Keep on Fighting the Fuel-Food Fallacy

By Robert Vierhout | June 26, 2013

Earlier this year, in January, version zero of a report on biofuels and food security was published. 

The UN Committee on World Food Security requested this report. The work was carried out by a specially composed project team under the aegis of the High Level Panel of Experts on Food Security and Nutrition. The HLPE is based in the same building as the Food and Agriculture Organization.

The task given was to “conduct a science-based comparative literature analysis” assessing “the opportunities and challenges that biofuels may represent for food security so that biofuels can be produced where it is socially, economically and environmentally feasible to do so.”

The result was devastating. Not a single positive word on biofuels came out. It was almost 50 pages of accusations against biofuels. 

Considering the composition of the project team, carefully avoiding the participation of an expert favorable of biofuels, a balanced report could not have been produced. It reminded me of the way the inquisition worked in the Middle Ages. 

The version zero report triggered a lot of responses, some highly critical of the “analysis” presented. Even the FAO itself didn't like it.

A new version has now come to light and an extract was circulated to a small group of stakeholders (not me).

I was prepared for the worst. Remarkably it has become a much more balanced report. I don't know who drafted it, but I cannot believe it was the same group of experts. 

Still, there are statements in the summary that do not reflect reality. In this column I cannot address all the concerns I have, but there are two that need to be highlighted.

In the summary is stated “given the overwhelming use of feed and food crops, concern over competition between biofuels and food production has been particularly acute.” The report mentioned in another paragraph, “When crops are used for biofuels, the first direct impact is to reduce food and feed availability.”

Neither of these statements is objective.

I don't know what the researchers had in mind when they wrote “overwhelming,” but I personally would not want to characterize a net use of less than 3 percent of all cereals globally for biofuels as overwhelming. 

The second statement totally ignores the softening effect of animal feed production. It is remarkable, but the entire document does not mention coproducts at all. I have the feeling that the experts did not take the trouble to include in their analysis a 550-page FAO report from 2012 on biofuel coproducts that shows the importance of the distillers grains for the feed and food market. It is what I would call selective science.

The report becomes forced and implausible when the experts try to establish the isolated effect of biofuels on food prices “everything else being equal.”

This is what I would like to call nonsense science. It is simply not possible to design an equilibrium model that still has explanatory value if major factors in food price setting like energy price, climate, dietary habits, trade restrictions, labor, food waste and speculation are all kept constant. Certainly not if biofuel demand accounts for less than 3 percent of all cereals available: Illusion presented as scientific fact.

Reports like these need to be correct, impartial and balanced. Certainly peer-reviewed. If, however, simple facts like the impact of coproducts are left out of the assessment, the biofuel-food fallacy will continue to exist. 

Regulators and the public at large deserve a more honest assessment.

Author: Robert Vierhout