Monday, 7 July 2008

An inevitable Malthusianism?

With the Telegraph carrying the same story about Biofuels causing a 75% increase in global food prices as every other paper, and the EU cast as the inevitable villain in continuing to pursue a 10% Bioethanol replacement target, one might be forgiven in regarding Biofuels as a 'bad thing'. But just let's look at what is happening in the absence of the influence of Biofuel production on food prices.

World population is growing fast, particularly in the poorest regions of the world. Many of those regions are also experiencing pressures on water supply, for a variety of reasons. Climate change, mismanagement of supplies, and agriculture. Irrigation uses about 1,000 tonnes of water to produce a tonne of grain. Such regions are therefore tending to become inherently less able to feed themselves. Although world grain production has been rising and will continue to rise, in per capita terms it's falling.

Global grain stocks have halved since the turn of the century as consumption now exceeds production as a trend. So even without Biofuels, we'd be facing food price increases and those in the most marginal societies would be facing hunger.

Now I don't know whether we're at Peak Oil or not. I don't know whether my house will burn down today either. For the latter risk I have insurance - the ongoing cost of which represents value in relation to the cost of potential losses if uninsured. You can look on Biofuels as being an insurance against the risk of Peak Oil. Forget MMGW. And if oil goes to $200 a barrel by the year's end, which I blogged about in May, marginal sources of sugar-containing plant material including woodchips will become more economically viable as Bioethanol raw material.

The moral question is whether we (the West) should be using grain for fuel when parts of the world face hunger. But to abandon Biofuels for this reason would surely only be postponing the inevitable; if their populations continue to grow and their ability to feed themselves continues to shrink, the point must surely come when even all of the world's surplus production isn't enough to hold off mass starvation. Surely their best hope is a stable and economically growing West?


Anonymous said...

does this not make war inevitable. the poor masses against the bloated west?
Sure nobody would really wins but war seems to sort things out. And it certainly curtails the population.

sidney said...

Surely their best hope is a stable and economically growing West?

...coupled with an effective population control programme?