Biofuel vs. Food

The Western fetish for turning cheap, efficient food into expensive, inefficient fuel is threatening the food supply--as is the European superstition against genetically modified foods.

In “Can the World Still Feed Itself?WSJ’s Brian Carney touches on a subject that I’ve been calling attention to for years: the Western fetish for turning cheap, efficient food into expensive, inefficient fuel.

As befits the chairman of the world’s largest food-production company, Peter Brabeck-Letmathe is counting calories. But it’s not his diet that the chairman and former CEO of Nestlé is worried about. It’s all the food that the U.S. and Europe are converting into fuel while the world’s poor get hungrier.

“Politicians,” Mr. Brabeck-Letmathe says, “do not understand that between the food market and the energy market, there is a close link.” That link is the calorie.

The energy stored in a bushel of corn can fuel a car or feed a person. And increasingly, thanks to ethanol mandates and subsidies in the U.S. and biofuel incentives in Europe, crops formerly grown for food or livestock feed are being grown for fuel. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s most recent estimate predicts that this year, for the first time, American farmers will harvest more corn for ethanol than for feed. In Europe some 50% of the rapeseed crop is going into biofuel production, according to Mr. Brabeck-Letmathe, while “world-wide about 18% of sugar is being used for biofuel today.”

In one sense, this is a remarkable achievement—five decades ago, when the global population was half what it is today, catastrophists like Paul Ehrlich were warning that the world faced mass starvation on a biblical scale. Today, with nearly seven billion mouths to feed, we produce so much food that we think nothing of burning tons of it for fuel.

Or at least we think nothing of it in the West. If the price of our breakfast cereal goes up because we’re diverting agricultural production to ethanol or biodiesel, it’s an annoyance. But if the price of corn or flour doubles or triples in the Third World, where according to Mr. Brabeck-Letmathe people “are spending 80% of [their] disposable income on food,” hundreds of millions of people go hungry. Sometimes, as in the Middle East earlier this year, they revolt.

“What we call today the Arab Spring,” Mr. Brabeck-Letmathe says over lunch at Nestle’s world headquarters, “really started as a protest against ever-increasing food prices.”

This isn’t the only public policy choice that’s impacting the food supply, however.

Add to that, especially in Europe, a paralyzing fear of genetically modified crops, or GMOs. This refusal to use “available technology” in agriculture, Mr. Brabeck-Letmathe contends, has halted the multi-decade rise in agricultural productivity that has allowed us, so far, to feed more mouths than many people believed was possible.

“And the demand for meat,” he says, “has a multiplier effect of 10. You need 10 times as much land, 10 times as much [feed], 10 times as much water to produce one calorie of meat as you do to have one calorie of vegetables or grain.” Even so, we are capable of satisfying this increased demand—if we choose to. “If politicians of this world really want to tackle food security,” Mr. Brabeck-Letmathe says, “there’s only one decision they have to make: No food for fuel. . . . They just have to say ‘No food for fuel,’ and supply and demand would balance again.”

If we don’t do that, we can never hope to square the drive for biofuels with the world’s food needs. The calories don’t add up. “The energy market,” Mr. Brabeck-Letmathe argues, “is 20 times as big, in calories, as the food market.” So “when politicians say, ‘We want to replace 20% of the energy market through the food market,'” this means “we would have to triple food production” to meet that goal—and that’s before we eat the first kernel of what we’ve grown.

Even if we could pull this off, we will never get there by turning our backs on genetically modified crops and holding up “organic” food as the new gold standard of safety, purity and health. Organic production is all the rage in the rich West, but we can’t “feed the world with this stuff,” he says. Agricultural productivity with organics is too low.


What’s harder for him to understand is that Europe’s policies effectively forbid poor countries in places like Africa from using genetically modified seed. These countries, he says, urgently need the technology to increase yields and productivity in their backward agricultural sectors. But if they plant GMOs, then under Europe’s rules the EU “will not allow you to export anything—anything. Not just the [crop] that has GMO—anything,” because of European fears about cross-contamination and almost impossibly strict purity standards. The European fear of genetically modified crops is, he says, “purely emotional. It’s becoming almost a religious belief.”

This makes Mr. Brabeck-Letmathe, a jovial man with a quick smile, get emotional himself. “How many people,” he asks with a touch of irritation, “have died from food contamination from organic products, and how many people have died from GMO products?” He answers his own question: “None from GMO. And I don’t have to ask too long how many people have died just recently from organic,” he adds, referring to the e. coli outbreak earlier this year in Europe.

A related topic that I haven’t heard much about:

Mr. Brabeck-Letmathe even worries about the absence of a functioning market for water. Some 98.5% of the fresh water the world uses every year goes to agricultural or industrial use. And in most cases, there is no market for how that water is allocated and used. The result is waste, overuse and misuse of the water we have. If we don’t do something about that, Mr. Brabeck-Letmathe fears, we will soon run ourselves dry.

Up to now, he says, our response to water shortages has focused “on the supply-side”: We build another dam, or a canal to bring water from one place to another. But “the big issue,” he contends, “is on the demand side,” and the “best regulator” of demand is prices.

“If oil becomes scarce,” he notes, “the oil price goes up. But if water does, well, we still pump the same amount. It doesn’t matter because it doesn’t cost. It has no value.” He drives this point home by connecting it back to biofuels: “We would never have had a biofuel policy—never,” he contends, “if we would have given water any value.” It takes, Mr. Brabeck-Letmathe says, “9,100 liters of water to produce one liter of biodiesel. You can only do that because water has no price.”

He cites Spain as an example of an agricultural sector in need of adjustment. “The total [output] of the Spanish agricultural system,” he says, “is less in value than the subsidies they receive between the Common Agricultural Policy, the subsidies for tax relief, the subsidies for water.”

‘Take away the emotion of the water issue,” Mr. Brabeck-Letmathe argues. “Give the 1.5% of the water [that we use to drink and wash with], make it a human right. But give me a market for the 98.5% so the market forces are able to react, and they will be the best guidance that you can have. Because if the market forces are there the investments are going to be made.”

Part of the problem, at least at the household level, is that we use potable water for everything. It really makes no sense to process water to drinking standards  only to flush it down our toilets or sprinkle on our lawns.

Cartoon: Stuart Carlson

FILED UNDER: Africa, Economics and Business, Middle East, Science & Technology, , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. JKB says:

    It would be interesting to see how much of the biofuel is just transformed natural gas. My brother has a friend who used to hay some of his fields. Good hay for horses. Well, it got expensive so one year he didn’t fertilize in the Spring. Yield went down 50%. It was then that he realized he was feeding the horses 50% natural gas since the gas is the major input to the fertilizer.

    It makes since to convert natural gas to food but not so much to then make that food into ethanol to burn were natural gas would provide energy directly.

    True on the water but then running a non-potable system doubles the piping expenses and there is always someone who won’t read. But it’s the same on the other end, running a brown water (shower, sinks, washing) system into a shallow leach field while just taking the black water (sewage) to the treatment plant. But then the local government utility makes money off the far greater volumes of water used for watering and flushing as well as the city making money on the sewage volume that is mostly brown water. In fact, the sewage system breaks down if people save on water usage.

  2. john personna says:

    We all (with a few farm state exceptions) hate the subsidies, but expect them to remain … just as long as the farm states host the presidential primaries.

  3. Herb says:

    While I can see modern Americans relying on non-potable water for their lawns, I don’t think they’ll do so in their toilets….

    Not because we drink from them, but because we sit on them bare-assed and we’re a squeamish lot when it comes to such things.

  4. john personna says:

    Not only would it be horribly expensive to plumb 2 kinds of water to every house, it would only take one knucklehead somewhere to accidentally bridge the systems and make it ALL unsafe.

    My town uses non-potable water in some parks, which is probably manageable from the plumbing and safety angles.

  5. Racehorse says:

    The main problem with ethanol is that it messes up engines of lawn mowers and older cars.
    The secondary problem, but still important to me, is that it has caused the price of popcorn to go up: popcorn is way too expensive, whether in the theater, park, sporting event, or grocery store.
    That is why ethanol should certainly not be subsidized.

  6. DSt says:

    I wonder which is less efficient, more wasteful of food crops like corn: “the Western fetish for turning cheap, efficient food into expensive, inefficient fuel”–ethanol, or the Western fetish for turning cheap, efficient food into expensive, inefficient and unhealthy food–meat. We use 20% of the American corn crop to make ethanol, and 55% for livestock.

  7. DavidL says:

    The problem is not meat. Rather, the question is the wisdom of using food grains as cattle feed. Feeding livestock on grass, grazing, allows otherwise unproductive, or marginal, lands to be used for food productiion. You can graze sheep in places whee you could never use to produce a human food crop. Low intensity grazing, many acres but few cattle, allow productive use of semi-arid lands without the need for irrigation.

  8. DSt says:

    @DavidL: And that’s why we raise all our livestock this way: Because it’s so much more productive. Except that we do not. Because it is NOT more productive. When an acre of land can produce 40,000 pounds of directly consumable vegetables or the grain to produce only 250 pounds of meat, yes, meat is a problem.

  9. john personna says:

    I did a drive this year, out across Interstate 10. In those thousands of miles there were really a lot of cattle grazing on marginal land. It was enough to tilt my view. I got back to California, and saw green hills and thought “where are the cattle?” (We must grant fewer permits.)

    We’d certainly have less beef without grain subsidies, but it would still be there, and probably healthier. It might be expensive enough that beef drops out of the fast food though … which might not be a bad thing.

  10. Jim says:

    I’m confused by the comments. We used non-potable water for generations. How soon we forget. The piping is simple. The issue is regulations.

    In Eastern Europe, I saw water faucets that drained into a reservoir that fed the toilet. I thought that was pretty cool.

  11. Gengineer says:

    Corn ethanol is a government subsidy scam and always has been.

    The US food machine runs on petrochemicals and has for decades.

    The Green Revolution has accelerated our entire civilization down the road to ruin.

    The very best of intentions has led to a staggering population boom, a depleted soil and a collapsing ecology.

    When the fossil fuels are gone the masses will stave and die but not before ruining the entire planet.

    We need positive eugenics now if we want our civilization to survive.