Food and fuel?

The relationship between biofuels and access to food is complicated and part of larger agricultural and trade systems. As the biofuels market develops around the world, important concerns about access to food become much more acute.

At first glance, shifting corn usage from food and animal feed to fuel for gas-guzzling automobiles looks like a step backwards for combating hunger. But the "food versus fuel" debate needs to be placed in a larger context.

Domestic corn production provides a negligible contribution to the diet of hungry people. Furthermore a chronic oversupply of corn for the past ten years has resulted in below-cost prices for corn farmers in the U.S. and throughout the world. This has reduced the income of farmers globally and wreaked havoc on rural communities worldwide.

Biofuels provide an opportunity to promote production practices that reduce agriculture's reliance on fossil fuels, to improve the quality of our soil and water resources, and to maintain well-functioning agricultural markets throughout the world. But these societal goals are not likely to be achieved unless these issues are explicitly addressed in the crafting of biofuels policies and incentives. If appropriate policies are crafted, renewable fuels production can play a role in achieving these goals.The outcomes that result from the growth in biofuel production, whether positive or negative, are only partly attributable to biofuels.

In countries such as Malaysia, land from food crops is rapidly being converted to palm tree plantations to produce palm oil for the European biodiesel market. In addition, many are touting biofuels as an important opportunity for economic growth in developing countries, even countries that are currently facing high levels of food insecurity.

At the global level, patterns of biofuel production and trade demonstrate the problems created by gross inequities in wealth: millions of consumers in the United States and Europe can spend much more on calories for their automobile tanks than billions of people can spend on calories to nourish their families. This is not to say that less developed countries are not in a position to benefit from biofuel production, particularly for local consumption. But just as the distortions in the U.S.agricultural economy contribute to the dumping of commodities on less developed countries, biofuel demand from wealthy countries can also create serious global market distortions.

The incredible discrepancies in wealth between countries dictate a need for global trade rules that prioritize global food security. As biofuel production rapidly becomes globalized, significant study is needed for developing and implementing federal and international policies that protect food sovereignty.

It is unclear what effect the burgeoning demand for ethanol will have on long-term U.S. capacity to produce food. The immediate impact of ethanol growth appears to be more acreage planted in corn, and much of that hunger and poverty have existed long before the biofuels boom, and simply tweaking or curtailing biofuel production will do little to address their underlying causes. If we are serious about addressing hunger and poverty, we must also address the larger, structural issues that underlie our food and farm systems. The most important aspect of the food and fuel debate should be whether an agricultural system develops that truly increases food security--both in the present and for future generations--for people around the world.


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