Biofuels: Burning Away Our Food Supply

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What started out as a great idea -- replacing our dependence on oil with a renewable clean-burning resource, biofuel -- has quickly sprouted unintended consequences. We are diverting our perfectly good growing land to produce crops used exclusively for biofuel production. We have essentially decided to burn our food supply in attempts to replace our oil fix. This seems about as logical as burning money for heat. We are desperately in need of energy-junkie rehab.

We are in the middle of a worldwide food crisis that won't be disappearing anytime soon. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon says that the problem is caused by "high oil prices, growing demand, bad trade policies, bad weather, panic buying and speculation, and the new craze of using food for production of biofuels."

By diverting crops for biofuel production we are reducing the food supply while demand goes up, and the prices at the pump are still rising. So what have we accomplished?

There are many factors involved in the current food crisis, but we can at least confront one of the problems right now: We should stop subsidizing and growing food crops for production of biofuel. This week, some of the top international food scientists recommended halting the use of food-based biofuels such as ethanol, saying it would cut corn prices by 20% during a world food crisis. Joachim von Braun and other scientists said, "work should be stepped up on the use of non-grain crops, such as switchgrass, for biofuel."

Bioethanol fuel is a renewable and clean resource, mainly produced by the sugar fermentation process. The sugar is sourced from cereal crops such as corn, maize, and wheat crops -- food staples -- all to produce bioethanol. Some scientists and economists say the diversion of corn and soybeans for fuel forces prices higher and removes farmland from food production. Other experts say it leads to higher livestock feed prices, further raising food prices. However, there are other alternatives to using these staple crops. Some potential sources include straw, timber, manure, rice husks, sewage, and food waste. These products could be obtained from industry, agriculture, forestry, and households. The use of biomass fuels can therefore contribute to waste management as well as fuel and food security.

Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon says, "High food prices could touch off a cascade of related crises -- affecting trade, economic growth, social progress, and even political security around the world." Maybe we won't have to abandon biofuels, but we cannot continue to divert such a large portion of our growing land and resources to their production.

Krystal Ford is a research intern at the American Council on Science and Health (,