July 16, 2006

Could an Ethanol Boom Hurt the World's Poor?

Ethanol feedstock is usually human feedstock - meaning that most of the raw material for fermenting ethanol comes from food crops - corn, sugar cane, and grains. Because of this, the concern often arises that replacing fossil fuels with renewable fuels based on food crops would deprive the world's starving poor in favor of the super-consuming privileged classes.

There are many assumptions in the argument - that ethanol will always be made from food crops, that feedstock dedicated to fuel production would otherwise be used for food, that industry in poor regions of the world wouldn't benefit the economic and physical health in those regions.

The best debate I have seen on the subject has been posted by Laurens Rademaker of Biopact. In his article he responds to a presentation by the president of Washington D.C.-based environmental research group, Earth Policy Institute,

"This is shaping up as competition between the 800 million people in the world that own automobiles and the 2 billion low- income people in the world, many of whom are already spending over half their income on food." Lester Brown of the Earth Policy Institute

Laurens obviously disagrees and his point-by-point arguments make a persuasive case. Below is an excerpt but I recommend reading the full text of his position.


“Ethanol boom could hurt world’s poor” - BioPact strongly disagrees

Together with the UN's FAO, which thoroughly analysed the stakes long ago and which concludes that bioenergy and biofuels can cut poverty, provide energy to the poor, reduces oil import costs for developing country governments, and opens a unique economic opportunity to connect millions of poor energy farmers to a global market where they can sell their biofuels at great competitive advantage -- we obviously disagree with the Earth Policy Institute.

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