Food vs. Fuel

April 11, 2010

Wheaties has a new product called “Wheaties Fuel”. I haven’t tried it, and won’t comment on the product itself. What’s attracted me is the marketing. Regular boxes of Wheaties started touting the word ‘fuel’ and promising something new at least six or eight months ago, though it’s probable that the folks at General Mills were thinking about this long before that. Generally oblivious boob that I am, I’ve only recently noticed that there is a new variety trying to cash-in on the Wheaties “brand” on my grocery shelves. What’s interesting to me is the thought that calling something “fuel” would be regarded as a good way to sell something that many of us in the CSA world would probably rather think of as “food”.

For me, the word “fuel” conjures up images of gasoline pumps. I think of fuel as smelly and polluting, even when I think more broadly than gas and oil. Firewood, coal, smoldering piles of peat, pressurized tanks of natural gas, that odor you get when you pump your Coleman stove: that’s what I associate with fuel. I am not, however, mainstream in this regard, and the marketing guys at General Mills know it. Work by social psychologists Paul Rozin and Claude Fischler has shown that there are different cultural styles that are tied to the way that people from different parts of the world think of food. They showed people from a number of regions a series of images and asked them to point to the one that they most closely associate with food. People from France, for example, picked the image of a tree. People from the United States picked the gasoline pump much more frequently than they picked anything else.

Given that Americans think that their farms are producing fuel, it may not be too surprising that American farmers were very quick to jump on the bandwagon for converting their crops into a form that could actually be burned in an internal combustion engine. This led a flurry of investment in facilities that would turn corn (and also corn silage—the rest of the corn plant) into ethanol between 2005 and 2007. A number of plants were planned for Michigan. The Bush administration created a complex package of subsidies to encourage this development under the banner of “fighting terrorism through energy independence.” Unfortunately for the farmers (but fortunately for us), before most of these plants could be built the fuel industry figured out that that it was actually pretty crazy to burn fuel (in tractors and in synthetic fertilizers) to grow the stuff, then burn more fuel hauling the crops (which contain a lot of water) to factories to produce less fuel than they had actually consumed in the production process. The wacky subsidies held this recognition at bay for too long, but for the moment at least, common sense seems to have prevailed. Some of these farmers who invested in fuel plants have lost a ton of money.

A major part of the learning process involved widespread publicity of the “food-fuel” conflict. World food prices went through the roof in 2007, just about the same time that corn ethanol was getting a big push from industrial farm groups and Bush’s Secretary of Agriculture Mike Johanns. The New York Times, among others, put two and two together and concluded that the biofuels push was unethical because it was causing people to starve. This has not only been the undoing of corn ethanol, it has also put the kibosh on so-called “second generation” biofuels: grasses such as sawgrass, sugarcane and miscanthus that can be process into fuel much more efficiently than corn. Then there are “third generation” biofuels, which might be produced in Michigan from fast growing trees or wood byproducts. My university is spending a ton of money on these projects, but the “food-fuel conflict” has led foodies of all stripes to diss biofuels. This has, in turn, led biofuels scientists to argue that they should be exempt from criticism because, afterall, the crops that will produce second and third generation biofuels are not food crops. They claim that using these crops for fuel will not compete with food and will not cause food prices to rise; hence, (they claim) the anti-fuel foodie arguments are wrong.

I am here to claim (with depressing consistency) that things are not so simple and that everybody is wrong. Here is why the foodies are wrong: World food prices actually do need to go up if poor farmers in developing countries are to have half a chance. Getting some of the subsidized industrial crops off world markets will benefit farmers elsewhere, who right now cannot compete. What is more, there are some applications of the biofuel idea that can grown in the developing world, providing even more help. In short, the farmers who wanted to build ethanol refineries were right to think that the biofuels thing is good for farmers. And if it comes on line in an orderly way, it can be a good thing for poor farmers elsewhere (and unlike here in the States, about half of the poorest people in the world still depend directly on farming and farm income). It can, however, come on line in a disorderly way, and that can push poor farmers off the land and into urban areas, so things here are not, I repeat, simple.

Here is why the biofuels scientists are wrong: In fact, all these non-food biofuels will still contribute to upward pressure on food prices. The issue is a land-use question: food or fuel. It makes no difference what you are making the fuel from. There thus is a tension between things that are good for farmers and things that are good for the urban poor, whose lives can be thrown into chaos by a rise in cost of food. This is the fundamental tension in agricultural ethics, and it needs to be faced rather than swept under the rug. Perhaps if we get to the point that farmers are universally among the better off people in society (as would be true of many industrial farmers in the United States) it will make sense to feed people by keeping prices low, but as people like Raj Patel have argued convincingly, there are both environmental and nutritional costs to pay with this strategy. For the time being, what helps the urban poor in the developing world hurts poor farmers, and they exist in roughly equal numbers.

Things, in short, are likely to be “complicated” for some time to come, and simple minded “solutions” are very likely to do more harm than good. Sorry to be such a grump.

Paul B. Thompson is the W.K. Kellogg Professor of Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University

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