The “food versus fuel” meme that spread like wildfire in 2008 arose from fears that record oil prices would spark a scenario in which modern economies would be forced to choose between crops for food and crops for alternative fuels. It was a simplistic notion based more on hype than science or economics. It also ignored the environmental shortcomings of petroleum-based fuels.
Most scientists agree that the rising price of food in 2008 wasn’t caused by actual shortages. Instead, it derived from speculation, hype, a relatively poor growing season, and ironically, the high cost of petroleum fuel, which made transporting crops to market more costly.
Contrary to the false dichotomy of “food versus fuel” there are many reasons for actively seeking out crops that can serve as both food and fuel.
- Increasing crop yields from existing farmland is preferable to expanding agriculture. Expanding agricultural lands either requires repurposing arable lands and losing their environmental benefits, or increasing irrigation of dry land, which will exacerbate a mounting water crisis (see the report “Malthus Returns: Solving the Unsustainable Agricultural Water Demand Conundrum” – client registration required). Planting food crops and using them for energy allows us to exploit the plant as fuel when food is plentiful, or divert it from energy when food is scarce. If we only plant energy crops, or replace food crops currently being cultivated with energy crops, we lose that option and put our food supply at greater risk.
- Crops grown purposely for biofuel poses economic issues. Growing crops exclusively to provide biofuel feedstocks requires farmers to invest in new seeds, new implements, additional maintenance, fuel, and labor. This requires long-term contracts with farmers in order to ensure a steady biomass supply that justifies the establishment of biorefineries nearby. Dedicated crops require additional tilling, planting, fertilizing, irrigation, and harvesting. All of this increases the cost of the biomass, making it more difficult to produce economically.
- Growing fuel crops on non-arable land is costly too. Planting energy crops on non-arable land requires an even bigger investment in cultivation. There’s a reason why crops aren’t grown on non-arable land: The soil quality is too poor, there is too little rainfall, the area is inaccessible, etc. So in addition to the challenges named above, non-food crops on underused lands lack roads, rail, farmers, fueling stations, and other infrastructure needed to cost-effectively transport this biomass to market.
- Agricultural and forest waste are the most economical and environmentally friendly sources of biomass. As we point out in our report (Biofuels’ and Biomaterials’ Path to Petroleum Parity – client registration required), the vast majority (70% to 90%) of the mass comprising food crops comes from non-food sections of the plant. It’s the stalks, leaves, and other parts that we do not eat. Taking advantage of this biomass requires no additional water, fertilizer, or labor. Plus, it can be transported, processed, and distributed alongside food, which makes more sense environmentally and economically than developing new crop species and fields.
There are certainly exceptions to the points above. There is some risk that biofuel crops could increase food costs, for instance, and specific sites exist where energy crops will work. In the vast majority of cases, however, improving utilization of crops we already cultivate for food (in particular, by recovering the non-food portion of the plant) is more viable from the perspective of the environment, food security, and biofuel economics.