Biofuels are accelerating the food crisis — and the climate crisis, too

It’s crazy to put more food in our fuel tanks when there’s a war on. Or when there isn’t.

A tractor in a field harvests corn and transports it to a trailer
(Patrick Pleul/Picture Alliance via Getty Images)
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Ukraine has stopped exporting its grain because it’s at war. Russia’s customers have stopped buying its grain because it started that war. Famine is stalking East Africa, where a brutal drought has ravaged harvests — and now the region can no longer supplement its production with Ukrainian and Russian imports. Drought is also parching farms in the United States, especially in the West and the southern Plains — another contributor to higher food prices and growing food shortages.

The United Nations was warning even before the war in Europe’s breadbasket that the world faced unprecedented catastrophic levels” of food insecurity, and now that global food prices have reached an all-time high, we’re facing the worst food crisis since 2008. It’s a weird time to divert more grain from the food supply to fuel tanks.

In Washington, though, it’s always time to divert grain from food to fuel. President Biden visited Iowa corn country last week to announce he’s allowing more corn ethanol to be blended into gasoline this summer, a move designed to save drivers 10 cents per gallon at a time of painful prices at the pump. It will also make food more expensive at a time of painful prices at the supermarket, but it will surely please a lot of farm lobbyists and Midwestern politicians.

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The amount of corn it takes to fill an SUV with ethanol could feed a person for a year, and the U.S. and Europe could immediately replace the lost grain exports from Ukraine’s breadbasket by cutting their biofuel production in half. So it’s pretty obvious why this food crisis is a dumb time to accelerate biofuel production. In fact, a bunch of studies have confirmed that biofuel mandates were a leading driver of the 2008 food crisis, driving up prices by driving up demand for grain and vegetable oil.

The thing is, the reasons biofuels are dumb when the world is freaking out about its food supply are the same reasons most biofuels are always dumb: Land is much more efficient at growing food than growing energy. Using land to grow fuel induces the clearing of additional land to grow food, wiping out forests and other carbon sinks we need to save the climate. And for the foreseeable future, the world should always be freaking out about its food supply.

This was the theme of my first Eating the Earth column about food and climate, and fair warning: It’s going to be a recurring theme. No matter what ends up happening in Ukraine, the world will still face a long-term food crisis after the guns go silent. Farmers will need to grow 7 quadrillion additional calories every year by 2050 to feed the growing global population, and they’ll need to do it on a smaller agricultural footprint to avoid accelerating our long-term climate crisis. But humanity is currently on track to tear down another 14 Californias’ worth of forests to provide the farmland we need to grow the food we need.

In other words, our food and climate crises are largely land crises. We need the limited land on earth to produce massive amounts of food and store massive amounts of carbon. But thanks to misguided government policies, of which Biden’s latest agri-pander is a relatively innocuous example, we’re using more than 30 million acres of U.S. cornfields, almost an entire Iowa worth of incredibly productive land, to grow modest amounts of fuel. 

Meanwhile, the European Union is pushing new climate policies that would devote as much as 20 percent of the continent’s farmland to growing crops for fuel and electricity, an area larger than Poland. The math just doesn’t pencil out. It would take about 30 percent of the world’s crops to provide just 2 percent of the world’s energy, which would drive up food prices, speed up deforestation and ratchet up carbon emissions. The only thing most biofuels do well is funnel extra cash to farmers.

Let’s be honest: What Biden is doing is not an economic or environmental catastrophe. He’s suspending a rule so that U.S. filling stations can sell gas with 15 percent instead of 10 percent ethanol for a couple of months, which might create a bit more smog, food inflation and natural destruction. But it’s just a temporary tweak. 

The real catastrophe is the world’s broader commitment to farm-grown energy, embodied in the U.S. Renewable Fuel Standard, which mandates that 15 billion gallons of ethanol be blended into fuels each year, as well as Europe’s push for even more ambitious bioenergy mandates. If we were really serious about our long-term food and climate crises, we wouldn’t keep using productive land to grow fuels that make both crises worse.

You come out against ethanol, you are dead meat”

Ethanol is the most common form of alcohol, the fermented magic in beer, wine and liquor. It’s also a functional automotive fuel that powered the first prototype of the internal combustion engine and was once touted by Henry Ford as the future of transportation. He was wrong — gasoline turned out to be much more efficient. But over the last few decades, corn ethanol has carved out a modest role in U.S. fuel markets because powerful politicians have seen it as a miracle elixir for agricultural prosperity.

Farm-state congressional leaders such as Bob Dole (R) of Kansas, Tom Daschle (D) of South Dakota and former House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R) of Illinois — who became an ethanol lobbyist before he went to jail over a sexual abuse scandal — repeatedly pushed through protective tariffs, tax breaks and lavish subsidies for ethanol. And presidential candidates have sucked up to ethanol interests during Iowa’s first-in-the-nation caucuses so shamelessly and predictably that an entire episode of The West Wing lampooned the quadrennial spectacle. 

You come out against ethanol, you are dead meat,” political aide Josh Lyman warned future president Matt Santos. Bambi would have a better shot at getting elected president of the NRA than you’ll have of getting a single vote in this caucus!”

Santos thought ethanol was ridiculous, but he supported it publicly, and so has every nonfictional president since Jimmy Carter. George W. Bush enacted and expanded the Renewable Fuel Standard. Barack Obama of corn-rich Illinois preached the biofuels gospel too. Donald Trump pandered even harder to his farm-state supporters, approving year-round 15 percent ethanol (the new standard was eventually struck down in court). Biden and his ethanol-loving agriculture secretary, former Iowa governor Tom Vilsack, are just following tradition.

Even environmentalists initially supported the Renewable Fuel Standard. Renewable” sounded sustainable, and biofuels seemed like the only viable alternative to gasoline. There were no electric vehicles on America’s roads in the Bush years, and the future prospects seemed so bleak that a 2006 documentary was titled Who Killed the Electric Car?

Today, of course, electric vehicles are almost universally acknowledged as the real future of transportation. Even many boosters who once dreamed that biofuels would provide all transportation fuel now focus more on serving the hard-to-electrify aviation and shipping industries.

The question is whether biofuels are any greener than fossil fuels. They’re certainly not more efficient. Fossilized plants from millions of years ago have much higher energy density than fresh plants, and the corn ethanol production process uses almost a gallon of fossil fuel for every gallon of gasoline it displaces. Still, even though planting, plowing, fertilizing, harvesting, fermenting and distilling corn produces far more emissions than extracting and refining oil, the prevailing science before 2008 found ethanol to be slightly better for the climate than gasoline because growing corn on a farm absorbed the carbon emitted by burning ethanol in an engine.

The problem was that when cornfields were used to grow fuel, farmers needed to clear more carbon-absorbing natural land to replace the lost food production capacity. A 2008 paper in Science revealed that when this indirect land-use change” was taken into account, corn ethanol and other farm-grown fuels were much worse for the climate than gasoline. That year’s food crisis basically confirmed the findings, as the ethanol boom depressed U.S. corn exports, which encouraged Brazilian farmers to plant more soybeans on former pastures to replace the missing grain, which encouraged Brazilian cattle ranchers to deforest the Amazon at record rates to create new pastures. More recent studies have confirmed that while biofuels made from crop residues or other waste products can help the climate, using productive land to grow fuel is a climate disaster. 

The biofuels industry can still point to studies that find climate benefits, but what those studies all have in common is that they downplay the danger of land-use change — by assuming that biofuels will be grown on unspecified marginal lands” that wouldn’t be able to grow food, or that biofuels will somehow inspire farmers to grow so much more food on their existing farms that they won’t need to clear more land, or, ironically, that biofuels will increase food prices so much that the global poor will eat less, a rather ugly source of climate benefits. In fact, the U.S. government’s modeling justifying ethanol as a climate solution generated all of its greenhouse gas savings from reduced food consumption abroad. 

In the context of the global land crunch, the science of biofuels is not as complex as some scientists make it sound. The world has committed to ending deforestation by 2030 to help keep warming below 2 degrees Celsius, and there’s a broad consensus that limiting warming to 1.5 degrees would also require a massive campaign of reforestation by 2050. At the same time, the world is already devoting an area the size of Texas to growing fuel, even though more land for farming means less land for forests, wetlands and other natural ecosystems. The twin problems of agricultural expansion and deforestation are currently getting worse, and many nations are planning to use even more crop-based biofuels to meet their renewable energy goals. There’s obviously a Texas-sized opportunity to free up scarce land for food production and carbon-friendly rewilding. 

But even the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the Nobel Prize–winning gold standard on global warming, has promoted bioenergy as a potential strategy to cut emissions, in part because researchers devoted to bioenergy have had so much sway at the IPCC. Felix Creutzig, a German physicist who oversaw the IPCC’s bioenergy work for its landmark 2014 report, told me ardent bioenergy supporters shot down his efforts to inject words of caution into their chapter. He and other biofuels skeptics on his team had to go to the Journal of Industrial Ecology to publish a critique of excessively rosy bioenergy analyses. 

It’s a huge bias in science: People make a career investment in studying a technology, then they defend that technology,” Creutzig said. It’s a real problem.”

Sticking with bioenergy is easy — and dead wrong

Of course, there’s an even stronger pro-biofuels bias in the political arena. In the U.S., Biden has an opportunity this year to change the rules under the Renewable Fuel Standard, and even though he’s vowed to devote his entire government to climate action, there’s virtually no chance that he’ll try to roll back the ethanol mandate. 

In the European Union, the Fit for 55” plan to cut greenhouse gas emissions 55 percent by 2030 depends heavily on growing crops for fuel and burning trees for electricity — even though forest-grown power may be even more damaging than farm-grown fuels. If anything, farm and forestry interests are even more influential in Europe than in the U.S.

It’s understandable that policymakers are grasping for alternatives to fossil fuels during a climate crisis. It’s especially understandable during an energy crisis when renewable fuels can be a four-fer that address public anger about gas prices, reduce demand for Vladimir Putin’s petroleum, subsidize rural interests with outsized political influence, and at least sound like a step toward a greener world. Politically, bioenergy is usually the path of least resistance.

Right now, though, with corn prices up nearly 50 percent since the start of 2021, we’re confronted with the cost of using grain to fuel our cars rather than ourselves every time we buy cereal. And with the latest IPCC report portraying a world hurtling toward calamity, the cost of using land to grow energy rather than food or trees also ought to be starker than ever. Land is the only successful tool we have for growing the food we need to sustain us and storing the carbon we need to save us; fortunately, we now have better ways to produce energy.

Ultimately, the problem of saving the climate while feeding the world will not be solved by following the path of least resistance. We’ll have to do a lot of things that make powerful interests uncomfortable, and maybe some things that make all of us uncomfortable. The earth is our home, the only planet we’ve found with barbecue potato chips, breathable air and the NBA playoffs, and at some point we’ll have to be willing to make a few sacrifices to keep it habitable.

On the other hand: 10 cents a gallon!

Michael Grunwald is a bestselling author and an award-winning journalist who was a staff writer for The Boston Globe, The Washington Post, Time magazine and Politico Magazine. He is writing a book about the race to feed the world without frying the world.