Confusion over food prices

Following up on my last post on the lack of evidence that rice shortages are caused by biofuels, I’d like to call your attention to Food Crisis Depicted as ‘Silent Tsunami’ by Kevin Sullivan of the Washington Post.
Beginning with some sobering statistics, such as “25,000 people a day are dying of conditions linked to hunger”, Sullivan goes on to explain the causes of the crisis.

Prices for basic food supplies such as rice, wheat and corn have skyrocketed in recent months, driven by a complex set of factors including sharply rising fuel prices, droughts in key food-producing countries, ballooning demand in emerging nations such as China and India, and the diversion of some crops to produce biofuels.

The factors are indeed complex, and Sullivan presents them approximately in order of importance. Sullivan quotes Josette Sheeran, executive director of the World Food Program (WFP):

Sheeran said rising fuel and fertilizer prices were adding to the misery. She said she recently returned from a trip to Kenya’s Rift Valley, where the cost of fertilizer has climbed 135 percent since December.

That increase, along with rising prices for seed and diesel, led farmers to plant only one-third the crops they planted last year — a pattern being repeated around the world, she said.

“Farmers have no access to credit, so when prices go up, they can’t afford to plant,” she said, urging governments, particularly in developing nations, to invest more in programs to support domestic agriculture.

Indeed, the problems originate in bad government policies.
Although Sheeran didn’t even mention biofuels, Sullivan chooses to conclude:

The increasing use of crops to produce biofuels has been criticized as contributing to food shortages. While Britain and the European Union have called for greater use of biofuels, Brown said Tuesday that “we need to look closely at the impact on food prices and the environment.”

“If our U.K. review shows that we need to change our approach, we will also push for change in E.U. biofuels targets,” he said.

Even if some percentage of the increase of food prices can be attributed to biofuel policies in the EU and US, there are far greater problems that people like Norm Borlaug have been trying to bring to people’s attention for decades.
We’ve (as in the developed world) been giving food aid instead of helping countries teach their people the best ways to farm. We’ve spent our time banning technologies that could help people farm in desserts and flood plains. More recently, people in the developed world haven’t considered that rising fuel prices may affect more than their price at the gas station.
Just in case any one misreads this – my horror at people dying from hunger is as great as anyone’s. Hence, my dedication to improve the nutritional quality of crops through genetic engineering. I just don’t think it’s appropriate to misplace the origins of the food shortage. If we (as in everyone on earth) allow ourselves to focus on an incorrect cause, the crisis won’t end. Instead, we need to be levelheaded and acknowledge the true causes so we can work as quickly as possible to alleviate them.
There will be additional consequences from the total rejection of biofuels. While seed based biofuels are likely not the best answer to our liquid energy problems, they are a good stepping stone to biofuels made from things like biomass (especially things like leftover stalks), waste, and algae. Condemning biofuels now will cause us to loose all the progress that’s been made, cause scientists to loose the funding that they need to make things like cellulosic ethanol possible.

Food, News


  1. Good points. Perhaps I have been premature in my condemnations of using corn for biofuel, if it holds the promise for future technologies which don’t have such a heavy cost of water and fertilizer (and conversion cost.)

  2. We have to crawl before we can walk, right? All of the biofuels research I’ve read about and directly heard from researchers at Iowa State are working on biomass or algae. Agribusiness might still be excited about grain ethanol, but science marches on.

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