Crop Wars: Food versus Biofuels

January 13th, 2014 BY ChrisD | No Comments
irrigation corn field

The face of drought is gearing up to take another unexpected turn as two competing interests grapple over shares of the 2012 corn yield. The problem is a perfect storm of low yield, drought conditions and the food-to-fuel mandate, known as the Renewable Fuels Standard (RFS).

RFS Mandate
In essence, the RFS mandate requires a certain portion of the corn yield to be used in the production of biofuels. There’s no getting around the facts. It means that a portion of the crops that would have gone toward food are going toward fuel instead.

The controversy has pitted corn farmers against livestock farmers. As the Wall Street Journal explains, this means more corn is going for fuel than livestock for the first time. It validates the concerns expressed by the German National Academy of Sciences that energy would compete with food.

Biofuel Issues
Despite the crop wars, biofuels do not make up a significant portion of global transportation fuel. It has, in fact, a less than 1 percent share. It also has a host of issues that weaken the argument for maintaining the mandate in this crisis situation.

Crop production requires vast tracks of land. The use of corn as a biofuel encourages monocultures of grain as well as the use of genetically modified (GMO) seedstock. This practice, in turn, fosters higher pesticide use to combat super weeds that have become resistant to the effects of herbicides.

Biofuels also have environmental costs. Use of these alternative fuel sources still produces emissions. This is to say nothing of the greenhouse gas emissions discharged through the production process. There are additional impacts to water resources to maintain crops.

These drawbacks played into the conclusion of the German National Academy of Sciences that bioenergy is more environmentally destructive than other forms of renewable energy. These negative aspects of corn used for biofuel add insult to injury in terms of the potential global impact of the United States drought.

A Crisis Looming
The mandate removes a portion of the corn yield from global markets. The concern exists that the world may experience a repeat of the 2008 global food crisis. Countries such as Japan and South Korea are likely to feel the worst impacts. One has to question the wisdom of investing in biofuels when human health is at stake.

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