Sustainable America Blog

Biofuel Mandates Leave Guatemalans Hungry

The competition between food and fuel is not limited by borders or national boundaries. In our increasingly globalized world, it’s not surprising that increased use of corn for ethanol in the United States and Europe is driving up the price of corn for tortillas in Guatemala, or that lands in Guatemala once used to grow corn are now being used to grow more lucrative biofuel crops like sugar cane and African palm.

Timothy Wise, a Tufts University development expert who is studying the problem globally with Actionaid, a policy group based in Washington that focuses on poverty, explained to the New York Times that Guatemala in particular is “getting hit from both sides of the Atlantic.” The net effect for Guatemalans is a tripling of the price of eggs—because chickens eat corn feed—and a doubling of the price of corn tortillas in just three years.

Renewable fuel standards set in the U.S. mandate the amount of biofuel blend in gasoline. The intent was to meet those mandates with second-generation or advanced biofuels which would be made from non-food stocks like cellulose or algae. But, despite several high profile cellulosic biofuel refineries opening in the next 12 months, there is not yet a commercial-scale refinery capable of producing advanced biofuels.

That means that the fuel mandates in the U.S. are still being met primarily with corn ethanol. To make matters worse, the drought of 2012 coupled with other extreme weather events over the last year or so have led to a reduced harvest on top of the rising demand for corn. We have yet to see the full effects of the reduced 2012 harvest.

Ultimately, this all leads to food price hikes in places like Guatemala where corn is a staple and the majority of it is imported. This trend is also evident in other parts of the world where land is being used to grow more lucrative biofuel crops, rather than food for local populations.

Malnutrition affects some 50% of Guatemalans, and most families already spend about two thirds of their income on food. Misael Gonzáles of C.U.C., a labor union for Guatemala’s farmers, put it bluntly: “There are pros and cons to biofuel, but not here. These people don’t have enough to eat. They need food. They need land. They can’t eat biofuel, and they don’t drive cars.”

A report by Bruce A. Babcock, an agricultural economist at Iowa State University, showed that 2011 corn prices would have been 17% lower if the U.S. did not subsidize and offer incentives for biofuel production through its renewable fuel policies. And that was before the extreme weather of last year. The drought of 2012 continues in many parts of the U.S., and we have yet to see the full effect on food prices in America.

In response to these trends, the World Bank has suggested that the developed world should adjust its renewable fuel mandates when food is short or prices are too high. Whether that suggestion is heeded remains to be seen. At Sustainable America we wholeheartedly support the research and development being done to bring advanced biofuels to market as quickly as possible. It’s our goal to untangle the overly interdependent food and fuel systems in America so that both can be more sustainable. The advancement of second-generation biofuels is a large component in achieving that goal.

Source: The New York Times

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By the Numbers

Currently 50 million households suffer from food insecurity, meaning that family members cannot always meet their basic food needs.

10 million people a year could be fed through the recovery of just one-fifth of food waste.

Only 2% of food waste is composted or otherwise recycled—62% of paper is recycled.

Consumers throw out about 40% of the fresh and frozen fish they buy.

The U.S. produced 208 pounds of meat per person in 2009—60% more than Europe.

Low income commuters spend a much higher proportion of their wages on gas—8.6% versus 2.1% at $4 per gallon.

Food prices rose 35-40 percentage points between 2002–2008.

Americans consume 25% of the world’s produced oil, but our nation holds less than 3% of the world’s proven oil reserves.

The International Energy Agency says greenhouse gas emissions rose 3.2% last year, with a 9.3% increase in China offsetting declines in the US and EU.

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