In the last few years, biofuels have been viewed as a way to meet rising energy demands, as well as climate-change goals to reduce harmful emissions. But amid skyrocketing food prices and food riots in several poor countries, those benefits increasingly are being questioned.
This week alone, Britain's finance minister, Alistair Darling, called for a review of international biofuel programs; a scientific advisory panel to the European Union called for the bloc to suspend its 2020 target; and the UN rapporteur on the right to food, Jean Ziegler, called biofuels' mass production a "crime against humanity."
Put most simply, can we afford to turn food into fuel?
Food Prices Spike
"Because of the increased demand for grain that we're turning into ethanol to fuel cars, we've seen food prices spike over the last year, with wheat prices doubling, corn prices are up, soy bean prices are up and rice prices recently have shot to record highs," says Janet Larsen of the Earth Policy Institute in Washington. "What that means to people in low-income, grain-importing countries is that they have to stretch their money further to get their basic sustenance."
Biofuels have come under more scrutiny for other reasons, too. Critics say some biofuels might lead to more carbon-dioxide emissions -- not less -- depending on how much energy goes into farming and processing the crops. They also blame them for taking land from tropical rainforests in countries like Brazil.
Most urgently, the charge is that they also compete for land with food or feed crops.
"The subsidies that are being provided by the [U.S.] government for bioethanol produced by corn is leading to corn replacing soy, which then drives up the price of soy and some of the cooking oils that are derived from soy," says Jeffrey McNeely, chief scientist of the Swiss-based International Union for Conservation of Nature.
"It also is moving into wheat country, which also drives up the price of wheat, because less acreage is planted to wheat. So it contributes to overall food prices with knock-on effects around the world, because the U.S. is a leading exporter of food," McNeely adds. "What that does in turn is lead to increases in the price of livestock which also eat maize or corn and the long-term effect is a contribution to increased food prices in many parts of the world."
To be sure, critics say biofuels are just one of several factors behind rising food prices. Biofuels' supporters say the increase caused by biofuels -- if any -- is small.
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice this week said biofuels and the food crisis are related but added, "We also think that a significant part of the food problem relates not from biofuels but from simply the costs of energy in terms of fertilizer, in terms of transportation costs for food, and that is in part -- maybe even a larger part of spiking the food crisis that we have."
'Not The Villain'
Another factor is the rising demand for food from a population that is growing and eating better. That's how Brazil's President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva defended biofuels at a UN agriculture meeting on April 16.
"Biofuels are not the villain that is threatening food insecurity in poor nations," he said. "On the contrary, if they are developed according to the reality of each country, they can become an essential instrument in generating income and helping countries out of the situation of food and energy insecurity."
With the benefits of "first-generation" biofuels now being questioned, there may be some hope in "second-generation" biofuels. These are made from waste such as straw, instead of crops. However, they are not yet commercially available. McNeely estimates that with the right investment, they may be -- within four to five years.