Sunday, June 22, 2008

The tradeoff betwen fuel and feed

The central challenge of producing biofuels is that we're already using most of the world's prime agricultural lands to grow food, especially food that we feed to animals. Our work has continuously found that it will be difficult to produce biofuels from prime cropland without reducing meat production. From our paper on the effect of corn-based ethanol production on nitrogen pollution in the Mississippi River:

The land cover analysis in this study raises questions about the availability of land to radically increase ethanol or other biofuel production. Reaching the proposed biofuel production goals will lead to trade-offs between cropland demands for food, feed, and fuel... given the probable ceilings on cropland area, grain yields and use of ethanol coproducts as animal feed, a gradual decrease in use of corn and soybeans for animal feed may be a necessary consequence of the projected increase in demand for biofuels.

Sounds crazy? This conflict is already happening. The flooding in the Midwest U.S. hurt corn planting this year. The NY Times reports that with so much corn promised to ethanol plants, feed will get hard to find. The choice is to reduce the ethanol mandate, open up conservation lands to corn production, or risk damage to the animal production industry:

Senator Charles E. Grassley, Republican of Iowa and one of Capitol Hill’s main voices on farm policy, on Friday urged the Agriculture Department to release tens of thousands of farmers from contracts under which they had promised to set aside huge tracts as natural habitat... In disasters, the Environmental Protection Agency can roll back requirements for ethanol production, which could free up a large amount of corn for animal feed. Mr. Grassley, a strong ethanol backer, rejected that proposition, but in recent days many industries that depend on corn have urged the government to act.

A quarter of the United States corn crop is used for biofuels rather than animal or human food, and the percentage is rising. What this has done to the price of gasoline is debated by ethanol’s critics and defenders, but it has certainly benefited farmers, who have not seen such demand for their corn crop in decades. On the losing side of the equation have been cattle, hog and chicken producers, as well as consumers. The government’s latest projection, released Friday, is that food prices this year will rise as much as 5.5 percent. Some products, including cereals and eggs, are expected to rise about 10 percent.


Anonymous said...

The madness of government intervention, eh?

Simon Donner said...

Nothing wrong with government intervention and policy, if it is smart. The problem here is the history of bad ag and energy policies.