The current rate at which biofuels are falling out of favor is largely founded on biased ideologies, which have been shaped by widespread political and corporate agenda-pushing from all sides of the fence.
But first, a digression.
Part 1: When an egg was just an egg
I remember a time when an egg was just an egg. Nobody argued about that. It was a blissful time. Yet, for all its strengths, it was a fragile time held together by unsupported conclusions and limited knowledge.
Part 2: The Time of the Bad Egg
Like many a simple concept before it, the idea of an egg as “just an egg” was consumed in a storm of health consciousness and bad hair. I shall call this storm “the 80s.” Richard Simmons was sweating to the oldies, and cholesterol, it was determined, should be ripped from your body. Just like that, eggs were bad.
Part 3: The Time of Ambiguity; When an Egg is Only Halfway Decent if Eaten in Moderation
Luckily for us, we snapped out of the 80s. Sweatbands disappeared and Jazzercise faded from our collective memory. We got around to doing some research and found that there are such things as good cholesterol and bad cholesterol. Turns out you need some of both to remain healthy. And eggs were good again…. but only if you eat less than 7 a week.
Part 4: The Point
From a human health perspective eggs are confusing, and still not very well understood. They’ve been researched to death, yet we still don’t know exactly how they interact with the human body. The only thing I can say about eggs with any confidence is that in ten years time, new research will make the case for eggs even more confusing, yet people will still eat them.
And eggs are tiny.
Now scale up… no, go larger. Ah, that’s it, something Earth-sized.
In the last decade we’ve come a long way in our ability to measure and understand the Earth and how it works. We’ve realized that perhaps we do have an impact on our environment and that, indeed, there might be a limit to the amount of oil we can squeeze out of our planet.
But the more we’ve figured out, the harder it has become to separate the forest from the trees. The further along we get in trying to change how we power and energize our world, the more we see an increasing global volatility in social, economic, and environmental interactions.
Is it all related, or is it a coincidence? Are biofuels driving up food prices or is it the beginning of the effects of human-caused global warming? Will biofuels even reduce our effect on global warming? Have biofuels, themselves, caused a spike in oil prices? Holy crap. I don’t know.
“Should I eat eggs or not?” you start to ask yourself.
Then, at just this moment — and like all good vultures, I might add — the opportunists begin to circle overhead, casting shadows on the scurrying populace below.
“How can I further my own group’s agenda given the current climate of confusion?” they ask. “I know, we’ll put egg whites in a box and sell them for ten times the price,” they chorus together.
And the politicization begins and the confusion gets worse.
So what does the latest crop of politicized findings tell us about biofuels, food prices and global warming?
On the topic of food vs. fuel:
- The United States Department of Agriculture tells us that only 3% of the global rise in food prices is due to the production of biofuels.
- The World Bank says that the production of biofuels has driven global food prices up 75%.
Well that certainly settles it, doesn’t it?
On the topic of global warming and energy conservation:
- The University of Washington and The Nature Conservancy point out that the impact of the production and use of biofuels on the environment depends on the type of biofuel and source of that biofuel.
- A climate decision makers survey conducted by Globescan pegs first generation biofuels (corn and soybean derived) at last place on a list of 18 strategies to reduce global warming. But It also puts second generation biofuels (switchgrass, garbage, and woody debris derived) at 8th place with 43% of the 1,350 expert survey respondents saying they could have a significant potential to lower carbon emissions.
Again, clear as mud.
On the topic of biofuels and rising fuel prices:
- OPEC president Chakib Khelil has said that 40% of the rising costs of fuel worldwide are due to the “intrusion of of bioethanol on the market,” although he hasn’t provide a rationale for his statement.
- The world’s four largest biofuels lobbies have countered Mr. Khelil, claiming that he is lying. Instead, they say that rising fuel costs are caused by a long list of items having nothing to do with the production of biofuels.
Are we sensing a trend here? Damn you, ideological vultures. Stop clouding my vision.
What conclusions can we draw from all this?
If not all biofuels have the same effect on global warming, how could they have the same effect when it comes to food prices? If biofuels only account for 1% of all the world’s fuel production, how can they account for 40% of the world’s rising fuel prices?
Do most people even know what a biofuel actually is? I mean, that sounds like a stupid question, but there’s a huge misconception out there which is driven by a lack of understanding: not all biofuels are created equal. I cannot stress this enough.
Listen to any newscast or radio show dealing with the topic of biofuels and you’ll hear a lot about “ethanol” or “biodiesel,” but you won’t hear a single peep about what type of ethanol or biodiesel it is.
To the average person, a biofuel is a biofuel regardless of whether it’s biodiesel or bioethanol, whether it comes from soybeans or switchgrass, or whether it’s derived from an algal pool or cropland. And this is exactly what the circling vultures want the average person to think. It makes it easier to push agendas.
Just like in the case of our lowly egg, biofuels started with the implicit assumption that they were good. “Of course they’re good” we thought “how could it be bad to grow our own fuel from renewable crops?”
But then the bad hair and the health consciousness set in. “Of course biofuels are bad,” came the conventional wisdom “they’re the root of all our problems.”
And this is where our egg analogy breaks down. You see, an egg is simply an egg. It will always be an egg. Sure, we can pump it with Omega-3s and stuff it in a box with added vitamins and minerals, but it’s still an egg. The source is always the same.
A biofuel can be a multitude of different things with very different sources depending on how it’s made and where it’s used. Unlike eggs, biofuels have ambiguity built-in. For someone to try and convince you otherwise is shameful.
The Take Home:
This built-in ambiguity means that all biofuels must be analyzed and judged independently: you can’t lump biofuels into a single category.
The truth about biofuels is complicated and not easy to explain in 30-second soundbites or 200-word articles. Understanding what they are and what they can accomplish takes some personal initiative.
So when you find yourself wondering whether biofuels are the harbinger of global doom or the bright light at the end of the tunnel, don’t let the vultures convince you that they know what the answer is.
Every single organization on the planet has an agenda to push. Because of the confusion and ambiguity surrounding the production of biofuels, it’s easy to twist the information to suit your message.
Truth is, nobody knows what kind of effect the production of biofuels is having on food prices, global warming, and rising fuel costs. Does that mean we should stop moving forward? No.
It is clear that the world needs some sort of energy solution. Will it be electric derived from solar, wave, wind, or geothermal? Will it be hydrogen? Will it be second generation biofuels? I’d be stupid to answer that question. More than likely it will be a complex combination of the above.
Until such time as we get to where we’re going, we’ll just have to wait and see what comes of it all. In the meantime, it’s important to do research and build markets for all of these things because one day we’ll be in survival mode and need one of them to stave off disaster.
Post related to food vs. fuel and climate change:
- USDA Says Ethanol Accounts for Only 3% of Increased Cost of Food
- How Green Are Biofuels? Comparison Chart [PIC]
- European Union Defends Biofuel Targets As Food Prices Soar
- “Perfect Storm” Inflating Food Prices Worldwide
- Biodiesel Myth (Or Fact?) #23: Biodiesel is Raising Food Prices
- Which is Worse: Exporting $1 Billion Per Week or Growing Fuel?
Image credits: Cloud picture from kevindooley‘s Flickr photostream. SeQuential gas sign from The Udall Legacy Bus Tour: Views from the Road Flickr photostream. Switchgrass picture from Doctor Swan‘s Flickr photostream. Bread from adactio‘s Flickr photostream. All images reproduced and altered under a Creative Commons license.