There continues to be much debate around the role that biofuels — specifically, corn-based ethanol — is playing in the global food crisis. Corn, but one of several grains that have seen x-fold increases in price, is too often equated with “grains” generally when talking about the biofuel effect. That said, there’s no doubting that some food crops that aren’t used to produce ethanol are being abandoned and replaced with corn, which would impact the supply and thus price of these other crops. But if that’s the case, one would think this would create more supply for corn and thus buffer price increases. Still, others say it’s not about food shortages as much as an oversupply of money in the market looking for a safe home, which would including a range of commodities including grains. This, they argue, has led to inflated grain prices despite generally stable global supply. And then there’s oil prices. We often seem to forget that agriculture relies heavily on oil for transportation, running farm equipment, fertilizers, etc… perhaps we’re not appreciating enough what $125 a barrel oil is doing to the price of grains.
Who knows — there are global complexities here that can’t be summarized in sound bites or pithy quotes. What most generally agree is that, despite this current crisis that appeared somewhat suddenly, using food crops for fuel production is not sustainable in the long term.
Still, there are groups that are using this current food crisis as an opportunity to put the kibosh on U.S. biofuel subsidies, incentives and — one would presume — production. Biofuels Digest reports today that the U.S. Grocery Manufacturers Association has launched a global PR campaign and recently put out a request for proposals to PR firms that can exploit the current window of opportunity to “change perceptions about the benefits of biofuels and the mandate.” (Hat tip to Rob Day for flagging this). In other words, they want to exploit the sound bites and pithy quotes that make it into mainstream newspapers and TV news reports. Tactics will include a viral marketing campaign calling for urgent action. The goal, according to the RFP, is to “build a groundswell in support of freezing or reversing some provisions of the 2007 Energy Bill and for the elimination/reform of ethanol subsidies and import restrictions.” Biofuels Digest calls the campaign an “anti-biofuels jihad” that is linked financially to John McCain and Republic senators who are against the U.S. ethanol mandate.
The same revolt is taking place in politicial circles in Canada, though there also appears to be a recognition that cellulosic ethanol is a solution that needs to be accelerated. Again, are we against ethanol or are we against a certain way of producing ethanol? The difference has to be emphasized in this debate before we make ethanol a scapegoat for a global food crisis it likely hasn’t caused, but certainly isn’t helping.