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In Face of Hunger, Corn Ethanol Industry Says Blame Anyone But Us

In a Washington Post editorial last week, biofuels expert Tim Searchinger sheds much needed light on the link between two important trends in today’s markets for grains: the expansion of global biofuels mandates on the one hand and the frequency and magnitude of food shortages around the world on the other. Not surprisingly, corn ethanol groups like Growth Energy jumped to criticize Searchinger personally and try to discredit his ideas—jumped so quickly in fact that it makes you wonder whether they even read the editorial. Not only does Growth overstate and misstate Searchinger’s arguments, but they try to distract their readers from the food price issue by arguing against established science around indirect land-use change impacts of ethanol production.

[Note: Bryan Walsh at Time has a similarly insightful piece touching on many of the same points that Searchinger raises. I haven't seen it attacked yet, but it only ran today.]

Basically where Searchinger lays out how in a complicated and complex market, biofuels make a bad situation worse, the industry cries for the messenger’s head and tries to shift the blame to anyone but themselves.

Growth Energy accuses Searchinger of launching an “intellectually-bankrupt” attack on biofuels, ignoring market realities and blaming ethanol for recent surges in global food prices and the Renewable Fuel Association call him attention seeking and “disingenuous.” The fact is, Searchinger builds an entirely market-based argument that seeks to illuminates the role biofuels mandates in countries like the U.S. and Europe play in creating the types of market conditions that led to the 2008 food crisis—seen at the time as an anomalous “perfect storm”—and turning them into the new business as usual, with painful consequences for the world’s most vulnerable communities.

Far from arguing that extreme weather events, population growth, and other factors have nothing to do with rising food prices, Searchinger explains how when grain markets are already tight, piling huge and growing biofuels mandates on top can quickly turn a tight market into a market in crisis:

“Much of today's discussion focuses only on the challenge of meeting rising food demand because of factors such as rising meat consumption in China and long-term underinvestment in agricultural research. Droughts in Russia and floods in Australia over the past year may be early harbingers of climate change. But if it is hard to meet rising food demands, it must be harder to meet demands for both food and biofuels.”

Since 2004, biofuels mandates in the U.S., Europe and elsewhere have doubled global demand for grains. As the graph below shows, it doesn’t take a trained economist to imagine the impact this market pressure can have on farmers and poor people around the world.

The astounding thing, however, is that despite this massive increase in demand, in a good year when growing weather is good, the world’s farmers actually manage to keep up. As Searchinger explains:

“Agricultural production is keeping up in general with the growing demand for food - but it keeps up with the added demand for biofuels only if growing weather is good.

But growing weather isn’t going to be good every year—indeed, as we begin to feel the consequences of a changing climate more and more, what we now consider good years for global agriculture may become the exception, not the rule.

Instead of acknowledging these realities, Growth and RFA try desperately to deflect any blame. This now prominently features attacks on the science of lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions accounting for biofuels, including the need to account for the carbon that is emitted when forests and other uncultivated lands are cleared for food production as a result of existing cropland being diverted towards growing grains for fuel. This critical market dynamic—known as indirect land-use change or “ILUC” and brought to light by leading academics like Tim Searchinger—is now widely accepted and reflected in U.S. laws like the Renewable Fuel Standard.  

But despite accusing Searchinger of ignoring peer-reviewed research and the best available data, their rebuttal consists largely of pointing to an analysis—which to date consists of just a few PowerPoint slides—presented last October to the California Air Resources Board by researchers at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL).  As we discussed here and here, far from demonstrating that the ILUC “scheme simply doesn’t exist”, the study actually tells us nothing about ILUC! It make no attempt to compare what happened in crops and land over the last decade to some informed baseline scenario—i.e. what could, would or might have happened in the market without our biofuels polices—and makes no reference whatsoever to global demand for corn or other commodity crops like soybeans, or how prices in those markets were affected by corn ethanol mandates and tax incentives.

As Searchinger points out, governments around the world plan to triple production of biofuels by 2020—meaning the volatility in food prices that we’ve seen in recent years may pale in comparison to what we’ll see over the next decade. This, he says, implies “more moderately high prices after good growing years and soaring prices after bad ones.”

The industry’s knee-jerk attempts to obfuscate the facts do not change them. Today’s biofuels policies are not only failing to achieve our environmental objectives, they are exacerbating food shortages, with painful consequences for millions of the world’s most vulnerable communities. We simply cannot continue ramping up demand for grains and expect to have zero impact on the choices farmers make and the price poor people around the world pay for food. We need a quick and meaningful course correction in our biofuels policies away from first generation biofuels like corn ethanol towards the cleaner, advanced biofuels that can actually help us achieve our environmental objectives without harming the world’s hungriest people.

But there is good news, as Searchinger points out:  

“The same economic studies imply that food prices should come down if we can just limit biofuel growth. Corn ethanol is nearing Congress's requirement for 15 billion gallons a year, and lawmakers need to hold it there…For "advanced biofuels" required by Congress, the Obama administration needs to focus on fuel sources that do not compete with food, such as garbage and crop residues, and not grasses grown on good cropland.

In the U.S., the tide has been shifting. Despite a massive lobbying campaign, last year Congress rejected the corn ethanol industry’s demands for another 5 years of wasteful, expensive subsidies and approved only a 1-year extension of the main corn ethanol tax credit. Now is the time for Congress to end corn ethanol subsidies once and for all and refocus on investing in biofuels and biofuel feedstocks that do not compete with the world’s food supply.

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Nathanael Greene

Nathanael Greene is Director of Renewable Energy Policy, New York City. He coordinates NRDC's work on renewable energy--fuels and power--and policies that will advance them.

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