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Is the Biofuels Honeymoon Finally Over?

Pile of Corn

Photo by existentist.

Today’s New York Times has a letter to the editor I wrote in response to the paper’s <a href=”http://www.nytimes.com/2008/04/15/business/worldbusiness/15food.html?ref=opinion”recent article on the links between biofuels and global food shortages. Entitled “Fuel Choices, Food Crises and Finger-Pointing”, the piece notes that the honeymoon period for biofuels seems to be nearing an end, at least in some circles:

The idea of turning farms into fuel plants seemed, for a time, like one of the answers to high global oil prices and supply worries…But now a reaction is building against policies in the United States and Europe to promote ethanol and similar fuels, with political leaders from poor countries contending that these fuels are driving up food prices and starving poor people.

In my letter to the editor, I point out that while the Times’ article mentions the ‘government mandates’ helping to create this unprecedented demand for biofuels, it does not explain that these policies typically take the form of massive subsidies for biofuel production.


As I note in the letter, by most reckonings, a barrel of gasoline displaced by corn ethanol costs the United States Treasury somewhere between $36 and $65, with almost no reduction in harmful greenhouse gases. These massive subsidies push production of ethanol way beyond what makes economic sense, adding more pressure on food prices and the cost of land for planting other foodstuffs.

Thus, much more effective means of addressing global warming and our addiction to oil exist. They include driving less, buying a smaller car, and using public transportation. These simple acts, if done by enough people, would obviate the need for inefficient biofuels subsidies and their negative impacts on food prices, while still lessening our dangerous dependence on oil.

What is interesting is that the United Nations, the World Bank, The International Institute for Sustainable Development and other global authorities (as well as prominent academics) are expressing reservations both about the way biofuels (particularly corn ethanol) are subsidized and the impacts of its rapid proliferation. These concerns are so great that the “renewable” energy interests, automakers, and a few other stakeholders are suddenly fighting back. Is this deja-vu all over again as both US and global energy/environmental policy goes into a new seesaw battle?

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