s ever paid much attention to the future, which is little ironic since we may not have one”. -- Arthur C. Clarke

On the eve of World War I, First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill made a historic decision to shift the power source of the British Navy’s ships from coal to oil. Since Churchill’s decision, energy security has repeatedly emerged as an issue of great importance and it is so once again today. Since Churchill’s day, the key energy security has been diversification. This remains true even today but a wider approach is now required that takes into account the rapid evolution of the global energy trade, supply chain vulnerabilities, terrorism and the integration of major new economies into the world market.

Human beings, like all other animals draw their energy from the food they eat. Food is energy and it takes energy to get food. These two facts, taken together, have always established the biological limits to human population and will continue to do so in the future also. Until the last century, all of the food energy available on this planet was derived from the sun through photosynthesis. As solar energy also has a limited rate of flow into this planet, it set a limit on the amount of food that could be generated at any one time. With massive population growth in the last century, the need to expand agricultural production was one of the motive causes behind most of the wars and conquests in recorded history. Even to this day, land owners and farmers fight to claim still more land for agricultural productivity.

As agricultural output could expand no more by increasing acreage, new innovations made possible a more thorough exploitation of the acreage already available through mechanization of agriculture, and that is where “oil” seeped in to farmlands.

In the 1950s and 1960s, agriculture underwent a drastic transformation commonly referred to as the Green Revolution. The Green revolution resulted in the industrialization of agriculture. The energy for the Green Revolution was provided by fossil fuels in the form of fertilizers (natural gas, naphtha) and pesticides (oil). The modern, commercial agriculture miracle that feeds all of us is completely dependent on the flow, processing and distribution of oil. Without timely and expensive inputs, yields of all basic food crops would plummet as from farm to plate, the modern food system relies heavily on oil…

  • Diesel is critical to run the tractors, combines, harvesters, equipment that plants and sprays the pesticides, and other farm vehicles which transport food and seed;
  • Food processors rely on the just-in-time (gasoline based) delivery of fresh and/or refrigerated food;
  • Food processors rely on the production and delivery of food additives including vitamins and minerals, emulsifiers, preservatives, coloring agents of which, many are oil based and delivery is also oil dependant;
  • Food processors rely on the production and delivery of boxes, metal cans, printed paper labels, plastic trays, glass jars, plastic and metal lids with sealing compounds, almost all are oil based;
  • Delivery of finished food products to distribution centres is oil based. Daily, just-in-time shipment of goods to grocery stores, restaurants, hospitals etc. are all oil based. Even customers drive to grocery stores to shop for supplies, and dining out is also dependent on oil.

To give the readers an idea, production of one kilogram of nitrogen for fertilizer requires energy equivalent of from 1.4 to 1.8 litres of diesel oil. In a very real sense, we are literally eating fossil fuels. The past half-century has witnessed a tripling in world grain production from 631 million tons in 1950 to 2,029 million tons. Similarly world fertilizer use has increased dramatically since the 1950s. China is now the top consumer with use rising beyond 40 million tons.

The Growing Oil & Food Crisis

Hence, our food supply, and our economic survival as a whole, depends on the steady availability of reasonably priced oil. Oil is the Achilles Heel of the modern food system. Food is energy and it takes energy to get food. These two facts, taken together, have always established the biological limits to the human population and always will. The UN Secretary General has already issued a gloomy warning that the burgeoning global food crisis, in which rapidly rising prices have triggered riots and threatened hunger in dozens of countries, “… could have grave implications for international security, economic growth and social progress.” Food riots have already broken out in Indonesia, Haiti, Egypt and several other African countries. The Bangladeshi Army is ordered to march on potatoes rather than rice. The daily food menu now includes 125 grams of potato for each soldier in a country where rice is overwhelmingly the staple dish.

Some of the facts of rising oil prices are like Dracula. You can shoot them dead, but they just keep getting out of the coffin. As energy gets more expensive, food will get more expensive. As per World Bank estimates, food prices have risen by an average of 83% in the past three years. A range of factors has been blamed including poor harvests, climate change, trade restrictions (exports ban), changing food habits in developing countries but major reasons cited for steep increase are mainly two:

  1. Rising Oil Prices, and
  2. Dash to produce biofuels for motoring at the expense of food crops.

Nobel Prize winner for Economics and former World Bank Economist Mr. Joseph E. Stiglitz has also advocated and observed that biofuels are a major culprit for rising food prices. He observes that “the whole system is affected by this very large withdrawal of agricultural output that was going into food production.”

Biofuels: The Magic Brew

In the early days of the automobile, it was an open question which fuel source would power future cars. Proponents of both fuels (oil and ethanol) lobbied for tax incentives. Gradually, as more and more wells were drilled and the price came down, oil won. Now with the price of oil going up, up and only up with the upper limit unknown and unpredictable, the ethanol lobby is back in action and is gaining popularity the world over.

Ethanol and methanol have the potential to supplement or replace gasoline, produced through a process of fermentation by which sugars are changed to alcohols by yeast. Another potential fuel comes from plant and seed oils. Sunflower oil, Jhatropa oil, etc. are being researched / implemented to replace diesel fuel. Oil seeds found in many plants can be processed to produce oil composed mainly of carbon and hydrogen that in turn reacts with oxygen to produce carbon-dioxide, water and heat.

As the burgeoning ethanol industry is consuming 10 to 15% of the nation’s crop, it has led to a steep rise in food prices. Ethanol is now taking a tumble. Once hyped as a “magic brew” for reducing both oil addiction and global warming, alcohol made from corn kernels is now being accused both of triggering a global food crisis and doing more ecological harm than good. The use of food crops for biofuels is one of the key factors driving a dramatic increase in the global price of cereals. The world is facing the most severe food price inflation in history.

From 1990 to 2005, world grain consumption, driven largely by population growth and rising consumption, climbed an average of 21 million tons per year. Then came the explosion in demand for grain used in ethanol distilleries. Historically the food and energy economies have largely been separate, but now with the construction of so many fuel ethanol distilleries, they are merging. If the food value of the grain is less than its fuel value, the market will move the grain into the energy economy. Thus as the prices of oil rises, the price of grains also follows it upward trend.

A team of economists has calculated that with oil at $50 a barrel, it is profitable to convert grains into ethanol as long as price is below $4 a bushel (a bushel of corn weighs 56 pounds), but with oil at $140 a barrel, distillers can pay $10 a bushel for corn i.e. double the early 2008 price of $5 per bushel.

Unfortunately for the planet, there is no effective replacement of Oil. We need to assess how much energy is returned for the energy invested (EROEI). As per statistics available, the return on energy employed in case of Ethanol and Vegetable Oil is zero, or sometimes even negative. Claims that cars can run on vegetable oil and/or ethanol never take into account the amount of energy necessary to generate the vegetable oil and/or ethanol that includes farming, transportation, extraction, storage, etc.

In addition to above, according to a just released study concludes that while there is a future for a sustainable biofuels industry, feedstock production must avoid agricultural land that would otherwise be used for food production. According to the study, the displacement of existing agricultural production, due to biofuel demand, is accelerating land-use change and, if left unchecked, will reduce biodiversity and may even cause greenhouse gas emissions rather than savings. A slowdown will also reduce the impact of biofuels on food commodity prices, notably oil seeds, which have a detrimental effect upon the poorest people.

The World Bank reports that for each 1% rise in food prices, calorie intake among the poor drops 0.5%. Projections show that the number of hungry and malnourished people climbing to 1.2 billion by 2025. Governments around the world will have to trade-off between the acreage for allocation of land for growing “fuel crops”. Biofuel policies need to require the utilization of feedstock that does not cause a net additional pressure on current agricultural land. It is time to review subsidy granted to units converting food into fuel.

It is worthwhile mentioning here His Excellency President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s vision during the recently held World Food Summit in Rome wherein he declared an integrated national drive called ‘Api Vavamu Rata Nagamu’ meaning ‘grow more food towards prosperity’, through which all arable lands in the country are being brought under cultivation. He further declared “… in the prevailing competition between food and fuel, Sri Lanka is firm in the decision that no land that can be used for food will be used for bio-fuel whatever the commercial attraction may be. It is our belief that food for the people should have the highest priority and not the running of gas guzzling vehicles”. A similar foresight is required by the leaders all over the world to help kill this Dracula once and for all.

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