Food prices rise as use of corn-based fuel ethanol increases

According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (UNFAO), the combined international cost of food is expected to increase 5% over last year, and the bulk of that cost is due to an expected 13% increase in the price of grains and vegetable oils. And the reason those grains and oils are getting expensive is that they’re being removed from the food supply and being converted into biofuels. (story here)

Unfortunately, increasing food prices due to the growth in biofuels was inevitable. Cellulosic ethanol cannot yet be produced economically or on a large scale because the enzymes are presently too expensive. And while there are possibilities for industrially produced ethanol from carbon monoxide (either using bacteria to biologically convert the gasses or using carbon nanotubes as chemical reaction catalysts), industrial ethanol production technologies are in their infancy. There is only one way to immediately bring food costs back down – stop producing biofuels. Planting more foodstocks takes at least a growing cycle, but our fuel needs far outstrips our ability to grow food crops over the short term. And is it really ethical or moral to cause the entire world to pay more for food just so we can drive our cars? I don’t think so.

As much as I think greenhouse gas emission should be cut dramatically, the biofuels industry simply isn’t ready for prime-time. Without massive government subsidies, the corn ethanol fuel sector in the United States would collapse, and it should. Not only would such a collapse bring food prices back down again, but there is significant evidence that biofuels actually produce MORE greenhouse gases than fossil fuels do. Even if Patzek is wrong, the fact there is signficant disagreement on this issue means that, at best, ethanol production is close to a break-even proposition. As such, the money currently going into corn ethanol fuel subsidies would be far better spent developing industrial and cellulosic ethanol production methods, ethanol sources that would significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Ultimately, we’ll be best off if we figure out how to convert the wastes of our civilization into fuels we can use to power our civilization. People can’t directly digest the cellulose making up cornstalks or woodchips, but bacteria can, and in the process we convert our agricultural waste into ethanol fuel while still letting people eat the grains they can digest. Technologies like thermal depolymerization can turn complex organic molecules (like turkey processing wastes or generally unrecycleable plastics) into light fuel oils that can be used to create new plastic or can be refined into standard gasoline. Biodiesel can be produced from waste vegetable oils nearly as easily as from pure oils. And this is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg.

We need a fuel solution, and non-food based ethanol can be part of the solution. But it can’t be the entire solution.

4 replies »

  1. Great post, Brian. I’ve wanted an explanation for why this who bio-fuels push as a “cure” for our energy ills was giving me the heebie-jeebies and you’ve provided it. This is a wonderfully lucid explanation of what’s going wrong, how we can address it, and why we should do so.

    Many thanks…

  2. I agree. This is an excellent post. There is something fundamentally wrong with burning your food for energy. If thermal depolymerization becomes economically viable, then we should be able to get a good chunk of our energy from agricultural waste. One example that is currently viable is cotton seed oil that is used to make ‘BioWillie’ (Willie Nelson’s alt fuel). Cotton seed that is harvested anyway can be pressed to make a competitive alternative to regular diesel.

    On a side note, ethanol plants aren’t the cleanest:

  3. You know what the really sad part is? Subsidies and protectionism are what is behind this rise in corn prices. The best source of sugar is sugar cane. The US and EU both protect local corn producers (since neither region can grow sugar cane) and place huge excise tax on imported sugar used for biofuel.

    Brazil, for instance, could supply the bulk of the sugar requirements. Corn is a very expensive way to produce sugar, and extremely inefficient (given the current enzymatic processes). As usual, local protectionist instincts cause widespread price rises. Who knew?