Biofuels – the bad and the good!

Photo Credit jurvetson

The Guardian revealed today that it has obtained a World Bank report claiming that biofuels are responsible for 75% of the recent surge in food prices – far more than was previously thought.

Rising food prices have pushed 100m people worldwide below the poverty line, estimates the World Bank, and have sparked riots from Bangladesh to Egypt.

The report was being withheld, it seems to avoid embarrassing President Bush because it directly contradicts his claims that plant-derived fuels contribute less than 3% to food-price rises.

The report author, Don Mitchell, is an internationally-respected senior economist at the World Bank and has done a detailed, month-by-month analysis of the surge in food prices. This approach allows for a much closer examination of the link between biofuels and food supply than was possible in previous reports.

Dr Mitchell’s report

argues that production of biofuels has distorted food markets in three main ways. First, it has diverted grain away from food for fuel, with over a third of US corn now used to produce ethanol and about half of vegetable oils in the EU going towards the production of biodiesel. Second, farmers have been encouraged to set land aside for biofuel production. Third, it has sparked financial speculation in grains, driving prices up higher.

However, the news on biofuels isn’t all bad. There are some biofuels which don’t cause massive food price increases, and while I’m not a huge fan of biofuels (burning them produces CO2 still, don’t forget), they are a renewable resource.

They have, in the case of algae for example, the potential to be used in large-scale carbon sequestration projects. Large vats of algae could have the exhaust from power plants bubbled through them. The algae would feed on the CO2 and along with light convert the carbon into biofuel – recycling the carbon if you will.

Long term we need to get off the carbon economy but algal biofuels (which are not produced on viable farmland) look like a reasonable short-term way of reducing our CO2 emissions.