While he may have been too ill to attend the Mayday parade in Havana, for only the third time since 1959, Cuban leader Fidel Castro has found the strength to pen yet another diatribe against the current craze for turning food into fuel. His reflections on the sugar harvest are fascinating, but I wonder whether he will have any impact on the rest of the world. And what would he have made of the latest advance: a genetically engineered sorghum, modified to yield better in the long growing seasons of Texas and Kansas.
Biofuel boosters have admitted that what we really need is cellulosic conversion — turning the bulk of plants like corn, not to mention inedible plants, into ethanol rather than relying on their seeds. Now comes news from the USDA that to do so threatens the soil in which those biofuels will grow. If farmers harvest the stovers, or corn stalks, rather than leaving them on the land, they risk depleting the organic matter in the soil in addition to severe soil erosion. That cuts the value of maize for ethanol even more.
Meanwhile, AllAfrica.com carries a long report on the recent FAO meeting on biofuels. FAO tried very hard to be balanced:
Joseph Schmidhuber, Senior Economist at FAO’s Agricultural Development and Economics Division, explained that the impact of the new bioenergy market on food security could be negative or positive, depending on whether a country’s economy was a net exporter or importer of food and energy. The same held true at household level, indicating that the rural landless and the urban poor were most at risk, and special measures would be needed to protect both countries and groups.
Everything is possible, no? But I find it hard hard to conclude that the emphasis on turning food for people into fuel for cars and trucks will be a good thing on balance.
Donald Kennedy, Editor-in-Chief of Science magazine, thinks there is a “biofuels conundrum”. He agrees that growing corn for ethanol results in huge distortions and problems elsewhere. Ethanol from sugar cane is better, but blocked by corn-state Senators in the US. Palm oil, as biodiesel, is better yet, but still carries considerable downsides. So, Kennedy says, we need more investment on research into biofuels derived from cellulose. Fair enough. But not a single mention of actually reducing consumption of liquid fuels. Not one word. I guess Kennedy, like so may others, isn’t quite ready to sign the bio-temperance pledge.