back to article Do biofuels cause famine? EU President opens probe

The President of the European Commission Jose Manuel Barroso has asked for an investigation into whether the push for biofuels is to blame for rising food prices. The Commission seems in the process of shifting away from its previous unbridled support for the technology. It emerged last weekend that the Commission may cancel …


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  1. Anonymous Coward
    Paris Hilton

    Oh dear...

    Once again the EU leaps into something eco-friendly with out considering cause / effect. ..Excellent.

    Paris, because she'd know better.

  2. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Smoke and mirrors

    I keep thinking: "How much biofuel *is* there being made out of food crops? Really?" I get the arguments that using arable land to push Chelsea Tractors round is bad, and I think there probably *is* a shortage of staple foods (relative to, say, what a "normal" year would have been considered 5 years ago), but where's all this ethanol going? I don't buy it (either figuratively in the sense that current levels of biofuel land use are a major cause of food shortage, or literally in that I don't see biofuels for sale where I buy my petrol).

    I think changing food consumption patterns as China becomes more affluent and her people have greater aspirations are a far, far larger factor.

    Any numbers anyone?

  3. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Oil = Energy = Fertilizer

    Biggest impact I bet is the cost of energy. Fertilizer involves fixing Nitrogen from the atmosphere, lots of energy used for that. Then there's the shipping cost of goods, plus fertilizers, plus industrial agriculture, lots of energy used in that.

    Energy is expensive so price of food is rocketing.

    We should start reusing human fertilizer again perhaps.

  4. Mike

    Is this really so hard to figure out?

    So food prices are rising because biofuels are using up crops, thereby reducing the food available.

    How come we're still paying our farmers to have a 10% set-aside policy on farms then?

    I'll say that again. WE (the taxpayer) are PAYING farmers to NOT grow crops on TEN PERCENT of their land, so that WE (the consumers) can also pay MORE for our food.

    Hello? Could HMG please take heads out of trough/sand/arse* and maybe let the farmers grow the extra 1/9th (11%) of produce so at least WE (the British public) don't have to suffer as much as THEM (the rest of the world)


    *delete as applicable

  5. Nick Palmer

    @Smoke and mirrors

    Your mistake is in assuming that because you're not seeing pumps labelled "biofuel", you're not buying the stuff; you are, but mixed in with "regular" fuel. Since April of this year, all petrol and diesel sold from UK pumps has to include at least 2.5% biofuel, a target the government has stated will increase to 5% by 2010.


  6. Joe K
    Black Helicopters


    You mean that farmers selling their corn, for much more money, to fuel companies instead of food companies, is having some sort of effect on food prices, and civilisation as we know it??

    Who would have thought?

  7. Bronek Kozicki


    "... but where's all this ethanol going?"

    simply, it goes into gasoline and diesel fuel. All kinds of it. For more details see

  8. Steve Kelley

    Rapeseeding the Countryside

    As a resident of Kent where the fields were once sown with Wheat and Hops you'll now see field after field of Rapeseed.. let them make bread...

    EU Common Agricultural Policy paying farmers not to grow... time to get those farmers earning their cash for crops..

  9. Anonymous Coward

    Wrong conclusion

    The reality is that this planet's population cannot continue to expand indefinitely. Whether it be food or cooking fuel / heating or vehicle fuel it is all finite, and can only be juggle so far. The unpalatable truth is that it is far more sensible to manage the population than to micro-manage the earth's resources.

    Of course, one day we will be able to colonise Mars, and for a while we will all be able to relax, but that's still a long way off!

  10. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Wot no CAP probe?

    (A chad Icon would be good...)

  11. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Some numbers

    Looking at fertilizer prices, I think I'm right about the energy cost being the problem.

    Look at ammonia, 259 USD/Ton in 2006, now 463 (peeked at over 500). Almost twice the price. If you look further in 2000 it was about 100 USD a ton, as low as 64 USD/Ton in Feb 1999! *

    So I reckon I'm right, I don't think the world has suddenly switched to biofuels (have you ever seen a biofuel petrol pump???), causing a shortage of food, I think it's the insane energy costs driving up cost of agriculture and fertilizers.

    * Economies tied to the dollar lose out, ours (Euro zone) should be ok. 202 euros in 2006, to 296 Euros currently, so it's gone up but no where near as much as it has to the Americans.

  12. Paul Buxton

    No need for alarm

    I don't see the problem, there is plenty of food. 6 Billion people live on this planet - think Soylent Green.

  13. Matt

    I'm getting bored....

    We've been here before. There are loads of different ways to make bio-fuels from loads of different things (not to mention the difference between bio-diesel and bio-ethanol/petrol). You therefore can't lump them all together and say they're all bad without examining them indvidualy.

    On the other hand should we expect anything other than a knee jerk reaction from our political masters?

  14. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    "riots over food prices in Egypt, Haiti, Indonesia and Mauritania"

    Egypt, theoretically democratic, in practice autocratic/tyrannical

    Haiti, theoretically a mess, in practice a thugocracy/tyrannical

    Indonesia, theoretically an Islamic Republic, in practice autocratic/tyrannical

    Mauritania - WTF is that and why do I care? Tough to translate the CIA book of facts on this one, probably also tyrannical in practice.

    Looks to me like its more a government problem than a food or fuel problem, but YMMV.

  15. Paul Clark

    Put a rainforest in your tank

    The worst part about all this is that some the fuel is being grown on cleared tropical rainforest and peatlands, which causes hugely more CO2 emissions - not to mention loss of biodiversity, soil erosion, flooding etc. etc. - than whatever infinitesimal gain is supposed to come from not using fossil fuel. At the very least there needs to be an immediate ban on fuels from such places.

    Flames, because that's what Indonesia will look like if this isn't stopped soon.

  16. dervheid

    You can't...

    have your (bio-fuel) cake and eat it!

    I'm with Mike Re. set-aside.

    PAY farmers NOT to grow FOOD on some of the most fertile land on the planet?

    What complete FUCKWIT came up with that in the first place?

    Dear Jose Manuel Barroso.

    "Do biofuels cause famine?"

    Answer; YES

    Probe over.

    No charge!

    Now, get the bloody farmers back to FARMING!

  17. Mike

    Root cause?

    How about, stop feeding huge amounts of crops to cows which then get ground up for cheap, unhealthy fast food and feed the crops to people?

    Or we can carry on driving our fat asses in our SUVs to McBurger with the aircon on full, suck up another 2000 Kcals for breakfast and bitch about fuel prices like these things aren't related.

    Excess consumption or food for all, you decide.

  18. Joe Stalin

    Here's food for thought

    Robert Newman's History of Oil. This is very funny and thought provoking, the bit toward the end about population growth and the lack of oil to allow current farm practices, transportation, refriguration, artificial fertiliseres and such is quite scary.

  19. Graham Dawson Silver badge


    In theory we are, but DEFRA or MAFF or whatever it's called this week has cocked up the payments to our farmers. We're paying the French to do it, but our lot are having to set aside land - o comply with the rules requiring them to do so - and aren't getting paid for it. It's all disappearing into the pockets of consultants somewhere in Westminster.

    So, they've done what any sensible person would do in that situation and started farming industrial crops instead. Oilseed rape and flax don't count under set-aside. Which, incidentally, is why set-aside can't be used to boost biofuel production. it's already being used.

    Then of course there's the problem that the EU's requirement for 10% of our fuel to come from biofuels by 2020 (or 2015? I forget...). To produce that amount of biofuel we'd need to use all of our arable land - set-aside *and* the stuff currently used for food production. So we'd be entirely dependent on imports, at a time when food production has dipped due to the unusually cold weather, and pressure is being added from biofuels.

    There are many reasons for this happening, not least the weather, which saw China's crops devastated recently...

  20. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    @ Nick Palmer

    Thanks for that. I'd been thinking it remained "pie in the sky" pious promises to "do something". Looks like they were uncharacteristically swift off the mark there.

    Okay, so assuming that this level of compulsion has been applied across the Western (oil-burning) world, I can believe that there's been a sudden conversion of land to fuel production that would previously have fed the starving.

    I feel sick.

  21. dervheid

    @ Root Cause


    You HAD me on your side, then you just HAD to go all 'Veggie Warrior' on us!

    Look, you (clearly) don't eat meat - your choice.

    I eat meat - my choice.

    It's a bit like religion.

    Your preference is YOUR preference, please DO NOT try to force it onto ME!

    BTW. Steak for tea tonight. Medium rare. Yummy.

    Real Leather one, ta.

  22. Anonymous Coward

    EU Probes

    In other news :

    The EU has set up another probe into whether the pope is a catholic. Early indications that he is have been carefully elided from EU press releases so as not to prejudice the investigation.

    Finally, the € 20 million EU investigation into whether the moon was made of cheese, delivered its report recently. The answer is officially 'probably not', ending decades of pointless debate. However, the cheese afficionados vowed to continue the fight, pointing to areas in the report where more research was required to establish categorically either way.

  23. Mike

    The obligatory set-aside rate for the 2008 scheme year has been set at 0%

    Which means that no farmer *has* to set aside anything, so they can make extra cash and food if they want, but don't forget that turning all land into crops isn't that good for the environment and wildlife, set aside isn't just "not growing stuff" there's rules about you can and can't do on set aside to protect the natural habitat.

    We don't need to make more, we need to consume less.

  24. dervheid

    @ Mike.

    Reality Check;

    There are MILLIONS of starving people in the world.

    Farming is NOT a "Natural Habitat", it's MAN MADE!



    Granted we SHOULD be consuming less.

    But by the same standards we shouldn't be leaving fertile land unused when there's a shortage of food (percieved or real - different facet of the argument).

    Yes, I'm STILL looking forward to that steak. Cow's been grown, slaughtered and butchered, be a waste not to!

  25. Brampton Hut

    The Party's Over

    There is a book detailing the rise and fall of the Oil based economy called "The Party's Over", which charts the world prior to the discovery of oil. The synopsis is that the world could support just over 1B people with a "medieval diet", ie: mostly vegetables/cereals and some meat. When oil was discovered and uses found for it (internal combustion engine mostly) then people took advantage of the free energy to grow more food, which meant that the planet supported more people - to where we are today. There were some interesting parallels in the book - a man riding a horse consumes 7 times the basic energy than if he walked himself and something like over 400 times the energy if he drove a small car.

    You cannot create or destry energy, only change it's form. Whenever you change its form you create a byproduct of waste energy (noise/heat usually), so any conversion process is less than 100% efficient. Therefore you need to find the best method of converting your energy source into your desired effect in as few conversions as possible and make that conversion as efficient as possible.

    The upshot is that we cannot continue to make cars with inefficient engines and try to bend the energy process to suit the engine. We have to change our transport to suit our non-fossil fuel energy - be that wind/solar/water/hydrogen/electricity etc.

    Then perhaps we'll be able to feed the population as well as move about in some kind of transport.

    The upshot is that all governments need to be led on this by proper science - not special interest lobby groups, such as auto makers/farmers/energy companies.

  26. Daniel B.

    Why food crops?

    Not all biofuels are crop-based. There's the "bullshit gas", human waste ... hey, we could even do a double whammy: process city sewage, extract methane AND use the rest as fertilizer! Isn't it possible??? Surely using organic waste as a source lowers pollution while also helping the environment!!!!

    If everything fails, we can always have Soylent Green, and Soylent Petrol.

    "Biofuels are made of people!!!!"

  27. Mike


    You get me wrong my friend, I love meat, humans are designed to be omnivores, not vegitarians, it's very difficult to get all the vitamins and minerals from a vegan diet, you really have to try.

    Intensive farming and feeding high quality feed produces meat with a very high carbon footprint, using grass would be much better for the CO2, but you'd need

    more space, which we don't have because of the high demand for meat, if we consumed less (generally) then we could drop back to feeding cows on grass (which they are designed to eat), arguably healthier meat, better for the environment and more grain available for humans.

    Good luck with your steak tonight, let hope there's not too many antibotics, hormones, pesticides and heavy metals which made it so big and juicy, I'm having an organic free range chicken, not one of those growth enhanced mutant chicks that can't even walk, it will do the two of us for two days, cost five quid more but think it costs more not to.

    Meat should be a healthy addition to a healthy diet not just an excessive amount of cheap unhealthy protein which means that other people go hungry.

  28. Brampton Hut
    Thumb Up

    @ Daniel B


    You are right - we should be using all of the potential waste energy - including sewage, farm waste, gas from landfill's that are all currently burnt off or wasted. The problem is that in order to get sewage you have had to have an animal digest food. In that digestion, the animal took out some of the energy to make body heat, to move about etc etc leaving less energy than there was in the raw food. This means that although it's a great idea and "we" should do something with the waste, it's never going to generate enough to replace what we are getting from oil.

    What really annoys me though is that we are thinking of how we can capture small amounts of methane to run cars etc, yet when you see the oil fields of Nigeria and the 'Stan's, the amount of gas that is being flared off constantly because the oil companies don't want to invest in capturing it and storing it because it costs too much vs. the return. Shell in Nigeria for example keeps delaying it's flare-off reduction commitment. Surely, if we have a finite resource, then they have a self interest in using every available bit of energy while they can?

  29. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Soylent Petrol.

    Actually you can make diesel from animal fat, so that's not a bad idea...

  30. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    @Anonymous Coward

    American ethanol *is* driving up the price of corn. At the moment about 20% of America's entire harvest is going into ethanol plants because the US government offers a subsidy of 51c per gallon on ethanol production - making it more profitable to push the crop that way than send it for export. With the Bush administration constantly upping the demand for ethanol this is going to continue. Whether farmers can increase production to match demand is another matter.

    But there is some hope. Almost all of these ethanol plants are fuelled by natural gas - whose price is also spiking upwards, making them ever-less profitable.

    The economics of ethanol in the US are so labyrinthine that no one can even be sure they're helping the environment and their contribution to the energy consumption of the country is minuscule. They exist for political reasons only, Iowa; home of the Corn Belt is the largest producer of corn in the World. It also has the first primary election in the US presidential vote. As an episode of 'The West Wing' showed, it is a stupid candidate who goes to Iowa and does not inhale the ethanol.

  31. Anonymous Coward

    Missing the point

    Biofuels have very little to do with it at the moment. They don't take a significant proportion of food crop production.

    One issue is that harvests (particularly rice) in some parts of the world have declined due to lack of investment and ubsequent use of lower yield farming techniques.

    Another mayor factor has been severe impacts on harvests from weather related events e.g. reduced grain harvests in Australia due to drought.

    This has mean any slack in the system has disappeared.

    But while prices have gone up there are not serious shortages as such: we don't have 10's/100's of millions starving as yet due to food being completely unavailable. It exists, it's just more expensive.

    The real cost driver is commodity speculation. Food, like oil and metals before it have drawn increasing levels of investment as other parts of the financial market have become poorer investments.

    So we have a situation where actual supply and demand has become divorced from the value.

    Oil is seriously over-valued compared to where it would be without speculation. Food products are much the same.

    Obviously this is bad news for end users.

    The only people likely to be unaffected are the truly poor - they don't tend to use much in the oil, and also tend to be subsistence farmers.

    It's those higher up the chain who'll suffer.

    This includes those in the 3rd world who used to do slightly more than subsistence level farming but were wiped out by the competition from free food aid. Food aid might make people feel good about themselves, but it destroys any local market & ultimately makes the problems worse in the future!

    The only positive thing I can see is that commodity bubbles always burst, and prices will come down. I just hope it doesn't take too much of my money away when it finally happens.


    On another note, now that everyone seems to have decided that biofuels are a bad idea, is the 2.5% content target going to be withdrawn?

  32. Richard Scratcher
    Paris Hilton

    Solar Power

    Almost all of the energy we use today comes from the sun. Growing plants to use the sun's energy to assemble molecules from which we can later draw energy, is essentially solar power. Does anyone have the figures for how much energy a given area of land (in our rainy climate) can produce?

    At the moment we are burning reserves of fossil fuels, which is solar power stored over millions of years. Are biofuels a sustainable way to meet our current energy needs?

    Biofuels seem to be a trendy way to appear "green" but what portion of the UK's land-mass would need to be given over to growing oilseed rape for us to be self sufficient?

    Paris - because she probably doesn't know either.

  33. Christopher E. Stith

    some things

    Actually, Iowa uses a caucus, not a primary ballot election.

    The cost to export food from the US is based around the price of oil in the US. Oil and everything else in the US is going up partly because of "what if" scenarios over Iraq and Iran driving up the price of oil futures and partly because the US dollar is dropping in value fairly rapidly.

    The share of fuels being produced from food crops isn't huge, but it is adding a bit to the problem. The fact that no pipelines that carry oil in the US from place to place are rated to transport ethanol means more energy goes to transport ethanol to market (using tanker trucks) than oil, petrol, or natural gas (using pipelines for much of the distribution), so that's probably part of the issue too.

    Never mind the cost of food crops themselves. Once farmers in the US are paying more to ship their crops overseas to markets than those markets will support, they won't be shipped there. It's more efficient and cheaper to let the crops rot in the States than to ship them overseas and have them rot in markets there. If you'd like to make the argument that the food sellers overseas could just buy them, have them shipped, and sell them, don't bother. Why would they pay to buy them and ship them to let them rot, either?

    The issue of supply and demand can't be fully understood if you don't understand the economic definition of "demand". "Demand", in the economic sense, doesn't just mean someone wants to buy something, but also that they have the means to do so and are willing to pay the asking price. When nobody will pay the asking price, there is no demand. Yet prices only respond to supply outstripping demand when the cost to create the supply is less than the price that will create more demand in the market. Nobody wants to sell at a loss in any kind of large volume (although sometimes people will sell at a loss in small volumes to attract customer loyalty, companion goods sales, or whatever).

  34. Joe

    @Richard Scratcher

    1.56kW/m3 at the equator. In the UK about a quarter of that

  35. Anonymous Coward
    Paris Hilton

    Reading all thishas stressed me out..

    I think I'm gonna go for a nice long drive with the AC up...

  36. Ishkandar

    @EU President opens probe

    Ouch !! I hope he made liberal use of lubrications !!

  37. john Durrant

    farmers and money

    All that needs to happen is for the CAP to give farmers a subsidy for actually growing food instead of a subsidy for doing bugger all (set aside) and food will magically appear.

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