It’s Food AND Fuel

Last week SustainableBusiness.com posted the story, “Bill To Extend Ethanol Tax Credit Reignites Fuel vs. Food Debate.”

They write,

A bill introduced in the US House last week would extend ethanol tax credits for another five years, to 2015. This tax credit is set to expire on December 31, 2010. If extended, the tax credits will provide the conventional ethanol industry with $30 billion over five years.

They quoted Kate McMahon, Energy Policy Campaigner at Friends of the Earth who said,

The oil and ethanol industries need no further help from the American people. This money should be invested in more cutting-edge, clean, and renewable energy that won’t cause environmental degradation and increase food prices.

Food prices? Not so fast, here are a few facts.

World population growth is projected to reach 9 billion by 2050. Demand for food, energy, resources, and agricultural productivity is expected to increase at a faster rate, due to increased demand for dietary protein, primarily in developing countries. Accordingly the challenge is to sustainably produce food, feed, fiber, and biofuel within existing land constraints.

For those concerned about food you should know that:

  • Wheat and soy production have been increasing outside the U.S. since 1970 and that U.S. biofuel production since 2000 shows no impact on these trends.
  • U.S. yields of corn have consistently outpaced the world average. Furthermore, the overall harvested acreage for corn production under the renewable fuel standard is projected to remain stable due to continued yield gains.
  • In the U.S. agriculture has become more sustainable. Since 1980 productivity has increased, even while agricultural inputs have declined.
  • The increase in sustainable agriculture extends outside the boundaries of the U.S. Agricultural productivity gains in the last 20 years worldwide have been accomplished with fewer energy and water inputs per bushel, reduced soil loss, and mitigated climate impacts.

Add all that together and then add the fact that cropland in the U.S. is concentrated in the Midwest and Plains. Other areas have biomass potential in grassland and managed forests.

So that means that there is enough room for food AND fuel.

Industrial and Environmental Biotech in the Blogosphere

This week we start off with a United Nations report that urges caution on biofuels. Green Inc, a New York Times blog writes,

“The study concluded that whether a biofuel is climate-friendly or not depends largely on whether it is based on crops or production residues. Biofuels of the latter category were generally considered beneficial for the environment, and generating electricity locally from waste materials was found — in most cases — to be more energy efficient than converting biomass to liquid fuels.”

This paper was also written about in the blog, Futurism Now, the post called, Biofuels Will Increase Global Warming According to Study

They explain,

“That is because the land required to plant fast-growing poplar trees and tropical grasses would displace food crops, and so drive deforestation to create more farmland, a powerful source of carbon emissions.”

Not so fast, check out the Sustainable Production of Biofuels.

And biofuels continues to be the topic of the week. The biofuel review writes this week about a report from the Imperial College of London. The report has an upbeat tone about the future of biofuels and The biofuel review ends their post with a quote from Clare Wenner, Head of Renewable Transport at the Renewable Energy Association that says,

“Imperial College London has verified the results which show that these fuels can be produced in a sustainable way. With the right legislative framework, including the implementation of environmental rules under the Directive, it will be possible to limit indirect land use effects. Land will always be used for food and fuel, and the overall balance of these impacts could be positive as far as food is concerned. In fact, it seems likely that wheat-based biofuels production will not affect the amount of wheat exported by the EU as a whole.”

Then it’s more biofuels from Creamer Media’s Engineering News

According to Engineering News,

“Pretreatment and gasification technologies are on the verge of making second-generation biofuels a commercial reality, according to new analysis from Frost & Sullivan, entitled ‘Worldwide Market Analysis of Second Generation Biofeedstock.”

Engineering news interviewed Frost & Sullivan senior research analyst Phani Raj Kumar Chinthapalli,

“The use of second-generation biofuels is expected to reduce 
the emission of greenhouse gases (GHG), particularly carbon 
dioxide (CO2), from combustion engines by 80% to 85% in comparison with conventional fossil fuels. The lifecycle emissions for second-generation biofuels are in the negative range, which implies consumption of CO2 rather than emission.”

That’s it for this week, see you next week.

Data Also Disproves Food v. Fuel Claims

The Wall Street Journal’s Scott Kilman reported earlier this week on a letter sent by General Mills, the Grocery Manufacturers Association and Kraft Foods to Ag. Sec. Tom Vilsack, asking for reduction of trade tariffs on sugar. From Kilman’s article and the letter, it’s clear that grocery manufacturers are once again trying to distract public attention from their price increases by pointing a finger of blame at biofuels.

Last year, you may recall, Roll Call exposed the Grocery Manufacturers Association’s plan to use the food vs. fuel debate to cover their industry’s price increases.

Kilman writes:

Prices are up because the world is consuming more sugar than farmers are producing. One big factor: The world’s largest sugar producer, Brazil, is diverting huge amounts of its cane crop to making ethanol fuel. Likewise, the food industry has complained bitterly in recent years about the U.S. ethanol industry’s ravenous appetite for corn, which helped push up prices for that key ingredient too.”

Sugarcaneblog provides the real explanation for current, temporary sugar price increases – rain has slowed the pace of harvesting – even while Brazil’s sugar production is up 15 percent this year.

Reuters reporter Brad Dorfman provides much more thorough, clearer analysis on the claims made by the grocery manufacturers:

Food industry analysts say inflation should be contained for an industry that sharply increased prices in the past year as costs for commodities such as vegetable oil, wheat and corn surged.
“Many commodity prices have retreated, and manufacturers are trying to defend the price increases as consumers and retailers try to rein in costs in a weak economy.”

The Consumer Price Index shows that food prices have actually declined a percentage point over the first half of this year, after rapid increases in the past two years. The data also show that the increases in the past year were out of proportion to inflation in other categories.

CPI Percent increase/decrease

2002

2003

2004

2005

2006

2007

2008

2009

Food

1.5

3.6

2.7

2.3

2.1

4.9

5.9

-1.1

Energy

10.7

6.9

16.6

17.1

2.9

17.4

-21.3

14.8

Other Goods

1.9

1.1

2.2

2.2

2.6

2.4

1.8

2.3

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Neither biofuels nor energy provide a good explanation for increases in food prices.

Increases in food price inflation do not correlate well to either biofuel production or energy price data.

Increases in food price inflation do not correlate well to either biofuel production or energy price data.

Even a Congressional Budget Office study requested by Members of Congress who wanted to make a case that biofuels’ were raising the cost of government food programs could only find a 10 percent to 15 percent impact on food prices from biofuels. That study showed that nearly two-thirds of the price increases could not be explained by either biofuels or energy prices.

Of the 5.1 percent CPI increase for food between April 2007 and April 2008, energy had a larger effect than biofuels. But even together, they account for a fraction of food price inflation:

Biofuels

0.5 to 0.8

10 to 16%

Energy

1.1

22%

Other Causes

3.2 to 3.5

62 to 68%

Source: Congressional Budget Office, “The Impact of Ethanol Use on Food Prices and Greenhouse-Gas Emissions,” April 2009

So why is GMA resurrecting its campaign to blame biofuels for food price increases? (See also their letter to Sen. Boxer from a few weeks ago.) Likely because it was a very profitable strategy for them last year and it continues to work, at least with half the time.

Land O’Lakes

16%

Kraft Foods

21%

Sara Lee

55%

General Mills

61%

Kellogg Co.

9%

Source: 2020 Project, FoodPriceTruth.org.

Strange Bedfellows Indeed

The Environmental Working Group, Friends of the Earth, the Grocery Manufacturers Association, the National Marine Manufacturers Association, the National Petrochemical & Refiners Association, and the Natural Resources Defense Council have cosigned a series of letters to Senate leaders opposing additional study of the theory of indirect land use change. These groups would like to lock in the EPA’s current measurement of indirect land use change, which includes heavy penalties for corn- and soybean-based biofuels.

The coalition is responding to the inclusion in the American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009 of Section 551, under the Agriculture and Forestry offsets. This part of the legislation directs the National Academies of Science to review existing studies of indirect land use change and determine whether models can reliably project the greenhouse gas emissions for both biofuels and conventional petroleum fuels.

According to Nathanael Greene of the NRDC, “This coalition has come together because we want sound science rather than special interests to determine our biofuels policies.” And according to the NPRA’s Greg Scott, “Sound, verifiable science should always guide the crafting and implementation of environmental and energy policy.”

So is the EPA’s current analysis of indirect land use change sound and verifiable? I’ve noted before that the EPA’s methodology is based on an assumption that there is a cause and effect relationship between production of renewable fuels and international land use change. Yet, they have not footnoted their assertion or demonstrated this cause and effect relationship. Sorry, but that’s not science, let alone sound and verifiable science.

Section 204(a)(3) of the 2007 Energy Independence and Security Act, the law that established the current RFS, already obligates the EPA to study whether there is an international impact from biofuel production. By December 2010, the EPA will have to come up with some direct evidence of the cause and effect relationship.

Section 203 of that same law asked the National Academies to study the issue of food and biofuel. Though the NAS appears not to have done the study, the Congressional Budget Office did complete a study. While showing that biofuels had roughly half the impact of oil on food prices, the CBO’s findings failed to explain roughly two thirds of food price increases during 2007 and 2008. The 2020 Project finds an easy explanation for food price increases in the profits made by members of the Grocery Manufacturers Association.

Politics is definitely about strange bedfellows. So, which of these groups will gain what from ensuring that biofuels are penalized for international land use change?

New Biofuels Manifesto

University of Minnesota Professor David Tilman, Princeton University Visiting Scholar Tim Searchinger, Dartmouth Professor Lee Lynd and others involved in the debate over the environmental and social impacts of biofuels have published in Science magazine what amounts to a new manifesto on how biofuels can be done right.

The authors list five biofuel feedstocks that are the best in terms of sustainability — “lower life-cycle greenhouse-gas emissions than traditional fossil fuels and with little or no competition with food products.”

The authors conclude:

Three steps should be taken: meaningful science-based environmental safeguards should be adopted, a robust biofuels industry should be enabled, and those who have invested in first-generation biofuels should have a viable path forward.

The EPA’s proposed rule on the Renewable Fuel Standard was intended to outline a viable path forward for first-generation biofuels. The Best Case Natural Gas Dry Mill, the Biomass Dry Mill, and the Biomass Dry Mill with Combined Heat and Power scenarios outlined in the “EPA Lifecycle Analysis of Greenhouse Gas Emissions from Renewable Fuels” all produce reductions in greenhouse gases that come close to or exceed the 20 percent standard in the RFS. The EPA’s definition of the Best Case is: “Best case plants produce wet distillers grain co-product and include the following technologies: combined heat and power (CHP), fractionation, membrane separation and raw starch hydrolysis.”

The question will be whether anyone invests in these technologies or in additional biofuel production at all, given the current economic and social climate in which biofuel companies are operating. One possible factor in choosing the best biofuels ought to be how soon they can become a reality and whether they can be improved from there.

EPA Gathers Input on RFS

The EPA today held a public hearing on the RFS2 Rule and will be holding a Workshop on Lifecycle Greenhouse Gas Analysis for the Proposed Revisions to the National Renewable Fuels Standard Program tomorrow. These fora are intended to solicit feedback from stakeholders in the rulemaking and provide information on how the EPA developed its lifecycle model.

BIO submitted testimony to the EPA asking that the agency maintain flexibility in the rule to reconsider the greenhouse gas reductions associated with biofuels as the science of life cycle assessment, particularly methods of accounting indirect land use change, matures.

At a U.S. House Agriculture Subcommittee hearing on May 6, several experts discussed the considerable uncertainties that remain in the current models for ILUC that the EPA has employed.

Joe Glauber, chief economist of the USDA, listed some of the sources of uncertainty, including crop yields and production growth over time, economic and non-economic limits to land use change, and assumptions plugged into the models at the start. Glauber also noted that predicted U.S. plantings of principal crops for 2009 remain well below historical trends and that increases in corn and soybean acres are offset by declines in wheat and cotton acres.

As Glauber points out, conversion of forests is one of the key factors in the life cycle greenhouse gas estimates of the EPA’s analysis and many of the published studies on ILUC. Yet, there is considerable uncertainty over whether forest would be the primary source of new cropland.

Bruce Babcock, director of the Center for Agricultural and Rural Development at Iowa State University, pointed out that there is little evidence that U.S. biofuel production has caused deforestation either in the United States or in Brazil. Rather than conversion of forest or pastureland, “U.S. cropland has increased primarily through a reduction in CRP acres and through increased double cropping of soybeans after wheat.” Similarly, expansion of soybean production in Brazil has been accommodated by increased stocking rates on pastureland. It is increases in cattle production in Brazil that have led to deforestation for pastureland in the Amazon.

Babcock concluded, “The precision with which models can estimate emissions associated with market-induced land use changes is low.”

The fact is that the model employed by the EPA attaches heavy penalties for greenhouse gas emissions to production of biofuels based on assumptions that worldwide agriculture is a zero-sum game in which use of crops for one purpose leaves a shortfall in crop availability elsewhere that can only be made up by converting forest to agriculture. When the conclusions of the model are driven by the assumptions, they should be seen as logically invalid.

CBO Calculates Ethanol’s Impact on Food Prices

According to a newly released Congressional Budget Office report, ethanol contributed between 0.5 and 0.8 percentage points (10-15 percent) of the overall 5.1 percent increase in food prices between April 2007 and April 2008. That estimate is considerably lower than previous estimates. The report also calculated the increase in costs for federal food aid programs, which was the initial reason that Reps. Ron Kind (D-Wisc.), Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), and James McGovern (D-Mass.) requested it.

Despite that purpose, the Grocery Manufacturers Association, American Meat Institute, National Turkey Federation and National Council of Chain Restaurants were quick to publicize the report in their anti-ethanol Food Before Fuel campaign.

However, the report leaves a very large question open about the true causes of food price increases. The CBO notes that energy costs contributed another 1.1 percentage points (22 percent) to the 5.1 percent increase. That means that 3.2 percentage points (roughly two-thirds) are unaccounted for. And note, the 5.1 percent rise came on top of 2.5 percent and 4 percent food price increases in 2006 and 2007.

The other cited causes of increased food prices are growing global demand for meat, the depreciation of the U.S. dollar, which made U.S. corn cheaper than overseas corn, and speculation in corn futures due to expected poor harvests and overall hype about demand for corn. Is it possible that ethanol’s impact on food prices is much lower than the impact of certain groups simply raising food prices?