Biofuels: who wins in the fuel v food debate?

By Chisom Ubabukoh

Many people are concerned that a time may be coming when the planet is no longer able to support our irresponsible activities and consumption. However, insufficient attention has been directed towards the important link between the environment and the threat of a global food crisis.

There has been a raging argument over the viability and sustainability of biofuels as an alternative to fossil fuels. One aspect of this is the so-called ‘food vs. fuel’ debate, which raises the question of whether it is ethical to burn food as fuel while people starve (Ayre 2007). I will attempt to make this link, discuss the associated policy issues and examine what can be done to resolve them through the analogy of the stages involved in throwing a party.

While this debate is important, there is another part of the argument which is often neglected: the fact that the production of biofuels, apart from burning up much-needed food, also contributes to the larger problem of environmental destruction. By promoting intensive mono-cropping cultures, the supposedly ‘green’ biofuel industry is in danger of inflicting destruction on the environment.

The first step in throwing a party is to draw up a guest list and send out invitations. In 2010 there were 925 million hungry people in the world, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO 2010). Even though food production has soared to never-before-seen levels, so too has the world population.

The result of this is that per capita food production has dropped steadily. In other words, we now have many more people to feed with the same average level of food output. This reflects the argument made in the 18th century by the priest and social commentator Thomas Malthus in his ‘Essay on the Principle of Population’ (1798).

Prices for dairy, meat and cereal products rose in September 2012 (Source: FAO)

Malthus painted a grim picture of the future, postulating that because food production increased at an additive rate and population increased at a multiplicative rate, a point in time would come when the world would be unable to feed its inhabitants.

He argued that at such times, circumstances would arrange themselves to cause a mass reduction in population (through war or famine, for example). There is an issue with both food output and population. In October 2011, the UN announced that there were 7 billion people on the planet (UN News 2011).

That’s a lot of mouths to feed. The stage is set for a party of immense proportions.

Setting the table

After drawing up the guest list and dispatching invitations, one of the most important things to consider is how to feed everyone. The world is facing this challenge now – with the added constraint of a limited budget. The question we must ask is how we are to feed everyone in a sustainable manner without reducing the capacity of the planet to provide for future generations (Victor 2008).

One problem with Malthus’ theory of population explosion is that he underestimated human ingenuity. He did not predict a ‘green revolution’. This so-called miracle ensured that average global production of corn, rice and wheat between the mid-1950s and the mid-1990s more than doubled.

However, between 2005 and the summer of 2008, the price of wheat and corn tripled and the price of rice climbed five-fold, spurring food riots in nearly two dozen countries and pushing 75 million more people into poverty (Bourne 2009).

These soaring food prices were the result of demand outstripping supply (more people needing to eat than food could be provided for), giving weight to the argument made by Malthus.

Put up decorations (the environment)

Whilst the food is cooking, it makes sense to put up decorations and make the party venue comfortable, inviting and hospitable.

But the world is much more complicated – after a certain point, the amount of food which is available is inversely related to the health of the environment. When the party has 7 billion guests, there is the possibility of a conflict between the environment and food security, based on the premise that, in order to produce more food more rapidly, the environment will have to pay the price.

During the green revolution, emphasis was placed on massive mono-cropping projects on large expanses of land and to achieve this, pesticides and fertilisers were used on a colossal scale, together with intensive irrigation systems. This led to the poisoning and depletion of the water table as well as a reduction in the quality of the soil in regions where this was practised.

Within this wider dialogue between food security and environmental sustainability is the question of whether biofuels are a sustainable substitute for fossil fuels. The government’s decision to subsidise the production of biofuels has been commended in some quarters, but we need to ask ourselves at what cost.

A problem arises because even though biofuels were intended to reduce carbon emissions from fossil fuel burning, they have now become a pollutant in their own right. The FAO states that nitrous oxides released from fertilizers that might be put in the ground in large monocultures will have up to 300 times more warming effect than the carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuels (FAO 2008). argues that biofuels have the ability to increase greenhouse gas emissions, cause deforestation, and worsen local air quality when used to produce electricity (Ernsting). In addition, the massive, intensive monoculture fields that have to be cultivated solely for the purpose of making fuel does serious damage to the land, reducing the amount of food available for present consumption as well as diminishing the capacity of the land to produce food in the future.

As the FAO report concludes, ‘If the objective of biofuel support policies is to mitigate global warming, then fuel efficiency and forest conservation and restoration would be more effective alternatives’ (FAO 2008).

Welcome the guests

All the issues that have been discussed should normally be addressed before the guests start arriving; but at this party, all the guests are already here. Even though we are aware of the need to find greener alternatives to fossil fuels, the burning of much-needed food is not the answer.

The UK government will be subsidising the production of biofuels to the tune of about £3 billion every year by 2020 if current levels are sustained, but it would be better if these resources were channelled either to other forms of renewable energy like wind, solar or hydroelectric power, or to providing food for what Paul Collier calls ‘the bottom billion’ – the world’s poorest people (Collier 2007).

In 2008, Ruth Kelly, then transport secretary, announced that owing to environmental concerns, further study had been commissioned to review the UK’s policy on biofuels, but that current commitments to biofuels were not going to be changed in the meantime (Adam 2008).

The results of this report are expected this year and it remains to be seen what impact it will make. It is welcome news that politicians are thinking in this direction, but much more is needed.

There are certain steps that must be taken to stem this tide and secure the future food needs of humanity. A short-term measure would be to organise national awareness campaigns focusing on the impending food crisis and to push through legislation prohibiting or limiting to the barest minimum food wastage by government, businesses and individuals.

In 2007 a campaign called ‘love food, hate waste’ was started to sensitise people to this issue, but more recently such action has died down. The single largest producer of food waste in the United Kingdom is the domestic household. Statistics show that in 2007, households were responsible for 6,700,000 tonnes of food waste – accounting for 19 per cent of all municipal solid waste. All this food which is being wasted could be saved to be used by those who are less fortunate.

People must be made aware that although this might be a season of plenty, it will not last forever.

Emergency supplies

Furthermore, we must take food storage in general more seriously, not just in the short to medium term, but also in the long term. Although most countries already have a certain amount of food set aside to be released in cases of drought or other emergencies, we must begin to think about coordinating these efforts on a global scale.

The international community must come together to tackle this problem, just as it formed a global compact to avoid the problems of international war (in setting up the United Nations). A concerted effort is required because as individual units, some nations – especially smaller ones – are simply incapable of building such capacity.

All of these points go to show that in addition to climate change the world is facing yet another threat to its survival: the threat of starvation. In April 2008, the UN secretary-general, Ban Ki-Moon, brought the food crisis to the centre of the agenda.

He established the High-Level Task Force on Food Security to come up with a concerted plan to fight the crisis and synchronise global responses. But in truth, the world is hardly prepared for what it is experiencing – groceries have become virtually unaffordable for many people, mostly in the developing world.

African countries, in particular, are suffering because the majority of people’s disposable incomes is already spent on food.

Looking into the future, unless we experience a new green revolution that is both more productive and more environmentally-friendly than the last one, there will be a major food crisis in the not-too-distant future.

For now, even though the storm seems to have passed and food prices have become more stable, if serious measures are not taken, our fiesta could readily become a fiasco.

This article was first published in the Institute of Public Policy Research (IPPR) journal Metis. It aims to provide students with the opportunity to engage with the policy process and gives them a unique platform to express opinions, critiques and solutions.

About the author:

Chisom Ubabukoh is an MSc student in Development Economics and Policy at the University of Manchester. Chisom tweets at @Chisom_Ubabukoh


Ayre M (2007) ‘Will biofuel leave the poor hungry?’, BBC News.

Bourne JK (2009) ‘The Global Food Crisis – The End of Plenty’, National Geographic, June 2009

Adam D (2008) ‘Kelly orders biofuels review’, Guardian, 21 February 2008.

Collier P (2007) The Bottom Billion, Oxford: Oxford University Press

Ernsting A (no date) A UK Renewables Obligation, Biofuel Watch.

Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations [FAO] (2008) The State of Food and Agriculture, Rome

FAO (2010) ‘925 million in chronic hunger worldwide’, Rome: FAO Media Centre, 14 September 2010

UN News (2011) ‘As world passes 7 billion milestone, UN urges action to meet key challenges’, UN News Centre, 31 October 2011.

Victor D (2008) ‘Putting Rich Farmers First’, Newsweek International, 28 June 2008, 7 July.

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