As reported in the New York Times on Feb 8, 2008 and discussed by Douglas Schiller at, two studies have reached the conclusion given in the title. US demand for biofuels from food sources is driving up food prices throughout the world.

A key distinction here is “from food”. We may still have the option of using waste cooking vegetable oil and other waste products to produce biofuels (for example, to make biodiesel) without harming food prices or the environment. Solutions to the problems that do not require liquid fuels, including electric cars, are looking like the best answer over the long term, however.

read more | digg story

For another (better) overview of the reports that were released yesterday from a number of Universities and The Nature Conservancy, see here.

© James K. Bashkin, 2008

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  1. reengler

    Clearly in the long term, we cannot grow enough corn or vegetable oil to satisfy our transportation fuel needs–even with drastic efficiency improvements.

    I’m not even sure that ethanol is the right answer as a fuel, but if fermenting starch bridges the gap to cellulosic ethanol which bridges the gap to another sustainable fuel, isn’t it a good place to start? As for policy, I personally believe we should be taxing fossil energy rather than subsidizing particular alternatives. I don’t think anybody yet knows the answer and elected officials pre-selecting a technology for political expediency isn’t surprising, nor is it good policy.

    I hope that we find a way to convert solar energy to a liquid fuel without having to grow whole plants (photochemical reduction of CO2 to methanol, perhaps?). I wonder if we will ever be able to develop the electricity storage technology to make car recharge/refill sufficiently fast and convenient without a liquid fuel.

    Note: these opinions are my own and do not reflect the opinions or policy of my employer or anybody else for that matter.

  2. Thanks for the feedback, those are all good points. I have a few comments to make.

    Biomass/cellulose have potential in some areas, and are much, much more efficient than corn-ethanol. However, there are questions about ethanol as a fuel (see below for biomass to hydrogen conversion): (a) ethanol has little stored energy per molecule vs gasoline, (c) ethanol is hygroscopic and picks up water from the atmosphere readily, causing all kinds of problems in many climates, and (c) searching this blog for ethanol or bioethanol will show articles on health problems in Brazil due to heavy use of ethanol fuel in cars. They seem to be caused, at least in part, by large amounts of formaldehyde in Brazilian air (perhaps generated from photochemical smog of automobile emissions from cars burning 100% ethanol, or perhaps a direct product of ethanol combustion). So, at best it will be a trade-off, and it may not be a trade-off that is worth it. I can’t claim to have special authority or insight here, the original science that came out on Saturday needs some study from me. It is most important that we discuss/debate these points openly and based on data, outside of political pressures, as you indicated.

    I have repeatedly speculated on these pages that re-designed catalytic converters might solve the ethanol-formaldehyde problem, but I don’t think anyone is looking into it.

    Quoting myself from my response earlier today to Morgan Aleeta’s post on this same topic (for which there is now a link on my blog):

    “I will say that I suspect there may still be reason for hope with (at least) one type of biofuel: biodiesel from waste such as waste veritable oil and fish oils. I haven’t seen anything yet to convince me otherwise, but that doesn’t make it a sure thing. Nevertheless, the idea of using waste material that does not compete with food in order to make biodiesel may be the only sensible biofuel out there (there are people working on biodiesel from photosynthetic bacteria, also, and this would use CO2 from the air). In the case of some of these waste biodiesel sources, the oxidized sulfur output is much lower than with petrochemicals, so one aspect of smog/acid rain is reduced. However, these biodiesel versions can have a high nitrogen content, leading to NOx-derived smog, so this is not a sure thing.

    I bring up this waste oil story not because it will be particularly significant to the country (any country) or the world, especially in terms of quantity, but because there may be local cases, like isolated fishing villages in Alaska, where converting fish oil to biodiesel could make sense (it would avoid transporting other fuels and would simply use waste). But, I could still be wrong.

    A very good example the sensible use of biowaste is described by Sam Carana:
    but not for use in generating liquid fuels. Here, some biomass may go into generating electricity directly (via a hydrogen-based process), and the byproducts are not allowed to burn to CO2. Instead, if I understand it correctly, the carbon is captured as a rich charcoal (by keeping oxygen away while heating), and this charcoal can add significant nutrition and stability to topsoil, all without releasing CO2.

    Sam Carana has also written elegantly at: about the need to bypass biofuels and go to a Hydrogen Economy with electric cars that don’t use liquid fuels, and he has explained how this can be done while minimizing the pollution from electricity-generating plants.

    Thanks again for stopping by and offering your thoughtful response! Jim

  3. reengler

    You bring up an excellent point: we do not necessarily need to find a single answer for alternative energy sources, especially for power generation. There may be many different ways to achieve sustainable energy and one that works in Maine may not in Arizona or Washington or Nebraska.

    Another thing to consider is that fuel is a very low value use. Perhaps waste biomass (cellulose, triglycerides, protein) is better put to use as a chemical feedstock rather than as a fuel. There are plenty of examples of using such waste in higher value chemical products (which we will also need to convert over to renewable or close-loop feedstocks).

    I’m rambling, but in sum: 1) let’s not get too hung up on a single drop-in replacement and 2) let’s not lose sight of the big picture.

  4. Food competing with energy is never a good idea. The whole world is now suffering as a result. Ethanol as a fuel is a terrible idea.

  5. I agree 100%! Now let’s gets some politicians to stop shoveling money to this disastrous policy. Thanks for the comment!

  6. Amanda

    The reality is that there is no single answer. There are a blend of options available as we move into a sustainable future. However, Compressed Natural Gas (CNG) and Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) are viable options that are right here, right now, while also being more cost-effective and environmentally friendly than biofuels.

    Both CNG and LNG are two of the cleanest burning alternative fuels available. Natural gas vehicles emit up to 95% less pollution than gasoline or diesel vehicles.

    We all know why corn-based ethanol is a bad idea. It’s been reported that the amount of corn it takes to produce enough ethanol to fill the tank of a typical SUV (one time) could feed the average person for 350 days. On the other hand, the cellulose in the products used to make cellulosic ethanol must be pre-treated and then broken down into sugars before they can be fermented (a step called cellulosis.) However, the technology required to do this is still under development.

    While we’re waiting for technology to catch up and for market prices to settle down, we have natural gas as the only real bridge to sustainable energy. It’s cheap, it’s plentiful, and it’s the environmentally sound decision. Why does natural gas continue to be our nation’s best kept secret?

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