College College Biology and Chemistry High School High School Biology and Chemistry TSS

Food Over Fuel

Should the food we're consuming be used as fuel?

Worldwide riots, record high food prices, upsurges in poverty, and starving populations are all examples of the underlying effects of using food crops as bio-fuel. Bio-fuels are a form of alternative energy produced from biomass such as organic material (such as algae), wood, and food crops (like soybean and corn). Approximately a quarter of food crops are now being utilized for this alternative energy even though other biomass such as waste cooking oils, swtichgrass, jatropha, and other non-food crops could be used instead. The use of vast amounts of feed has been raising many concerns as the insistence for this source of energy is climaxing.

Ever since the introduction of vehicles and gasoline, new and innovative ways have been found to fuel our sources of transportation. One of the most universal alternatives is bio-fuels which were introduced as a source of energy in hopes of reducing carbon emissions and replacing fossil fuels. About 26 billion gallons of bio-fuel is produced every year and numbers are only going to escalate due to developing demands. Bio-fuels, such as ethanol and bio-diesel, is composed of biomass which is organic matter. For example, corn and wheat are most commonly converted to ethanol, while soybeans are used as bio-diesel. Food crops such as the ones stated are the most common type of biomass used to produce these fuels, which can strike conflict between the two industries. A solution to this is to use non-food biomass. This includes inedible crops and waste cooking oils, which is waste liquid received after utilizing oil.  Though inedible biomass is used as bio-fuel, it is not as popular in demand as food crops. As this alternative is rising in popularity and appeal, the negative effects are starting to shine.

Rising demand for this alternative has been increasing prices of comestibles. For over fifty years, food crop prices have been decreasing due to improvements made in agricultural production, but beginning in 2004, food prices almost doubled. This was due to the rapid expansion of the bio-fuel industry. As insistence grows for this alternative, competition reins between the food and fuel industries. Implementing food crops into bio-fuel production is cutting into food supply which in terms, increases the price of comestibles for consumers. In 2007, the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization calculated that world food prices increased 40 percent due to recent diversions of crops for fuel. These price hikes only affected major food crops that were being used for bio-fuel. Because of these escalating prices, those who live in developing countries and those with financial issues are less likely to be able to purchase food to sustain themselves. Lester R. Brown, an environmental analyst, stated, “The massive diversion of grain to fuel cars has helped drive up food prices, leaving low-income consumers everywhere to suffer some of the most severe food price inflation in history.” Riots have even broken out due to economic stress, and many countries faced social unrest due to skyrocketing comestible prices. These costs are also affecting the productivity of food assistance services like the U.N. Food Program which supplies emergency food aid to over 60 countries. They have to cut shipments as prices soar. Currently, 37 countries are facing a food crisis; meanwhile, billions of tons of crops are being used to meet oil industry standards. Although countries with the supplies and infrastructure to support the bio-fuel industry can benefit off of this source, developing countries will struggle to persevere.

Image from Unsplash

It is argued that booming food fares have to do with the increasing population and that poverty was striving long before bio-fuels were implemented. While it is true that population numbers are drastically developing, factoring in food crops to be used as fuel is only going to inflate prices even further. In fact, there will actually be a need for higher food production with population growth. From 2010 to 2050, population numbers are expected to increase by 34 percent: a growth of more than 9 billion people. Excessive supplies of food and fuel will need to be produced because of this. Meanwhile, the demand for oil is depending on the use of bio-fuels to meet its global energy standards. This requires extra food crops for the fuel industry when crops are also needed for the food industry. Equally important, although there was poverty before bio-fuels were industrialized, the rising industry is still affecting those in impoverished countries when they were already affected by their economic status before. If anything, poverty levels are increasing because of these spiraling food fares.

There are conflicts with land usage that deal with using food crops for fuel. Since huge quantities of crops are required to get sustainable amounts of fuel, hectares of land have to be cleared. Large companies are taking over land owned by farmers and small business owners in order to grow crops for fuel. Thousands of farmers have been evicted from their property for these large companies to gain profit off of fuel crops. In Paraguay, over 9,000 families are evicted every year for crop gains. Not only that, but the loss of biodiversity and deforestation are also effects of the mass land clearing taking place. For example, millions of hectares of the Brazilian Cerrado and Argentine Chaco, rain forests in South America, have been cleared for soybean fuel plantations within the past decade. Thousands of animals surrender their habitat, hectares of trees are pillaged, and a self-sustaining environment is shut down.

With all of the variables taken into play, there will a challenge in the future to sustain society with crops that goes into food, fuel, and feed-stock. A statistic showed that 80 percent of agricultural production goes toward feed-stock for animals. In addition, the global population increase will, in theory, boost global meat consumption and require a 70 percent upsurge in food production. When there is not enough feed-stock, meat providers perish. This means there will be a limited meat supply for the growing world which can end up raising meat prices. This creates a chain of events that leads us to the question of whether or not there will be enough food in upcoming years. There will only be a minuscule amount of crops in the future, yet these crops are being used to power only a couple hundred cars. For example, in 2011 alone, the grain turned into ethanol could have fed more than 400 million people. Peter Brabeck-Letmathe, head of Nestle, stated, “If as predicted we look to use bio-fuels to satisfy twenty percent of the growing demand for oil products, there will be nothing left to eat. To grant enormous subsidies for bio-fuel production is morally unacceptable and irresponsible .”

This ongoing dilemma will provide us with incentives to fix the clash between food and fuel. Though it can provide us with alternative energy in hopes of replacing fossil fuels, it does bring up complications such as increased food prices, the clearing of land and land conflict, and the challenge of sustaining society with crops that supply food, fuel, and feed-stock. Instead of food crops, non-feed-stock crops such as waste cooking oils, algae, jatropha, and switchgrass should be used instead. They can minimize the effects that food crops have on the industry and could be possible contenders for the growing bio-fuel community. Who knew this food fueled alternative can have such unfavorable effects that can wipe us from our produce and sweep us from our land?


Brown, Lester. “Food Or Fuel.” Web.

Cassman, Kenneth G., and Adam J. Liska. “Food and Fuel for All: Realistic or Foolish.” 27 June 2007.

Fritsche, Uwe, Katja Hünecke, Andreas Hermann, Falk Schulze, Kirsten Wiegmann, and

Michael Adolphe. “Sustainability Standards for Bioenergy.” WWF Germany, 1 Nov. 2006.

Graham-Rowe, Duncan. “Beyond Food Versus Fuel.” 23 June 2011.

Lipietz, Alain. “Food Or Fuel.” 30 May 2008.

Tenenbaum, David. “Food vs. Fuel: Diversion of Crops Could Cause More Hunger.”

Environmental Health Perspectives. National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, 1 June 2008.

Hello! My name is John Nguyen and I'm from Brevard, North Carolina, a tiny town nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains. I'm currently a junior and I plan on majoring in Biology. Aside from STEM, I'm involved in the band as the principal bass clarinetist, baritone section leader, and drum major. I'm a student researcher, a member of NHS and AJAS, the president of InterACT, and I'm an ISEF alumnus. I'm excited to be apart of this amazing network of young scientists!

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