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Biofuels Aggravating Food Shortage?

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By buckaroobonzai
February 13, 2008

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I have repeatedly seen the linkage of biofuels to famine in the last year or two, and it is disturbing. I started using biodiesel 3 1/2 years ago when I purchased a VW Passat TDi with the purpose of using B100. In that time I was able to purchase waste-veg oil (WVO) based B100 but much more often it was soy-based. It did not bother me much until about 8 months ago when I strained to source WVO biodiesel and succeeded only about half the time.

So here is my question: How much of the raise in grain prices (and subsequent risk to hungry people around the world) can be laid at the feed to biofuels in general, and biodiesel, in particular?

A simplistic answer might be to cite the huge rise in cropland devoted to biofuels and say - HA! there's the evil culprit. But I don't buy it as being the sole cause of the run-up in grain prices and strain on world markets. Other causes include (1) huge increases in fossil feedstocks (NG and oil) for industrial agriculture and the transportation fuel needed to keep the system running, (2) the massive rise in grain-raised consumption of animal products in rapidly developing countries like China, (3) recent crop failures which may or may not be linked to the long-term trend of climate change. There are probably others I have not thought of.

I've seen ethanol studies showing a roughly break even on energy balance with better ERORI for soy biodiesel (2 or 3 to 1). WVO biodiesel is probably more like 5-10:1. I had hoped that by the time this issue of food vs. fuel became a big issue, better alternatives for biofuel feedstock would be in place, but the market seems to be pushing the issue years ahead of when I thought I would have to deal with it.

Is there any fact-based way of apportioning blame on the rise in grain prices? Can I justify my periodic purchase of soy-based biodiesel with the fact that my family consumes about 1/3 the animal products of average Americans, and we try buy as much sustainably raised pasture-based animal products as possible in part to consume so much grain indirectly? Or have I just deluded myself with some creative rationalizations?