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Food AND Fuel

May 19, 2008
There's been a lot of hype lately over biofuels starving the world, and unfortunately there's not better way to say it than that -- hype.

Instead of having the knee-jerk reaction, of panic, we need to think carefully about the problem, for starters, we need to actually identify the problem.

In a recent op-ed in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, Nathaniel Greene and Lee Lynd wrote,
Biofuels are a modest part of the food price picture, consuming only 4 percent of world grain, and there is little evidence that food prices would be much lower if we did not produce biofuels. The primary reasons for skyrocketing food prices include our rising energy costs, increased demand for meat in developing countries, drought and misguided agricultural policies.

We can make biofuels from nonfood biomass (woody material, grasses, stalks and stems) in ways that neither compete with food production nor cause the increase in global-warming pollution that comes from converting wild landscapes to row crops. In other words, using the right part of plants and producing them in the right ways take biofuels out of the food-price equation and make them part of the solution to global warming.

More generally, we should go beyond all-or-nothing headlines and pursue a transition to biofuel strategies that realize the compatible objectives of replacing oil, expanding opportunities for existing producers and securing both food supplies and a sustainable future.

For those that are advocating a food versus fuel position, I would say, stop (and think), look (at the data), listen (to the experts). And finally, see if there is a solution that is less radical. As a scientist myself, I know that there must be.