Biofuels are making the US drought crisis worse

By Peter Brabeck-Letmathe

27 August 2012 See comments (6)

The water-food-energy nexus is a complex concept that is frequently cited but rarely fully understood. However the cost of failing to grasp these connections is measured not only in money, but in human lives.

The impact of extreme droughts on major agricultural production areas, such as those currently affecting the United States, is a stark reminder of this link. Water, which is vital for food, will be less available if food is used to produce fuel instead.

According to a study of the US Department of Energy, up to 9,100 litres of water are required to produce one litre of biodiesel. Add this to the structural overuse of freshwater and temporary drought affecting crops and food prices. The result is clear that biofuel production has had a massive impact on the increasingly fragile water-for-food equation and on the livelihoods of the most vulnerable people in the world.

The problem is enhanced by the fact that 40% of corn production in the United States now goes towards ethanol1, a percentage that will increase to nearly 50% during a year of drought in the cornbelt due to rigid mandates. Meanwhile in Europe, it was recently reported that 60% of rape is being used for fuel production (Javier Blas, Financial Times August 12, quoting FAO).

We saw the consequences of this already happening in 2008 and 2010; now further millions of people are pushed into poverty and famine. Precisely how many is now hard to say since FAO data estimating the number of people going hungry to bed has stopped – apparently for technical reasons.

Looking at the bigger picture, this is self-defeating. Proposing biofuels as an apparent solution to one crisis, such as climate change, in fact deepens the effects of two others, namely water and food security.

Last week, Germany’s Development Minister Dirk Niebel called for biofuel containing corn to be banned from the country’s petrol pumps. Mr Niebel deserves our full support. And we should go beyond Germany in this demand: removing subsidies and all mandates for biofuels, and in consequence putting a complete stop to food for fuel.

1 article published in the State Journal-Register

  1. James Amoroso @ Consumer Analyst Group of Europe

    27 Aug 2012 - 19:51 (GMT)

    I am not sure about banning. It has merit in its immediacy but it removes consumers' free will from the process and so risks being unsustainable. However, the removal of any, by definition, artificial subsidies in favour of grain-based bio-ethanol cannot be viewed negatively by consumers.

    Of course, there are still too many people driving to work in their cars, often without passengers. Governments need to invest in public transportation infrastructure (comfort, speed, convenience) to coax people out of their cars. This will be a much tougher project as it would involve long-term government financial commitment and the tackling of the automobile manufacturer lobby. A double whammy.

  2. Peter Brabeck-Letmathe @ Nestle

    29 Aug 2012 - 11:02 (GMT)

    @James Amoroso

    James, thank you for your comments. In my view, the immediacy of grain-based biofuels is negated by the equally urgent impact subsidies are having on food prices. But to be clear: I am not advocating a total ban on biofuels – but from waste, maybe from algae, but not using food. And we mandated a study on biofuel subsidies that shows the absurd orders of magnitude (22 billion of subsidies for a market of 45-83 billion). And we could further develop in a workshop at Rio 20

    We plan a further event on the issue in Brussels on December 4 2012 – it would be great if you could join.


  3. JPG

    29 Aug 2012 - 22:00 (GMT)

    I think that we are clearly talking about three issues here which are not treated in a real separate manner in the discussion.

    1- Climate change: whatever it takes, provided it does not "kill" people, climate change is an issue which must be attended, whatever way you look at it.

    If it is not effectively attended for, the rest of the discussion on possible death because of lack of food is anyway bound to happen.

    So I suggest that the stabilization and, more important, back to "what it was" of the climate situation, is a "given" and must be kept in mind as a "deal-breaker", if not observed, for the Civilizations on Earth.

    2- The food issue: It would be essential to go deeper into the mechanics of the "food crisis", particularly in the "poor" countries, in order to assess whether the global possible food crisis is due to sheer "lack of enough food", or this "food crisis" is also due to the sheer "lack of money" either earned or donated in/for the regions that are concerned.

    I would not be surprised that the issue would be some sort of a mix of both lower global food production, as well as just the lack of buying power capacity for the regions that are concerned to just buy and transport the food where it is needed.

    In short, the issue, it seems, calls for much more than one measure, for instance on some biofuels, but that it also rests on the buying power disparities in the world, as well as the, let us say it, "indifference" of the "rich" countries vis-à-vis the food situation in the "poor" countries.

    This is a sociological and political issue. It does not seem really related to biofuels. Possibly the biofuels do play a role, but, reasonably, it does seem rather "minor" when the whole issue, including food prices and money availability in some regions. I would guess that the money issue supersedes the "biofuel issue".

    3- Regarding water: Indeed, the "primary" biofuels use gigantic amounts of water. Some other processes are not less voracious when it comes to the use of water.

    In addition, if one factors the price of transportation in the availability of food in the "poor" countries, some effects can be positive, at least at the beginning. The more biofuels are produced using "biomass II", the less water is going to be needed to produce biofuels as such. Sweden is a good example.

    So back to water, which we all agree is the most precious resource on Earth, I think that the aim to save water for what it is really meant should be widened to all processes (from mining to industrial use, a.s.o.), in order to preserve this vital resource.

    So, in short, on a, let's say, "worldwide water program", all of the important aspects of wasting water should be tackled (the 80/20 rule can be used as a basis).

    It is only that way, in my opinion, that the water issue, which is, we all agree, of vital importance, will be properly tackled.

    Concentrating on just "some issues" related to "way too high irresponsible water consumption" is by far not enough.

    Also, as mentioned by James, it would simply not be "fair" and clearly affect the people in their feelings of accepting a "fair shake" and, thus, their "free will".

    We all also know that a major social issue has to be handled with utmost care.

    So, as a summary, yes for saving water, no for "selective" saving of water which will not be understood by the people who, in whatever manner, will have to pay for it.

  4. D Satya Murty @ Government of Karnataka

    21 Sep 2012 - 18:28 (GMT)

    Nice go see the blog. I acknowledge the initiative as it is going to add value to all those who are interested in water conserving and protecting the scarce resources

  5. Peter Brabeck-Letmathe

    24 Sep 2012 - 12:44 (GMT)

    Dear Mr Satyamurty, your encouragement is particularly appreciated. I know about the very advanced thinking and action of Karnataka government and, in particular, the Water Resources Department in conserving, protecting and providing more efficient use of this scarce resource. At one point it might be interesting for the readers of this blog to learn more about the excellent work in Karnataka – maybe you would be willing to post a longer comment?

  6. workplace courses @

    16 Dec 2012 - 09:17 (GMT)

    I completely agree with you. I have no point to raise in against of what you have said I think you explain the whole situation very well.

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