Food vs Fuel: Can We Get it Off the Table?

By Robert Vierhout | September 11, 2012

In last month’s column, I wrote that the record drought in the U.S.A. has put the food versus fuel debate back on the table making biofuels bashing fashionable again, as in 2008. To be expected, of course. This time, the food/fuel issue has turned into a grim political fight in the U.S. and is much more of an issue than in the EU. That was quite different in 2008, when food/fuel was the talk of the day in Europe. Overall, the appetite for the food/fuel controversy is less than it was in 2008. We haven’t seen (yet, anyway) the spinning reports from the World Bank and all sorts of other international organizations as we did before. It could well be these organizations learned their lesson. The accusation that biofuels were driving up food prices, causing hunger, was proven wrong. Higher oil prices and speculation in commodities were the main drivers for the problems then. But some people seem to have an ultra short memory. Mr. Brabeck from Nestle is, of course, one of them but many NGOs have the problem of amnesia, too.

What irritates me most about the food/fuel "debate" is that again the same accusations are made against the ethanol sector and the same silly solution (no more biofuels) is proposed as was four years ago—as if all the facts are no longer facts and the evidence that biofuels were not causing the problem has evaporated.

It annoys me to read what total nonsense organizations like Actionaid are spreading—citing nonpublished and nonpeer-reviewed studies, presenting fabrications as facts, ignoring and effectively denying the laws of supply and demand—taking the moral higher ground and suggesting that the world doesn’t want biofuels. The credo seems to be: it doesn’t matter what we say, as long as it will incriminate biofuel producers and blow up biofuel policy, especially in the U.S. and Europe.

It annoys me that the fact that biofuel production is far more than just biofuel production is being completely ignored, almost on purpose. Is it so difficult to acknowledge and publish that at least one-third of the grains used eventually go to food and feed and that those coproducts have a high nutritional value?

If a magazine like the Economist is writing that the U.S.A. uses 40 percent of its corn for the production of biodiesel (yes, he said biodiesel), you wonder if the journalist really went any further than using just the cut and paste function of his computer. I have the strong feeling that most, if not all, of the journalists who cover food/fuel don’t do any research at all and are merely stating their own political view.

And then there are the politicians who see an opportunity to gain political brownies, such as the German minister of development affairs who recently called for an immediate stop on the distribution of E10 because this fuel increases world hunger. Now, the facts. Only in 12 percent of all gasoline in Germany is there E10. This might be 100 million liters (26 million gallons) of pure alcohol per year, 60 percent of it made from grains (mainly wheat), which would be around 150,000 tons of wheat, or 0.1 percent of the total EU annual wheat production. Yes, minister, you are right: stopping E10 in Germany will indeed reduce hunger substantially in the world. Oh yes, and don’t bother about the 50 percent of food that is being wasted in the EU. Those 89 million tons per year of foodstuff wasted, as shown in a European Commission report, are peanuts compared to what we use for E10.

The food/fuel issue is deeply rooted and I fear that we as biofuel producers will have to live with this. The food/fuel controversy will not be taken from the antibiofuel menu until the moment biofuels are no longer “served.” We can only do one thing, and that is continue to educate and tell the true story on food and biofuel. The people with common sense will understand the story we tell.

Author: Robert Vierhout
Secretary-general, ePURE