Food versus fuel

One area of public debate concerns the use of farmland to produce biofuels. For example, maize is being used to produce bio-ethanol, and rapeseed and oil palm to produce biodiesel. These activities can lead to a reduction in crops grown for food. This discussion is referred to as the ‘food versus fuel’ debate. The other side of the coin is that much work is being done to develop a new generation of biofuels that are made from household, industrial and agricultural waste. This approach would reduce the competition with food production. A step further is the use of algae, grown in salt-water ponds.

The 'food versus fuel' debate

At the end of June 2011, the United States Department of Agriculture predicted that American corn stocks would continue to decrease, reaching their lowest level in fifteen years. The cause is the steep increase in demand for corn to produce bio-ethanol and the enormous demand from the Chinese market.

Earlier that month OXFAM warned that average food prices will have doubled by 2030. In its Grow campaign the aid organization calls for more regulation of commodity markets, a halt to biofuel subsidies, more investment in small-scale farming and more fair and equitable enterprise. In the short film below, the head of Oxfam’s research department, Duncan Green, explains to Reuters news agency how prices are likely to double and what could be done about this.

According to a 2012 study by Oxfam UK a total of 127 million people could have been fed the entire year if If the land used to produce biofuels for the EU in 2008 had been used to produce wheat and maize instead.

Other organizations contend that there is no a relationship between rising food prices and increased production of biofuels. According to a study commissioned by the Renewable Fuels Foundations and performed by Informa Economics, there is no statistical evidence to support the claim that the increase in bio-ethanol production is causing higher food prices. The report suggests that the issue is not so black-and-white: supermarket prices are determined by a complex array of factors, including the energy costs of supply companies, labour, transport, packaging and other market-related costs.

Sources: Reuters, 12 July 2011, OXFAM Blogs, 1 June 2011, AdvancedBiofuels, 12 July 2011

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Can algae reduce biofuel dependence on food crops?

OriginOil, Inc., the developer of a technology to extract oil from algae and an emerging leader in the global algae oil services industry, identified serious dislocations caused by single-crop fuel policies and pointed to algae as a way to help make crops and waste more sustainable, in a presentation at the 6th Annual Meeting of the World Refining Association Biofuels 2011 Conference in Amsterdam, the Netherlands. 
In his presentation "Solving the Food vs. Fuel Issue," OriginOil CEO Riggs Eckelberry pointed out that  Biofuels from waste can be sustainable, but caloric efficiency can be low, there are still competition issues, and there is a limit to all waste. He therefore proposed to pursue a feedstock diversification strategy, combine advanced fuels with waste based fuels, and use advanced fduels to mitigate issues with food based fuels and eventually wean away from them.

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