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. 



4 Responses

  1. Erich J. Knight



    My holy grail is the establishment of soil carbon as the universal measure of sustainability for all biofuel systems. A Brief History of Agricultural Time Our farming for over 10,000 years has been responsible for 2/3rds of our excess greenhouse gases. This soil carbon, converted to carbon dioxide, Methane & Nitrous oxide began a slow stable warming that now accelerates with burning of fossil fuel. The unintended consequence has been the flowering of our civilization. Our science has now realized the consequences and developed a more encompassing wisdom. Modern Agriculture has evolved in the ability to remove the limitations to plant growth, from burning forest for ash fertilizers, to bison bones, to Guano islands, then in 1913, to crafty Germans figuring out how to suck nitrogen from the air to now with natural gas derived fertilizers. These chemical fertilizers have over come nutrient limits to growth for 100 years. NPK and the "Green Revolution" in genetics have brought us to where we are, all made possible by basically mining soil carbon stocks. So we have now hit a carbon limit in two distinct ways. The first is continued loss of soil carbon content, the second is fossil carbon energy cost. The present farming system spends ten cents of fossil energy dilivering one cent of food energy. We can not go back, but we can go forward with our newly acquired wisdom. Agriculture allowed our cultural accent and Agriculture will now prevent our descent. Wise Land management, Conservation Agriculture and afforestation can build back our soil carbon, Biochar allows the soil food web to build much more recalcitrant organic carbon, (living biomass & Glomalins) in addition to the carbon in the biochar. We can rectify the carbon cycle, and beyond that, biochar systems serve the same healing function for the Nitrogen & Phosphorous Cycles, Toxicity in Soils & Sediments and as a feed additive cut the carbon foot print of livestock by 50%. Recent NATURE STUDY; Sustainable bio char to mitigate global climate change The Ag Soil Carbon standard is in final review by the AMS branch at USDA. Both Congresional Ag Committees have asked for expansion of Soil Carbon Standard to ISO status. Read over the work so far;

  2. Dillon Franks



    Very interesting. I wonder how the necessary public policies will be implemented as public pressure for affordable food and fuel increases worldwide. What impact will the socio-political movements we are seeing in Africa and the Middle East have on this issue? Will the biochar systems increase the economic viability of agriculture in these regions?

  3. Jatrophaworld



    Agriculture is the dominant water user, consuming more than 70% of total global water demand.Industrially produced meat is especially waterintensive, requiring up to 20,000 litres of water to produce a kilogram, compared to approximately 1,200 litres to produce a kilogram of grain. Both population growth and increasing meat consumption in emerging economies will therefore have a tremendous impact on resource needs. over the next 10 years, the world population is expected to rise from the current 6.83 billion to approximately 7.7 billion, with most of the growth in emerging economies. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) projects a 50% increase in demand for food by 2030, and the International Food Policy Research Instituted (IFRI) expects a 30% increase in demand for water, with other estimates rising to over 40%. The International Energy Agency (IEA) forecasts that the world economy will demand at least 40% more energy by 2030; producing this energy will draw heavily on freshwater resources. For such increased demand for water, food and energy to be realized, significant and perhaps radical changes in water use will be required as well as new sources for food and energy production exploited. For food production, supply-related challenges may limit the ability of farmers to meet growth in demand. Already, major grain-producing areas – in China, India and the United States, for example – depend on unsustainable mining of groundwater. In some regions, such as North Africa and Australia, climate-related changes of precipitation have already critically reduced the levels of freshwater supply. In northeast China, one of the country’s main grain-producing regions, climate change could increase drought losses by over 50% by 2030.10 Climate change is likely to be exacerbated by meeting the growing demand for energy. Over 75% of the global increase in energy use from 2007-2030 is expected to be met through fossil fuels, especially coal, and an estimated 77% of the power stations required to meet demand are yet to be built. In this context most importantly, focusing on the critical Connections between Water-Food-Energy-Climate is required to be considered and decision-makers will have to inspire all to engage collectively in efforts to improve the global system’s overall resilience. The need of hour is to grow food crop for food, Conserve the forest and pasture land and Grow Fuel crops on no arable land We at CJP are engaged in development and research of nonfood Oil crops which grow on wasteland some of them are Castor, Moringa, Pongamia, Simarouba, Jojoba, Jatropha, algae etc. We provide a platform for all stakeholders to collaborate in shaping a more secure, innovative and resilient future. Our next 4th JatrophaWorld 2011 from September 14-18, 2011 is the best place to be educated about Promising and sustainable biodiesel crops and technology for more kindly visit our site

  4. RoflAtSoybeans



    Wow how did they overlook the one factor that actually affects food vs. fuel - commodity prices. There are already proven instances where biodiesel plants have shut down due to food commodity prices skyrocketing (cottonseed oil was one, it suddenly became valuable for low trans fat). It's a bad idea to use food products for fuel from an economic perspective. But the soybean farmers don't want to hear about it and don't care about it, they just want more demand for their product even if it means astronomical risk for the plant owner.


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