Different views of food vs. fuel shared at NBB conference

By Erin Voegele | February 10, 2011

Attendees at the National Biodiesel Conference & Expo had the opportunity to explore the food vs. fuel debate from several different angles during a session titled, Vantage Point: Four Views of Food and Fuel. The featured experts discussed the controversy from the view of the farmer, scientist and economist.

Iowa Soybean Association spokesman Grant Kimberley opened the panel by noting soybean yields have grown at an exponential pace during the past few decades. While the average yields measured in the 30 bushel per acre range 35 years ago, Kimberley said that current soybean yields average 60 bushels per acre.

Kimberley also explained the role farm commodities play in determining the price of food. He said farm products, such as corn and soybeans, account for only 20 percent of the price of food. Energy and labor costs account for a much higher percentage of the cost. Current projections show that the price of food is expected to rise 2 to 3 percent in 2011. “Lots of factors will contribute to that—a weaker dollar, regional weather problems, energy price increases,” and increased demand from developing countries such as China.

While U.S. farmers are producing more product than ever before, Kimberley also noted that there has been no significant increase in domestic crop acreage since the late 1950s. Furthermore, he explained that the demand for soy oil from biodiesel producers may actually slightly reduce the price of soy meal animal feed. “We’ve done some studies that have actually shown that when it comes to the livestock industry, the better the value of the oil is, the lower the value of soybean meal.”

University of California, Davis researcher Stephen Kraffka spoke to attendees about the role of energy production in farming. Agriculture is expected to produce food, provide income to famers, maintain the natural resource base, use resources prudently and maintain wildlife habitat. “Now, we’ve asked our farmers to add another function to produce energy,” Kraffka said. “If you add an additional and significant function, then there has to be some adjustment among those other objectives and desires that we have.”

That said, there have been dramatic improvements in both efficiency and conservation associated with changes in agriculture and agriculture products. “In the transition to a new energy future, I think agriculture is [clearly part] of the solution,” he said. “While it will result in adjustments in the entire agricultural system, and may be challenging, it’s certainly possible.”

Oak Ridge National Laboratory researcher Keith Kline spoke to attendees about indirect land use change. “I think people are learning that the issue isn’t so much a lack of food as an issue of policies,” he said. “The [U.N.’s Food and Agricultural Organization]…mentions that we need to improve market functioning and increase resilience to [price] shocks. That means more local production.”

Bioenergy can be part of the solution, he continued. “If you look at it in terms of food insecurity, wealthy [regions] haven’t had a problem getting food.” Rather, it’s the rural, poor nations that struggle. Bioenergy production could offer these regions a path to greater economic stability.

Kline also spoke to attendees about his experiences working and living in third-world countries. Rather than the price of corn or soy, Kline said public policy—or lack thereof—is the primary driver of deforestation. “The process almost always began with resource extraction for high value resources—think diamonds, think oil and gas,” he said. Furthermore, in countries that lack a social safety net, people often turn to the forest to provide that support. “About 90 percent of tropical forests are public land, so if someone is clearing that forest, it’s either illegal or its public policy,” Kline continued.

The models that scientists use to try and predict indirect land use change do not take those factors into account. “The land use change models…assume everything is driven by private behavior, and all land is privately owned and that everyone is working to maximize profit,” Kline said, noting that you can’t measure policy implications with an economic model.

Harry Baumes, director of the USDA’s office of energy policy and new uses, closed the session by providing attendees with an overview of the Farm Bill’s bioenergy programs as well as the department’s recent actions to support bioenergy development. According to Baumes, an announcement is expected to be released by the USDA later this week regarding funding availability through the Bioenergy Program for Advanced Biofuels, which provides payments to producers of advanced biofuels. 

Baumes also noted that USDA is working to debunk the food vs. fuel myth. “The future is exciting and challenging, but we can produce food, we can produce fiber, we can produce feed, and we can produce fuel,” he said. 


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