One tankful of ethanol could feed a person for a year

Ethanol, the fuel mainly produced from agricultural crops like corn, will likely have disastrous effects on the environment. Deforestation and the massive use of chemical fertilizers are just the appetizers. But the environmental costs pale in comparison to the human costs. Lester Brown, president of the Earth Policy Institute, lays those out in a Fortune article:

The growing myth that corn is a cure-all for our energy woes is leading us toward a potentially dangerous global fight for food. While crop-based ethanol – the latest craze in alternative energy – promises a guilt-free way to keep our gas tanks full, the reality is that overuse of our agricultural resources could have consequences even more drastic than, say, being deprived of our SUVs. It could leave much of the world hungry.

We are facing an epic competition between the 800 million motorists who want to protect their mobility and the two billion poorest people in the world who simply want to survive. In effect, supermarkets and service stations are now competing for the same resources.

This year cars, not people, will claim most of the increase in world grain consumption. The problem is simple: It takes a whole lot of agricultural produce to create a modest amount of automotive fuel.

The grain required to fill a 25-gallon SUV gas tank with ethanol, for instance, could feed one person for a year. If today’s entire U.S. grain harvest were converted into fuel for cars, it would still satisfy less than one-sixth of U.S. demand.

This problem is especially acute in poorer countries, where farmers are shifting production from food to fuel crops, or simply taking food and selling it to fuel producers rather than food suppliers.

“Sugar prices have doubled over the past 18 months (driven in part by Brazil’s use of sugar cane for fuel)”, the article says, and “Malaysia, the leading exporter of palm oil, is emerging as the biofuel leader in Asia”, but has had to “suspend further licensing while it assesses the adequacy of its palm oil supplies”.

In Malaysia, as this 2004 article reports, there is an enormous gap between rich and poor.

Even within urban areas, a significant underclass has emerged as well over the decades. A few kilometers from Mariam’s kampong, at a sprawling squatter settlement next to an established industrial estate, conditions are dismal. A sizable number of undernourished children can be found in squatter areas and plantations, according to Nasir, a trained nutritionist. The telltale signs are underweight children, poor academic performance, and health problems. Invariably, many of the children drop out of school.

I wonder how Nasir the trained nutritionist feels about palm oil going into gas tanks instead of the mouths of undernourished children.

[tags]ethanol, renewable fuels, biofuel[/tags]

3 Responses to “One tankful of ethanol could feed a person for a year”
  1. alevo:

    This post forces me to revisit a book review that I encountered in the Financial Times this past weekend. I pondered over the following quote for a while, but wasn’t sure how to practically digest the thesis. Your example, of agricultural priorities and global wealth does help.

    The review was for two new books by Amartya Sen and Arjun Appadurai respectivley, and can be found at:


    The question raised is whether ethnic conflicts and the creation of ethnic faultlines (á la Sam Huntington) are actually a pre-condition for economic globalisation – as well as being exlicit political identity challenges.

    The persistance of agricultural imperialism in developing nations – presently in the name of progressive Western science – is certainly assisted when the domestic political and cultural identities of those regions can be easily dismissed by the colonizer (or more specifically, when those identities can be easily dismissed as unimportant compared to the best economic interests of Western culture).

    The quote:

    Appadurai raises a disturbing question about the demonising of religious and ethnic minorities: “Are we in the midst of a vast worldwide Malthusian correction, which works through the idioms of minoritisation and ethnicisation but is functionally geared to preparing the world for the winners of globalisation, minus the inconvenient noise of its losers?” He wonders if there is a worldwide tendency to arrange the disappearance of the losers in the great drama of globalisation.

    This may sound too apocalyptic. Nevertheless, Appadurai appears to have correctly intuited how economic globalisation, bringing great prosperity to some, and mere promises of it to most, is creating a whole new ideological and emotional climate. What he calls the “apparent link between imploding national economies, runaway financial capital and the role of the US as the main driver of the ideologies of business, market and profit” has provoked “a new sort of emotional cold war between those who identify with the losers in the new game and those who identify themselves with the small group of winners, notably the US”.


  2. Ade:

    Again, not to sound too apocalyptic, but I doubt the losers will be content with merely making an inconvenient noise, especially since the winners seem so few and ultimately so vulnerable.