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The UN's World Food Programme has described 2022 as a year of unprecedented hunger with millions in dozens of countries facing famine. Yet, at the same time, significant amounts of farmland are being used to produce not food, but so-called biofuels. But could the global food crisis change that?
First generation biofuels are made by processing crops, including corn, sugarcane, rapeseed, and soybeans. Because they're renewable and absorb carbon as they grow, advocates argue that biofuels' overall greenhouse gas emissions are smaller than those of fossil fuels. Although some analysts and academics claim that emissions from biofuels made from food crops are only slightly lower than fossil fuels when factors like transportation and fertilisers are accounted for.
Governments across the world see biofuels as a means of tackling climate change and reducing their dependence on oil producers, such as Russia. In 1981, ethanol, a biofuel more commonly known as alcohol, made up just 0.01 per cent of us petrol consumption. But by 2021, that figure had grown to more than 10 per cent. Last year, 36 per cent of all US corn production went into biofuels with a similar share of soybean oil going into biodiesel.
But following the war in Ukraine, global food and energy supplies have been disrupted, and prices have risen. So why not shift agricultural production allocated for fuel to food? While that may seem like a straightforward solution, opinion is divided. Worldwide, the production of biofuels uses about 4 per cent of arable land.
The biofuel lobby argues that reducing production wouldn't materially ease food prices. By contrast, Washington think-tank, the World Resources Institute, believes a 50 per cent reduction in the grain used for biofuels in Europe and the US would compensate for the lost exports of Ukrainian wheat, corn, barley, and rye. But what may ultimately prevent a rebalancing away from fuel towards food is a lack of political will, especially in western countries.
For example, in the US, Democrats in the Senate have struck a deal that would set aside $369bn for climate and clean energy programmes. The proposed agreement would extend tax credits for biodiesel and incentives for biofuels used by the aviation industry. The balance between food on the table and fuel in the tank looks unlikely to change any time soon.