Corn – eat it or use it?

27 Feb


I thought biofuel was a good solution to replace conventional natural resources, such as oil, gas and coal. Apparently, this technology has some problems including creating food shortages.

Biofuel is considered good for environment because most of them are plants’ produces, such as corn, barley, and sugarcane. When they are processed to generate power, the carbon dioxide produced is already cancelled out by the carbon dioxide inhaled during the plants’ growing period. So there is no real increase of it. Also, it allows countries to reduce their reliance to oil-producing countries; thus, reducing the international tension.

The idea is wonderful, but it fails to take note of many related issues. One of them is the fact that the supply of biofuel cannot catch up with the demand. It has resulted in increasing prices of crops. As reported by FT last Friday, the price of corn was 10-year high.

Not only this has resulted in higher cost for electricity producers which use biofuel, this also resulted in higher price of main food for many people. Now Mexico is facing shortage of corns and this has driven the price of tortillas to the ceiling. If the demands by the big electricity corporations keep increasing, will the people be left without food?

Also, the crops will take up huge amount of water and lands, which means less rainforest to retain water. With increasing water consumption and decreasing supply, will the lands dry out? Without food and water, how can people continue living?

So far, the common ways to produce electricity have brought negative impact and it is unlike that they are going to be solved soon. Perhaps the solution is not about more supply, but less demand. Perhaps the fastest and easiest answer is the change of individual usage of electricity.
Additional info from BBC website:

  • The grain required to fill the petrol tank of a Range Rover with ethanol is sufficient to feed one person per year. Assuming the petrol tank is refilled every two weeks, the amount of grain required would feed a hungry African village for a year
  • Much of the fuel that Europeans use will be imported from Brazil, where the Amazon is being burned to plant more sugar and soybeans, and Southeast Asia, where oil palm plantations are destroying the rainforest habitat of orangutans and many other species. Species are dying for our driving
  • If ethanol is imported from the US, it will likely come from maize, which uses fossil fuels at every stage in the production process, from cultivation using fertilisers and tractors to processing and transportation. Growing maize appears to use 30% more energy than the finished fuel produces, and leaves eroded soils and polluted waters behind
  • Meeting the 5.75% target would require, according to one authoritative study, a quarter of the EU’s arable land
  • Using ethanol rather than petrol reduces total emissions of carbon dioxide by only about 13% because of the pollution caused by the production process, and because ethanol gets only about 70% of the mileage of petrol
  • Food prices are already increasing. With just 10% of the world’s sugar harvest being converted to ethanol, the price of sugar has doubled; the price of palm oil has increased 15% over the past year, with a further 25% gain expected next year.

The Financial Times February 23 2007
BBC: Green energy or grim reaper

Note: this edition is revised version of the submitted piece and with additional information that I could not squeeze into the 280 words.


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