Guster, biofuels, and crimes against humanity

I'm spending most of my time these days working to try to make sure the comprehensive energy bill being reconciled by the House and the Senate includes a robust renewable fuels standard that drives the industry forward and sets clear environmental safe guards and performance standards so that the competition is about benefits not just volume. So imagine my surprise when I read recently that a UN "expert" has decided that all biofuels made from crops grown on good agricultural lands are a "crime against humanity."

Jean Ziegler is the UN's Special Rapporteur on the right to food and he's called for a five year moratorium on the production of biofuels. He argues that within five years, the technologies to grow biomass unfit for agriculture and convert it into fuel will be available. The Independent quotes Ziegler as pointing to the one-year doubling of wheat prices and quadrupling of corn prices as evidence that biofuels are increasing hunger around the world.

"It's a crime against humanity to convert agricultural productive soil into soil ... which will be burned into biofuel," says Ziegler.

Interestingly Ziegler points to a UN Food and Agriculture Organization report that estimates that 100,000 people are dying of starvation every day and 854 million are chronically undernourished. But apparently, according to Ziegler the same report also estimates that we could feed nearly 12 billion people. So clearly the problem isn't a lack of food or a lack of arable land; the problems are politics, policy, and economics. (See my three part summary of a great write up on the land availability question: Part 1, 2, 3

Unfortunately, global warming is also claiming lives--not as many as least not yet and a moratorium against biofuels isn't going to solve hunger. In fact, at least some advocates against international hunger have pointed their finger at low commodity prices (due to US and EU subsidies) as a major contributing factor to farmers in developing countries not being able to make a living and thus those countries not being able to feed themselves.

Of course, biofuels alone aren't going to solve global warming either, and the economic dynamic that Ziegler points to in worrying about the arable land instead of the food crop per se is also critical to the potential benefits of biofuels. The upward pressure on land prices can also drive the clearing of natural forests and result in the release of the carbon currently stored there. This can be caused directly by crops for biofuels being grown on cleared forest lands or indirectly by just by land prices going up. I've written about this issue before, here, and unfortunately the solution is not simple. We need to account for these direct and indirect GHG emissions, we need certification and policies (such as a low carbon fuel standard) that make GHG emissions the basis of competition, and ultimately we need international agreements to protect carbon and biodiversity rich areas of the world.

It's a similar complex mix of politics, policy, economic as is needed to solve world hunger. We don't have time to put the biofuels industry on hold and then hope that investors come back to it in a few years and a few years isn't going to magically protect world food prices from competition for land. The simple fact of the matter is that we have to struggle through the complexity of solving global warming and global hunger at the same time.

What does all this have to do with Guster, my new favorite band? Not much really other than Adam Gardner and I both testified about the importance of getting biofuels right last week. So for your viewing pleasure, straight off NRDC's own