Sunday, April 13, 2008

Food vs. Biofuels

From Environment News Service:

British Prime Minister Urges G8 to Help the Hungry:

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown has called upon the Group of Eight, G8, to press international institutions such as the World Bank to take action on a growing crisis in global food prices, which have increased by an estimated 55 percent since June. […]

Food prices have risen sharply leading to food riots in several countries. Increased wealth and growing populations in developing countries contribute to steadily increasing global demand for grains, for food and animal feed, aggravated by rapidly increasing biofuel production," Brown wrote.

"Meanwhile, recent crop failures in major producing countries are reminders of the expected consequences of climate change, as the frequency and severity of extreme weather events increase in years to come," he wrote. "And the World Food Programme has highlighted that the increase in food prices will accentuate the food needs for the world's poorest people."

Angry Food Riots Are the New Face of Hunger:

Warning that spiralling food prices are leading to increased poverty and unrest, several senior United Nations officials are calling for urgent measures to tackle the global crisis, which is causing the most suffering among the world's poor.

The World Food Programme's deputy executive director is warning of a "new face of hunger" that will require the combined efforts of governments, the private sector, and humanitarian organizations to overcome.

"Food prices are now rising at rates that few of us can ever have seen before in our lifetimes," John Powell told the Dubai International Humanitarian Aid and Development Conference, DIHAD, a three day event that opened Tuesday at the Dubai International Convention Centre. […]

"World food prices have risen 45 percent in the last nine months and there are serious shortages of rice, wheat and maize," Dr. Jacques Diouf said today.

Director-General of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, FAO, Diouf was addressing the first Global Agro-Industries Forum in New Delhi, India.

A combination of factors, including reduced production due to climate change, historically low levels of stocks, higher consumption of meat and dairy products in emerging economies, increased demand for biofuels production and the higher cost of energy and transport have led to surges in food prices, he said.

Corn-Ethanol Crops Will Widen Gulf of Mexico Dead Zone:

The U.S. demand for corn-based ethanol will add to nutrient pollution in the Gulf of Mexico and expand the annual low oxygen "dead zone" that kills fish and other aquatic life, a computer model run by an international team of scientists shows.

In the first study of its kind, lead author Simon Donner of the University of British Columbia and Chris Kucharik of the University of Wisconsin-Madison modeled the effects of biofuel production on nutrient pollution in an aquatic system.

The researchers looked at the estimated amounts of land and fertilizer needed to meet future production goals for corn-based ethanol. […]

Not all of those billions of gallons of biofuels will be ethanol made from corn. An estimated 21 billion gallons will come from advanced biofuels, which can be produced using a variety of new feedstocks and technologies. Of this, roughly 16 billion gallons is expected to be from cellulosic biofuels, derived from plant sources such as trees, grasses and agricultural waste.

Still, Donner and Kucharik say their findings suggest that nitrogen loading from the Mississippi River into the Gulf of Mexico would increase by 10 to 19 percent, expanding the dead zone, which each summer already covers more than 7,722 square miles - an area equivalent to the size of New Jersey.

"This result confirms our suspicion that there's a significant tradeoff to the expanded production of ethanol from corn grain," says Kucharik, a scientist with the UW-Madison Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies. "It also shows that we need to continue considering our options for other biofuel feedstocks. And when we do, we need to keep the greater impacts on ecosystems in mind."

Tackle Environmental Problems Now or Pay More Later:

Solving four major environmental problems - climate change, biodiversity loss, water scarcity, and the health impacts of pollution and toxics - is both achievable and affordable, finds a new report by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, OECD, which includes 30 countries committed to democracy and the market economy.

Biofuels Could Add to Climate Concerns:

Clearing vast tracts of land for biofuels production would hinder, rather than help, the effort to slow global warming, according to two new studies released Thursday. Both studies warn that converting native ecosystems into biofuel cropland would result in major emissions of carbon dioxide, negating the environmental benefits of using biofuels rather than conventional fossil fuels.

New Global Forest Agreement Depends on Local Support:

High oil prices, the need for secure energy supplies and concerns over climate change have led to a new interest in bioenergy that could affect forests because forests occupy land which could be used for crops producing liquid biofuels. […]

"Despite the apparent benefits of biofuels, caution should be exercised when planning and implementing large-scale liquid bio-fuel projects," said Wulf Killmann, director of FAO's Forest Products and Industries Division.

"Governments should ensure that there are no serious negative impacts on the environment and society," he said.

Agro-fuel crops might expand into forests, generating land use conflicts and increasing deforestation, with implications for biological diversity, climate change and water.

The FAO called upon countries to develop their wood energy sectors in line with sustainable forest management concepts and to introduce safeguards for the production of liquid biofuels to avoid unwanted negative impacts on the environment and local populations.

U.S. Water Under Pressure as Ethanol Production Soars:

If U.S. ethanol production continues to rise, the effect on water quality could be considerable and water supply problems could develop, says a new report today from the National Academy of Sciences' National Research Council.

Increased pressure on local aquifers used to grow and refine corn into ethanol, high levels of nitrogen in groundwater from pesticides and fertilizers, and runoff pollution in streams and rivers are a few of the potential impacts, said the committee that wrote the report. […]

Water demands for drinking, industry, and such uses as hydropower, fish habitat, and recreation could compete with and constrain the use of water for biofuel crops in some regions.

Growing biofuel crops requiring additional irrigation in areas with limited water supplies is a major concern, the report warns. […]

The quality of groundwater, rivers, and coastal and offshore waters could be impacted by increased fertilizer and pesticide use for biofuels, the report says.

High levels of nitrogen in stream flows are a major cause of low-oxygen or "hypoxic" regions, commonly known as "dead zones," which are lethal for most living creatures and cover broad areas of the Gulf of Mexico, Chesapeake Bay, and other regions.

Earth's Vital Signs Faltering Under Burden of Human Pressure:

The world’s growing dependence on fossil fuels is fueling ecological destruction across the planet and threatening humanity’s future, according to a new study of trends released Wednesday by the Worldwatch Institute called "Vital Signs 2006-2007." The report paints a grim picture of the planet’s vital signs and warns that dramatic changes in the global economy are needed to fend off ecological, economic and social catastrophes.

“It is becoming ever more apparent that human society has a rapidly shrinking window of time to alter its path,” said Eric Assadourian, lead author of the study.

The Earth’s ecosystems and much of humanity are suffering from “business as usual,” Assadourian said, despite global economic indicators that convey a sense of rising prosperity and production. […]

Global economic numbers also fail to illustrate the living conditions for many on the planet and hide the increasing disparity between the rich and the poor.

“Many still live without the barest essentials,” Assadourian told reporters via conference call. “At what point where booming economic trends are no longer a sign of prosperity?”

The scope of the world’s poverty is severe – almost half of humanity lives on less than $2 a day.

The report notes that more than 1 billion people lack access to safe water and 2.5 billion people do not have access to decent sanitation facilities. […]

Unsustainable consumption patterns are straining the planet’s natural resources, the report said, and current trends offer little hope for improving the lives of the vast majority of the world’s population, which is estimated to grow to 8.9 billion by 2050. […]

The world chopped down 36 million hectares of forested areas between 2000 and 2005, Assadourian said, an area “bigger than the entire country of Italy.”

Supermarkets and Service Stations Now Competing for Grain:

Cars, not people, will claim most of the increase in world grain consumption this year. The U.S. Department of Agriculture projects that world grain use will grow by 20 million tons in 2006. Of this, 14 million tons will be used to produce fuel for cars in the United States, leaving only six million tons to satisfy the world’s growing food needs.

In agricultural terms, the world appetite for automotive fuel is insatiable. The grain required to fill a 25 gallon SUV gas tank with ethanol will feed one person for a year. The grain to fill the tank every two weeks over a year will feed 26 people.

Investors are jumping on the highly profitable biofuel bandwagon so fast that hardly a day goes by without another ethanol distillery or biodiesel refinery being announced somewhere in the world. The amount of corn used in U.S. ethanol distilleries has tripled in five years, jumping from 18 million tons in 2001 to an estimated 55 million tons from the 2006 crop.

In some U.S. Corn Belt states, ethanol distilleries are taking over the corn supply. In Iowa, a staggering 55 ethanol plants are operating or have been proposed. Iowa State University economist Bob Wisner observes that if all these plants are built, they would use virtually all the corn grown in Iowa. In South Dakota, a top 10 corn-growing state, ethanol distilleries are already claiming over half of the corn harvest.

With so many distilleries being built, livestock and poultry producers fear there may not be enough corn to produce meat, milk, and eggs. And since the United States supplies 70 percent of world corn exports, corn-importing countries are worried about their supply.

Food as a Human Right:

"If our planet produces enough food to feed its entire population, why do 854 million people still go to sleep on an empty stomach?"

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