Biofuels and concerns about rising food prices, hunger and competition for space

Biofuels and the tank-or-plate debateFor this article, I have selected the most critical perspective on biofuels and would like to investigate the connection between the cultivation of energy crops and the rise in food prices. For some years now, bioenergy has been confronted with the allegations that bioenergy is causing hunger in the world, and as a bioenergy enthusiast, I also have to deal with the darkest chapters of this, in my view, so promising, form of energy.

Of course, a critical article on this moral charge of bioenergy makes you vulnerable, but I believe that the blanket rejection of bioenergy due to the ongoing hunger problem (UN special envoy Jean Ziegler: “Biofuel production today is a crime against humanity. ”) is just as morally doubtful as a blind advocacy of Biofuels & Co. The problem of rising food prices around the world is very complex and I would like to take you on a short journey through the main arguments and opinions of this conflict. If the “specter of world hunger through bioenergy” is already raging, then it should at least be up to mischief on a rationally strengthened floor.

How seriously do we, as a responsible consumer, have to take care of world hunger, which may be accelerated by the increased cultivation of sugar and oil crops for bioethanol and biodiesel production.

Tortilla crisis - the birth of the "plate-or-tank debate"

The fact that the poorest people in our global population are always the fastest to be affected by global undesirable developments is nothing new and is a tragic irony that hurts all people who are not directly affected.

Immediately after graduating from high school and during my studies, I wanted to go to development aid, but was not accepted because I didn't have any studies and then because I lack the necessary work experience. Inexperienced workers are hardly needed when it comes to helping people to help themselves. I can understand that today, but back then I felt rather helpless with my desire to actively help.

Development of food prices price index FAO
Development of food prices between 1990 and 2012

The global food price crisis 2007 - 2008 and the resulting tortilla crisis in Mexico is, in my opinion, also the birth of the "tank or plate debate" and has given the hitherto very euphoric perception of bioenergy a first setback (followed by the Discussions about the Deforestation and ILUC). But what, viewed from a distance, were the reasons for the rapid rise in the prices of staple foods such as corn, rice or millet.

The increased demand for bioenergy in Europe and the USA was one of the reasons for the price increase of corn in Mexico. Since corn is also the main ingredient in tortilla production, the rapidly increasing price of this staple has led to demonstrations and furious protests by the Mexican population that have threatened their food base. A detailed article on Development of the global food crisis 2007/2008 has appeared on the website of the Movement for Socialism.

Tortilla crisis in Mexico due to rising food prices
Food price crisis 2007 leads to the totilla crisis in Mexico

In addition to the increased demand for bioenergy, other reasons for the price explosion are mentioned:

  • Consequences of crop failures and droughts
  • Expenses for fertilizers
  • Speculation on the commodity futures exchange (link to a Information paper on speculation on food by Oxfam)
  • Meat consumption increased significantly in China and India
  • Growth of world population

How influential were the individual factors assessed from different sides? According to the IFPRI model, the increased production of biofuels was responsible for at least 30 percent of the rise in corn prices between 2000 and 2007. Development NGOs and the United Nations, on the other hand, saw the increase in speculation on food as the main reason for the price increase. The study by Michael Schmitz (Professor of Agricultural and Development Policy, Justus Liebig University Gießen), which was published earlier this year and which examined the relationship between biofuels and the rise in food prices, sees only one in the increased demand for biofuels subordinate reason for the price increase of basic food. A Article on the studyby the Association of the German Biofuels Industry (VDB) has already been published on BiomassMuse.

The statement by Wolfgang Gruendinger (Democracy researcher and member of the Club of Rome's Think Tank 30), that one cannot blame all the undesirable developments in the international agriculture of bioenergy is, of course, balm for the battered heart of every proponent of bioenergy. With the accusation of bioenergy as a scapegoat, some of the harshest critics make it easy for me in my opinion. Gründinger sees above all the competition with meat production as the main cause of the price increase in food.

Further interesting details on the food crisis 2007/2008 can also be found in the successful one Review article on the topic of space competition in the German Wikipedia.

Rising prices always arouse resentment among consumers

For rising prices of food in Germany, the data of the Renewable Energy Agency (AEE) the cultivation of energy crops cannot be held responsible. And Daniela Thrän vom German Biomass Research Center (DBFZ) emphasizes that despite the increased share of bioenergy in Germany and Europe, there are large surpluses in grain production every year. If anything, growing competition between plates and troughs as food and feed can be observed, which in turn agrees with Wolfgang Gründinger's thesis that growing meat consumption leads to an increase in competition for agricultural land.

A press release published earlier this week by the Biogas Association "Biogas with no impact on grain prices“Takes a stand on the accusation of rising food prices due to biogas and sees the arable land currently being cultivated in Germany for the cultivation of energy crops as no threat to the cultivation of food.

What should not be forgotten in the whole debate is the distinction between biofuels as an energy source on the one hand and the cultivation of energy crops on the other. It is all too easily considered identical and the reputation of biofuels suffers from the allegations. Strictly speaking, biofuels are not the same as biofuels, and of course the manufacturers adapt to the wishes or demands of society and consumers. In the medium term, biofuels will be produced from residues (Cellulose ethanol) increasingly help to relieve the feared competition for land with food production.

I don't find the price increase of a product immoral at first and it is often the logical result of the increased demand for a product or the result of an improvement in its quality. Of course, no consumer is happy about the price increase of a product. The question is who benefits from the price increase for agricultural goods and whether there is someone who suffers unreasonably badly from it. At least farmers around the world are often grateful that they can finally achieve higher income for their crops and that the sideways movement for arable crops, which had lasted for decades, could finally be broken.

However, basic foodstuffs should be viewed very critically as “commodity” and a special position should be created for them in order to prevent wild market speculation on these essential goods. In international comparison, we also have strong consumer protection in Germany, which unfortunately does not apply to all countries.

Mountains of butter and milk lakes - already forgotten?

In 2003, 194.000 tons of skimmed milk powder and 223.000 tons of butter were stored in the European Union, which led to the figurative terms of the "milk lakes and mountains of butter". It is not so long ago that the EU subsidy policy led to a strong agricultural overproduction, the prices for agricultural goods were low and the amount of waste was large.

According to the FAO, a third of the food produced for human consumption worldwide is still lost or thrown away. This is despite the fact that EU stocks have been completely used up since 2007 due to increased demand. A BMELV study from February of this year comes to the conclusion that almost 11 million tons of food waste are still generated in Germany every year.

Not all hunger in the world can be reduced to distribution problems, but the numbers show that we still have great potential to fight hunger when it comes to the distribution of the food we grow.

Approaches and conclusion for the area competition of food and energy crops

In conclusion, I would like to introduce a few points that hopefully can help to solve the competition for land between the cultivation of food, feed, energy crops and plants for material use and support the establishment of a balance between these usage paths for biomass.

Even the most read and experienced can not clearly grasp all connections and current developments on a very complex topic and there is always scope and responsibility for your own interpretation. On BiomassMuse there is already an article about the ongoing Conflict between optimists and pessimists regarding the effects of bioenergy appeared. For professional actors in the individual biomass industries, economic interests also play an important role in the moral assessment of the individual usage paths. As a blogger and bioenergy enthusiast, I feel committed to bioenergy and my horizons are drawn accordingly. I see a little more modesty in the absolute conclusions of the extreme pro and contra bioenergy stores as one of the most important points to move the tank or plate debate in a somewhat more constructive direction.

Differentiation is the key to any reasonable debate

It is counterproductive in my opinion to use biofuels as a scapegoat to calm the guilty conscience about the continued hunger in the world. On the other hand, one cannot take biofuels out of the picture as a whole, because there can always be regional deviations with sometimes dramatic consequences. But please name an industry in the area of ​​existential goods such as food, energy or water where there is no risk of undesirable developments due to structural market changes.

Basically, we should ask ourselves which biofuels (and there are many types) we reject and which we want to support - differentiation is important! For example, a country can decide to forego imported biofuels if possible or to switch production to next-generation biofuels with high sustainability standards in the medium term. The fact that energy crops for biofuels must be obtained from sustainably managed land has been standard in Germany since the beginning of 2011 (Article sustainable bioenergy). In fairness, however, it must be admitted that Germany is one of the world's pioneers in the application of sustainability standards for biofuels. Someone always has to start.

Cascade use strengthens the area efficiency of arable land

Cascade use of biomass is a concept that is also receiving increasing attention in political strategy papers. Cascade use means that biomass should be used with the following priorities:

  1. Biomass for nutrition
  2. Biomass for material use
  3. Biomass for energy use

This setting of priorities shows that parallel or series application paths for cultivated biomass can be very promising and that organic substrates that were previously considered to be waste (agricultural waste, green waste, food waste, wood waste etc.) contribute to increasing the biomass value chains through the use for bioenergy production can. The emerging concepts for Biorefineries make sure that the valuable biomass is used as efficiently as possible.

Next generation bioenergy loosens area efficiency

Next generation biofuels promise a significant improvement and the dissolution of many Conflicts over bioenergy.

The speed of launching next generation biofuels also depends heavily on how intensely we use them Research and production in Germany promote. Just a few days ago, the largest facility, a demonstration facility, became Manufacture of cellulose ethanol commissioned in Straubing, Bavaria.

Photo combine and tractor
Agricultural production grows through the use of agricultural machinery

Without access to fuels, there is little increase in agricultural productivity

Many countries cannot afford a nationwide fuel supply based on petroleum and are therefore stuck in agricultural production systems that have hardly developed for decades or even centuries. Operating machines to increase agricultural productivity (combine harvesters, tractors, choppers, etc.) requires energy and fuels that are currently not affordable for many rural regions in developing countries. Instead, they work with a hand plow and draft animals, which only exploit the yield potential of the existing arable land to a very limited extent.

There are already articles on BiomassMuse Bioenergy on the African continent (Eg Botswana, Kenya or Tanzania) or the Indian subcontinent , which show that bioenergy in these countries is seen as a great hope for building and securing a nationwide energy supply and increasing agricultural productivity.

In rural areas of developing countries, biofuels (vegetable oils in the short term and bioethanol and biodiesel in the medium term) can ensure that an automobile or an agricultural machine can be driven at all. The mechanization of agriculture has many advantages and, for example, means that more land can be ordered with less manpower / time. Many agricultural production processes (plowing, harvesting, etc.) can be carried out much more efficiently with the help of machines operated with biofuels.

Of course, building a machine-operated fleet costs capital and agricultural investment cannot be achieved without investment. An important question is who wants to invest in African agriculture, for example, so that it becomes more productive and no longer has to fear the dumping prices for agricultural goods in industrialized countries? I think the start of pilot projects for the construction of decentralized oil mills for the production of vegetable oil (eg from jatropha) is a great development project that complies with the principle of “helping people to help themselves”.

There are many opportunities for cooperation between technology leader countries and countries with great agricultural and bioenergetic potential and I already have an article on Win-win situations in the field of mini biogas plants written.

More information on bioenergy from the pro-bioenergy group is important

Many players in the pro-bioenergy group in Germany wonder why the development of bioenergy is not progressing as quickly as, for example, the expansion of photovoltaics or wind energy. Apart from that Biogas industry, which currently keeps the bioenergy lantern on, the expansion of liquid and solid bioenergy is comparatively slow or even declining (Biodiesel in Europe). Since I follow the public debate about bioenergy very intensively, I am not surprised at this snail's pace. A very important reason for the slow progress is that the industry itself is very hesitant when it comes to effective educational work in the big media.

The contra-bioenergy group is so aggressive or, as far as I am concerned, involved in the spread of horror reports that at least some of the consumers are greatly unsettled by this superiority of negative headlines. The debate is partly rooted in the fundamental question of whether bioenergy is a benefit for our modern energy supply at all, instead of asking more constructively which bioenergy has the most advantages for which location. The benefits of bioenergy must be promoted much more strongly here!

We need biofuels to solve the dependency on petroleum in the transport sector and for climate protection, because we are unlikely to say goodbye to the automobile in the short term and car-sharing concepts or e-mobility are not drop-in technologies that are affordable in the short term.

Unfortunately, many companies in the bioenergy sector have so far been little active when it comes to launching bioenergy awareness campaigns. I would like the financially strong industry players to be much stronger against criticism in terms of maizeing, rising rental prices, engine damage caused by E10 or, in some cases, very unilateral, but not unjustified moral allegations about bioenergy Defend (tank or plate discussion, rainforest deforestation etc.) in the media. Sometimes it seems to me that many market players see this social debate only as a disgusting disease, which is best cured by not talking about it. In many cases this may work well, but I am not sure whether it would be more sensible and more successful in this case to take a somewhat more offensive approach to the educational debate. I believe in the power of more information, above all, because bioenergy also brings with it many advantages that are unfortunately only marginally mentioned in the current public debate by the media with the highest circulation. So that should be it with the pinch of criticism of the bioenergy industry and I hope for us that we will head back to brighter times, especially with biofuels in Germany!

What do you think about the conflict between growing food and energy crops. Is bioenergy one of the main problems for hunger in the world or is it part of the solution?

6 comments on “Biofuels and concerns about rising food prices, hunger and competition for space”

  1. Unsustainable land use and land grabbing in, for example, Africa, wrong and correct development aid and all of our other issues are so complex that many “opinion leaders” simplify the context in order to be heard at all.
    This is a problem, because simplifying in many cases means correcting how you write correctly, falsifying, omitting or shortening it. It is clear that every decision, no matter how carefully, for a future technology entails undesired side effects, perhaps at the other end of the world. That is part of the price we have to pay for globalization.
    I have another Perspective on the food shortage:

  2. I agree that the complexity of the energy transition simplifies the search for good solutions to problems Mastering this "major project" (Peter Altmaier), necessary and certainly indispensable in practice.

    A somewhat more cooperative way of dealing with the various interests, instead of being resentful and critical of people or being partially destructive in principle (“abolition of the energy transition”), is also a useful adaptation on the way to a successful energy transition. I do not know whether the "German fear" means that we Germans are quickly afraid of "doing something wrong" and therefore want to think through all the consequences very critically for this major national project. Perhaps it is just the effort to take a very sustainable approach (ecologically, economically and socially acceptable) to long-term decisions and investments.

    An interesting perspective is whether the energy turnaround is currently paralyzing because the cart is really stuck in the dirt or because we simply choose a very steep path that is tough and lengthy. But that now leads away from the specific topic / conflict of this article :-)

    Thank you also for the other perspective on the rise in food prices KWB the biomass heating. Fortunately, both perspectives coincide in the one conclusion that the globally rapidly increasing meat consumption / demand (China, India etc.) is more important in the competition for agricultural land than the biofuels. I also find the individual recommendations as a personal contribution to reducing this complex conflict inspiring: local buying, seasonal buying, (quality buying)

  3. At the end of June 2012, the Raiffeisen Association criticized the increasing maize cultivation for "bio" gas production in Germany. This will reduce the remaining grain supply by around 4 million tons this year alone, said the managing director of the German Raiffeisen Association (DRV), Henning Ehlers. According to the current estimate, the DRV expects a grain harvest without corn of 41,5 million tons. This does not meet the average demand of 41,8 million tons. Ehlers complained of a "politically promoted shortage of grain supply", which had to be compensated for by more imports of grain substitutes such as soy. The consequences are rising feed costs and thus a lower competitiveness of German agriculture, according to the DRV managing director.
    The decisive consequences, which Mr. Ehlers does not address, are rising costs for staple foods - not only in Germany, but above all in developing countries!
    The entire "bio" energy is simply a success of the agricultural lobby, which is paying dearly for this pollution ...
    In our opinion, it is not ethically justifiable to ferment food (so-called NawaRo = renewable raw materials) in “bio” gas plants for energy generation. According to experts, it is well known that such “bio” gas plants do not make a contribution to the energy transition (see the opinion of the scientific advisory board of the Federal Ministry of Agriculture, WWF study: Bio energy in large style (2011), NABU report Schleswig-Holstein 2011 or the statement "Bioenergy: Opportunities and Limits" by the Leopoldina Academy 2012 etc.) that these systems are environmentally harmful and are only a return mechanism (at the expense of the taxpayer) that contributes to the cost of food and thus promotes hunger in developing countries worldwide !

    Progoellheim protests against such an energy policy!


  4. Thanks for the numerous references to studies and expert opinions. However, I find it quite daring to combine the statement “biogas plants do not make a contribution to the energy transition” completely with these sources and thus to give the impression that the studies or ministries mentioned all agree with this very general statement. At least the BMELV and the WWF have a very differentiated opinion and strategy on (gaseous) bioenergy and are committed to the bioenergy they prefer. Just two weeks ago, BMELV Federal Minister Aigner inaugurated a new research biogas plant in Leipzig and I see Ms. Fleckenstein (Head of Agriculture at WWF) regularly at events, as she campaigns for ECOLOGICALLY SUSTAINABLE bioenergy (especially biofuels). The study mentioned, which the Leopoldina published yesterday, sees, as far as I know, above all the high meat consumption as the driver for rising food prices and increasing competition for arable land.

    If you see the success of the organic industry as the success of the agricultural lobby, then that may be true, but the negative sentiment towards bioenergy in parts of the oil and environmental lobby is also very successful. Here the proponents and opponents of bioenergy really take little. The aim should be that we give those who believe in the potential of bioenergy the chance to contribute to the preparation for a world post-oil with the help of constantly improved concepts for biogas & co. The bioenergy enthusiasts or advocates are not all “greedy capitalists” who go for a slightly higher return on corpses and environmental damage. Often the use of bioenergy is also simply a Conflict between ecological and social responsibility. Anyone who does not believe in the potential of biogas and bioenergy does not have to use it and can work for the energy transition of their choice.

    Unfortunately, you (Koch / Waltgenbach) and I judge bioenergy differently and we will probably not be able to convince each other with simple arguments on such a complex topic. However, I believe that with our wish to make the world a little fairer and, if you like, “better”, we are not that far apart. More togetherness, less against each other, would be my wish when shaping the energy and raw material transition. What's yours

  5. Hello Ron,
    first of all thanks again for your contributions, I always like to read it. Of course, the discussion about plates vs. Tank very difficult and fraught with prejudice. Many people see a corn or rapeseed field and think: "Another area that is 'wasted' on bioenergy." The fact that the biogas plant is only one possible customer for the farmer and that the decision is often made relatively late as to whether the rapeseed will be used as fuel or food is often not considered. Of course, the price often decides in the end, but that is also good for the farmers and the rural areas etc.

    I have often asked myself how much (arable) area bioenergy actually consumes in different regions of the world. That would also be good to know for various discussions. :) In Germany in 2011 it was roughly 17% of the arable land, i.e. almost 2 million ha. Which is quite a lot in relative terms. Worldwide, around 30 million hectares are currently supposed to be used with a global agricultural area of ​​almost 5.000 million hectares. For example in South America, Asia, Africa etc. - there where the competition for land for food production is higher and more noticeable due to the increasing population and sometimes poorer soils.

  6. Thank you Felix for your interesting comment and that you check regularly at BiomassMuse :-)

    I learned a lot from your comment. The relative figure of 17 percent arable land for the cultivation of energy crops in Germany is an impressive number and shows a clear trend. The areas used for forestry have probably not been taken into account in this statement - have they?

    Germany and Europe are certainly far ahead in the world when it comes to recording and statistical observation of their agricultural land. Developing countries in particular are unfortunately not yet well positioned here. I even hear from colleagues in Austria that they envy the existing figures in Germany a little, especially with regard to information on energy use.

    According to your figures (thank you!), The proportion of arable land used worldwide for the cultivation of energy crops is currently less than 1 percent. If you consider that Germany is the world market leader for biogas technology and the largest producer of biodiesel in Europe, this clear difference to the global distribution is hardly surprising.
    Where can I find information on land use in countries in Asia, Africa or South America? Good question.

    I don't have any statistics on hand either, but I would probably go to the FAO or the IFAD and hope that they have some current statistics.

    Best regards from Berlin, Ron

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