Biofuels: not just a bad idea, but pure evil

When I last tackled biofuels, my opinion of them was pretty much uniformly negative. So, what’s changed in the interim? Not much, just even more evidence that biofuels are evil (and I don’t use that word lightly). The New Statesman published an article on Thursday titled How the rich starved the world, and as soon as I read it I knew I had to discuss it here.

The article contains some pretty stunning statistics that I didn’t have in my previous post. Between 2004 and 2007, global corn production increased by 51 million tonnes, while the consumption of corn-based biofuel increased by 50 million tonnes in the United States alone. Add to that all of the corn used for biofuels in other countries and you can plainly see that, in the past three years, the amount of corn available for consumption worldwide has actually decreased. No wonder food prices are rocketing, and no wonder starvation is becoming a bigger problem worldwide.

If that were the sole extent of the problem, though, it wouldn’t be terrible. But it’s not. Next year the US consumption of corn for biofuels will rocket up to a ridiculous 114 million tonnes, which is one third of the entire production of the US. Using corn for biofuel doesn’t even save money and it doesn’t help fight climate change either — the only reason for it is the criminally myopic laws recently enacted by Congress. And hope isn’t on the horizon either, as all of the current presidential candidates are paying lip service to Big Agribusiness. This issue represents too much Midwest money and too many Midwest votes to pass up, even though burning food to power SUVs while millions starve verges on a stereotypical mad scientist level of evil.

So here’s what’s going to happen. We’re going to continue burning our food for use as fuel in what is easily the worst decision in decades. Food prices will get more expensive here, but we’ll mainly just hear lots of grumbling from the lower class who don’t really get much political representation anyway. But these effects will pale in comparison to what will happen in developing nations. Millions of people will starve to death as food prices continue to rise. Can any politician who’s voted in favor of biofuel subsidies and mandates really live with the knowledge that they’ve caused the deaths of millions of people? Is securing Midwest influence more important than doing what is right?

7 Responses to “Biofuels: not just a bad idea, but pure evil”

  1. Greg Maxwell Says:

    It’s a callous position, but I think at least a somewhat justified one, that developing nations whos populations choose to depend on purchases or handouts from wealthier countries for food effectively committed delayed suicide when they made those decisions. Those who live by the market, die by the market, perhaps quite literally.

    Not that biofuel as it stands today isn’t horrendously inefficient, foolish, and perhaps evil. … But simplistic analysis of starvation, like biofuel results in less corn which results in starvation, tend to come out oversimplified and misleading.

  2. drinian Says:

    On the other hand, look at what NAFTA did to Mexican farmers, for instance. In the short run, grain prices went down, because American farmers were more efficient and could produce high-quality corn. For a while, everybody wins. But when Mexican farmers went out of business because of this, and US food prices began to rise, there were riots over the price of tortillas in Mexico. Those farmers who had gone off to do something else with their time couldn’t just start farming again overnight.

    But without NAFTA, there would be, I suspect, a much smaller Mexican middle class based on the manufacturing jobs that were brought to some regions. I can’t see how protectionist policies on food production would help the rest of society in a developing nation over the long run; the US can absorb the costs of Really Bad Decisions like the ethanol subsidy. Likewise, if farm subsidies weren’t there, food imports might be able to better compete in the US. Free trade isn’t always free.

  3. Kelly Martin Says:

    Blaming the grain shortage on biofuel consumption is misplaced; the major factor here is weather. Colorado is only now coming out of a drought that lasted nearly ten years, with total failures of the winter wheat crop in most of Colorado in 2001, 2002, and 2003. India and China have both experienced far below average wheat harvests for the last two or three years as well. The drought in the American southeast is also impacting yields.

    Or look at the sugar subsidy. The sugar subsidy drives the price of sugar up in the US so that it’s not economically feasible to use sugar in soft drinks; instead, we use high fructose corn syrup — which is manufactured from the same bottom-grade corn that is used to make ethanol. So by subsidizing the price of sugar to protect American sugar farmers, we increase demand for corn syrup, and therefore the price of corn. This leads to more acres being planted with corn, and less with wheat and soybeans, exacerbating shortages already created by adverse climate conditions in many agricultural regions worldwide.

    The simple fact is that these markets are not even remotely simple; there are a myriad factors at play here, and it’s virtually impossible for you to point to any one string being tugged to explain a deviation in the behavior of the market when there are thousands of others being tugged at the same time.

  4. drinian Says:

    Can we at least agree that farm subsidies by developed nations are a major contributor to what’s happening now?

  5. Cyde Weys Says:

    I don’t think it’s unfair to blame the grain shortage on biofuel consumption. This year, one third of America’s entire corn crop will be burned in vehicles. That’s not just one of thousands of strings being pull, it is the main string. Regional droughts in Colorado don’t come close to how much of our food is being burned in vehicles. And that’s just in 2008. Biofuels are still growing exponentially and none of our politicians seem to dare risking the Midwest vote, so it will only get even worse next year.

  6. JR Dallas Says:

    So even if the corn weren’t burned, how would these starving people buy it?, You gonna pay for it, you gonna deny the farmer money for said corn. If these companies producing biofuel can buy it then its theirs, and you cant complain what happens to it. Unless you want to live in communist country.

  7. 7 Reasons Why Liquid & Gas Fuels are Here for the Long Haul : Gas 2.0 Says:

    […] point is that we should stop complaining about how biofuels are “evil” and realize that, if liquid fuels are here for the long haul, biofuels represent a way to […]