You are here

Food or Fuel? The Bioenergy Dilemma

The cost of grain-based staples–such as tortillas in Mexico, beef noodles in western China, and bread in the United States–has increased around the world. There are several reasons why prices have jumped, but there’s one getting a lot of attention: the global rush for bioenergy.

Crops can be used as a food or fuel; both are important ecosystem services that nature provides to people. But as countries set aside more corn and other agricultural products for use as fuel, fewer crops are available to produce food and world-wide prices increase.

Over the past few years, industrialized countries have set increasingly higher mandates for the use of bioenergy, which has been touted as a clean, sustainable alternative to fossil fuels and a way to combat global climate change.

Europe has mandated that biofuels make up 10 percent of its transport power by 2020. Similarly, in 2005, the United States federal government passed legislation requiring that the corn-based ethanol supply increase from 2.3 billion to 7.5 billion gallons per year by 2012. This year alone, the US will dedicate 30 million more tons of corn– half of the global grain stock–to ethanol production.

Meanwhile, global food prices are up nearly 50 percent in the past year. The price of basic staples, such as corn, oilseed, wheat, and cassava, is predicted to increase 26 to 135 percent by 2020.

Rising food prices deeply affect the world’s poor, who spend up to 80 percent of their household income on food. The impact can be especially acute in urban areas. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), 37 countries are now facing a food security crisis. Food riots have erupted in many developing countries, including Bangladesh, Haiti, and Egypt.

While the benefits of bioenergy range from reduced greenhouse gas emissions to renewability and energy independence, increased biofuel production can lead to tradeoffs across other ecosystem services. Besides decreased food supply, other tradeoffs include poor water quality associated with increases in aggregate fertilizer use, nutrient runoff and erosion. Further research is needed to assess the tradeoffs among ecosystem services related to biofuels and other emerging sources of bioenergy, such as cellulosic technology.

Even though many of the economic, social and environmental effects of the recent biofuel push are not yet fully understood, many countries continue to dedicate more of their agriculture output to biofuels.

Given that globally many ecosystem services are already degraded, it is important to reduce demand for energy through energy efficiency measures, while managing land in ways that do not impinge on nature’s ability to provide ecosystem services–including food, an already scarce commodity in a majority of the world.

Stay Connected