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Economist: Biofuel May Raise Food Prices

Nate Jenkins, Associated Press
LINCOLN, Neb. — Increased production of biofuels such as ethanol might help farmers’ bottom lines and address climate-change concerns, but it could inflate food prices worldwide, warns a former White House economist.

“Worldwide, especially in developing countries … food price increases are definitely something we’re going to have to come to grips with,” said David Sunding, who served on former President Bill Clinton’s Council of Economic Advisers.

Sunding, an economics professor at the University of California-Berkeley, spoke Monday to water experts at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s fourth annual Water Law, Policy and Science Conference.
(27 March 2007)

The future is not now for biomass ethanol industry

Bill Hord, Omaha World-Herald
The logistics of collecting and storing a million tons of corn stubble each year for an ethanol refinery are mind-numbing.

It would take 67,000 semitrailer loads to haul the baled stubble out of the field. That’s 187 truckloads a day, or one every eight minutes. To complicate matters, the need for trucks, machinery and manpower would come during harvest, already the busiest time of the year on the farm.

And that’s where a massive federal initiative into cellulosic ethanol may find its biggest bottleneck – on the farm.

“Naturally, the farmer says, ‘Wait a minute. I’ve got enough stuff in my field,'” said Lex Thompson, president of the Imperial, Neb., Young Farmers and Ranchers Association.

The question is whether farmers will harvest and sell the nongrain plant material, known as cellulose or biomass, to make the federal government’s plan for renewable fuels work.

…But farmer buy-in remains to be seen, said Imperial farmer Rod Johnson.

“Our main concern is $4-per-bushel corn (worth $750 to $800 an acre),” Johnson said. “Thirty dollars an acre for biomass is a minor concern for our operation.”
(27 March 2007)

Energy Companies Rethink Palm Oil as Biofuel

Arthur Max, Associated Press via Envrionmental News Network
Once, palm oil was seen as an ideal biofuel, a cheap alternative to petroleum that would fight global warming.

But second thoughts are wracking the power industry. Can the fruit of the palm tree help save the planet — or contribute to its destruction?

Environmentalists have long warned that many plantations in Indonesia and Malaysia, where 85 percent of commercial palm oil is grown, were planted on cleared rain forest, threatening the home of endangered animals like the orangutan and the Sumatran tiger.

Now, amid global efforts to curb emissions of greenhouse gases, power companies have joined conservationists in calculating the carbon count of producing palm oil fuel — and found the balance increasingly negative. A few companies have put plans on hold to switch to palm oil.
(27 March 2007)

Five years to save the orang utan

David Smith, The Observer
A shocking UN report details how the booming palm oil industry is wiping out one of man’s closest relatives as its forest habitat disappears.

The Orang Utan, one of man’s closest and most enigmatic cousins, could be virtually extinct within five years after it was discovered that the animal’s rainforest habitat is being destroyed even more rapidly than had been predicted.

A United Nations report has found that illegal logging and fires have been overtaken as the primary cause of deforestation by a huge expansion of oil palm plantations, which are racing to meet soaring demand from Western food manufacturers and the European Union’s zeal for biofuels.

Palm oil is seen by critics as a cautionary tale about good intentions. As a vegetable oil it can enhance a healthy diet, and as a biofuel it can reduce carbon emissions which contribute to climate change. Yet it transpires that humans’ pursuit of an ethical lifestyle could inadvertently mean a death sentence for one of the great apes. ..
(25 Mar 2007)

If we want to save the planet, we need a five-year freeze on biofuels

George Monbiot, Guardian
Oil produced from plants sets up competition for food between cars and people. People – and the environment – will lose
It used to be a matter of good intentions gone awry. Now it is plain fraud. The governments using biofuel to tackle global warming know that it causes more harm than good. But they plough on regardless. In theory, fuels made from plants can reduce the amount of carbon dioxide emitted by cars and trucks. Plants absorb carbon as they grow – it is released again when the fuel is burned. By encouraging oil companies to switch from fossil plants to living ones, governments on both sides of the Atlantic claim to be “decarbonising” our transport networks.

In the budget last week, Gordon Brown announced that he would extend the tax rebate for biofuels until 2010. From next year all suppliers in the UK will have to ensure that 2.5% of the fuel they sell is made from plants – if not, they must pay a penalty of 15p a litre. The obligation rises to 5% in 2010. By 2050, the government hopes that 33% of our fuel will come from crops. Last month George Bush announced that he would quintuple the US target for biofuels: by 2017 they should be supplying 24% of the nation’s transport fuel.

So what’s wrong with these programmes? Only that they are a formula for environmental and humanitarian disaster. In 2004 I warned, on these pages, that biofuels would set up a competition for food between cars and people. The people would necessarily lose: those who can afford to drive are richer than those who are in danger of starvation. It would also lead to the destruction of rainforests and other important habitats. I received more abuse than I’ve had for any other column – except for when I attacked the 9/11 conspiracists. I was told my claims were ridiculous, laughable, impossible. Well in one respect I was wrong. I thought these effects wouldn’t materialise for many years. They are happening already.

Since the beginning of last year, the price of maize has doubled. The price of wheat has also reached a 10-year high, while global stockpiles of both grains have reached 25-year lows. Already there have been food riots in Mexico and reports that the poor are feeling the strain all over the world. The US department of agriculture warns that “if we have a drought or a very poor harvest, we could see the sort of volatility we saw in the 1970s, and if it does not happen this year, we are also forecasting lower stockpiles next year”. According to the UN food and agriculture organisation, the main reason is the demand for ethanol: the alcohol used for motor fuel, which can be made from maize and wheat.
(27 March 2007)
Also at Common Dreams.