Clinton urges caution against increased biofuels production

By Kris Bevill | February 25, 2011

Former President Bill Clinton drew quick criticism from the ethanol and corn industries following remarks he made regarding biofuels during a speech delivered to attendees of the USDA’s Agricultural Forum on Feb. 23. While his comments concentrated largely on the potential effects of climate change to agricultural production, Clinton added that biofuels production could also affect food production.

“If you produce more biofuels, you produce less food,” he said. “Well, that means food prices will be even higher and we’ll have more food riots. And if you produce less, is there some other way to provide the fuel that will help you and the rest of the world and allow you to produce food in a traditional way and the demand will be so great you’ll still get a good price for it. These are things no one can answer with certitude but everyone should be talking about and not pretending that there’s inherent contradictions and dilemmas here.”

Growth Energy said Clinton’s concerns are “well-intentioned,” but called to his attention recent studies that have concluded biofuel crops can be grown without negatively affecting food crops. Additionally, the group made a connection to an effort close to Clinton’s heart—improving conditions in developing nations—and said ethanol production in the U.S. has helped to consume surplus amounts of domestic grain, preventing increased exports and thus allowing farmers in poor nations to continue to produce their crops. “There are over a billion acres of previously tilled farmland in poor nations that can be brought back into production as ethanol makes farming this land cost-effective,” the group stated. “Ethanol does not create food shortages, but instead gives these nations a way to get their own sovereign farming economies back on their feet so they can feed themselves.”

The National Corn Growers Association and the Renewable Fuels Association both pointed to data showing that U.S. ethanol producers consume about 3 percent of the global grain supply, adding that oil production should be blamed for rising food prices rather than biofuels. “With the continuing unrest in the Middle East and Northern Africa, it is imperative that we continue to support a homegrown fuel industry that helps keep our country safe and creates jobs,” the NCGA said in a statement. “The American farmer is very aware of the world’s rising demand for corn, and we will continue to meet those needs.”

“President Clinton is right that ethanol is a key to American energy security and we would welcome his support in advocating for the continued advancement and evolution of this industry to include a wide variety of feedstocks and technologies,” the RFA stated.

Clinton also touched on the controversial indirect land use change theory when he described the Brazilian sugarcane industry as an international example of the trade-offs he envisions Iowa corn growers must face when selling corn for feed or biofuels production. “They don’t tear down any of the rainforests,” he said. “You can’t grow cane on rainforest land. But because the Brazilians can get 9.5 gallons of biofuels out of cane sugar for every gallon of oil that goes through, there’s this insatiable demand. As a result, they are pushing a lot of the soybean growers and cattlemen off of the land with good topsoil into the marginal land, which is eroding the rainforest.”

Clinton ended his remarks by cautioning parties to think critically about the potential impacts of biofuels demand on food production while remaining focused on increasing domestic energy production. “I think the best thing to do is to say that we have to become energy independent; we don’t want to do it at the expense of food riots,” he said. “We’ll have to sit down year in and year out for the next 20 years and try to make intelligent decisions with a three- to five-year time horizon based on the best evidence we have in order to maximize the availability of good food at affordable prices and maximize our move toward energy independence.”