“Biofuels are fast becoming a new flash point in global diplomacy, putting pressure on Western politicians to reconsider their policies.”

Note that free registration at the NYT may be necessary to see this article at the “read more” link. Nevertheless, this New York Times article needs to be read! This is true even though the article sounds more like it was written by a politician than I would have expected, giving ample space what I would call the self-serving justifications offered by Congressmen and Federal officials. The tone of the NYT article contrasts with the stronger conclusions reached in the Chicago Tribune about the growing price of eggs, where the blame is laid squarely on high corn prices (you may have to register for a free account to see this article, also). I have been writing about the topic of the unfortunate conflict between food and fuel since approximately September (not that the idea was original to me, there was plenty of documentation available!).

I don’t condemn all biofuels, and I support biodiesel made from waste vegetable oil, fish oil or other waste products as a reasonable approach, if one must have a liquid, carbon-based fuel. It is certainly clear that liquid fuels will not be disappearing overnight. However, I do not support placing food crops in competition with energy needs. In my opinion, the time of electric cars should be and is approaching, as hybrids become more popular, plug-in hybrids are near to reaching mainstream showrooms, and battery technology continues to improve, making already-available, purely electric cars even more affordable. We should be making investments in these technologies and related clean energy programs (solar, wind, geothermal), not pouring tax dollars down the drain with ethanol subsidies that have no effect whatsoever on oil and gas prices (this much is obvious, regardless of your opinion how corn ethanol and other biofuels affect food prices). The Economist was also firm in its criticism of corn ethanol programs, as reported here earlier.

Please see my recent post about the discoveries of improved Lithium ion batteries from Argonne National Labs and my post about electric cars, hybrids and plug-in hybrids. Many other related articles are published here as well.

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© James K. Bashkin, 2008


  1. mbuddha

    I’ve posted similarly before and I’ll post it again.

    The MOST important issue IMO concerning ethanol and other biofuels that require land for production is deforestation. High demand for biofuel/ethanol is the leading cause of deforestation and destruction of rain forests. Deforestation is the leading cause of increasing CO2.

    Use of ethanol in autos also tends to emit formaldehyde into the air while absorbing water from the air. Jim has already posted extensively with references on these negative side effects.

    Ethanol is becoming a success because it’s profitable. Economies drive availability of energy sources and we need to find ways or offer incentives for waste products to be profitable instead. I don’t have an answer here, but biofuel/biodiesel that causes deforestation is defeating the purpose 100%. Biofuel/biodiesel that has little to no environmental impact, such as high oil algae from ponds or animal/vegetable byproducts from restaurants/farms is where we need to be focusing our energies at this time.

    Plug-in hybrids and electric cars is another direction that is better than farmed biofuels (in particular those that cause deforestation). With better solar technology coming out recently, partially or fully solar powered homes that you plug your car into is the cleanest, most efficient solution to reduce your carbon footprint and reliance on oil and is available today.

    Biodiesel from waste products is currently a do it yourself option at this point, and unfortunately when and if it becomes mainstream and available at pumps (efficient diesel engines that can run biodiesel are currently available and produced by some automakers) you won’t know if that fuel is a result of deforestation or not. Chances are it will be, which will be way worse for the environment than driving a standard gas car.

    The bottom line: If you support ethanol product through investment, business, or use, you are indirectly supporting deforestation and massive increase in CO2.

  2. I hope you agree that everything I have written agrees with you! Thanks for the response. Jim

  3. Hi Jim,

    How are you doing? I have been busy with my job recently.

    I believe that the rise of food price is a very good thing. It will force each country to grow its own food, instead of importing from other country.

    In my mind, the key to a sustainable society is localization.

  4. Hi Steven: Good to hear from you. I’m fine, thanks. Busy, too.

    I don’t agree with you on this one. Certainly, localization is great where it is practicable, but practicality leaves out many places across the US and the world.

    Also, most developing countries don’t have control over their own agriculture. US or Multi-National companies like United Fruit have had private armies and sponsored wars in placed like Nicaragua since around 1900. The locals don’t get any say because they don’t own the land, for the most part. As we see in the Amazon, people who live in areas where they have lived forever just get pushed out, sometimes violently, as big ag or farming companies expand growing fields to meet US and European needs (including for biofuels). Same in Malaysia and many other places. So, rarely such a thing as localization when it comes to the food market, except in isolated cases.

    What does happen, however, is that people starve because developed countries and big companies are taking land formerly used for local food production and using it for fake green biofuels. There is nothing green about many of these fuels, but they push out food crops from farms, causing the food shortages and high prices. There are also other bad environmental effects that result and that I’ve covered before (draining the peat bogs to grow biofuels or related crops releases huge amounts of CO2, etc.).

    Best wishes, Jim

  5. I understand your point. When they do not have food to eat, they have no choice but rise up for a social system change. That is exactly what we need to save this planet.

  6. The shift from fosil oil to vegetable oil will certainly solve the price and environmential issues. But will there be enough supply if everybody starts shifting and the demand starts increasing in huge volume.

    Do you know how to save 70c per gallon on gas?

  7. Daren: you are correct. There will not be close to enough vegetable oil to make a dent in the energy problem, except in some local and individual cases. Vegetable oil doesn’t really solve any problems outside of those specific cases, though it can still be a significant help- the individual person making biodiesel from waste vegetable oil saves money, and may help others save money, but is still burning and/or selling a carbon-based fuel.

    To solve some of our most pressing environmental problems, we need large amounts of truly clean energy. Wind power, solar power and geothermal power fall into this category, though nothing is perfectly clean. Many countries are adopting major solar an/or wind energy programs and have already made much progress (Germany, Spain, and Holland, for example, as discussed in previous blog posts here).

    To solve some of our most pressing environmental problems, we also need energy and water conservation programs, to cut down on use where possible, and to make energy and water use as efficient as possible.

    Thanks for taking the time to comment! Jim

  1. 1 Diesel Cars- Finally for Everyone in the US, or Too Late to the Party? « Chemistry for a sustainable world

    […] we learn of yet another way that ethanol production harms the US and global consumer. However, if you factor in the better gas mileage of modern diesel engines vs. gasoline engines, […]

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