Shall we feed people or machines? A fundamental question in hunger times

While some places on earth are experiencing harsh climatic changes due to extreme droughts as the African Horn, (Somalia, Ethiopia and Djibouti among the most affected), others have water to their necks in the worst floods registered in years (Philippines, Vietnam and Thailand). Many scientists may argue that is normal to have these peaks of droughts and floods, but what I disagree is the frequency, extent and magnitude of this kind of events in recent years, some others even go further saying that climate change is just an invention. After these kind of natural disasters, food is always scarce and aid difficult to distribute. In the African horn nearly 13 million people have been affected, which is almost the double of Quebec’s population! Under such conditions of starvation, would you change land for food to convert it into land for biofuels? Sadly, that’s happening now in developing countries where food is urgent.

Biofuels are not recent arrivals among us and started to be used with the apparition of the automobile industry in the middle 1920’s. From that time, they have sparked the interest of many decision makers all over the world as a cost-effective alternative to cut off energy dependence from other sources, and the pressure on them has been growing with time, giving them now an exaggerated relevance in the solution of not only energy-related problems, but social problems as well, such as rural development. And if you think that it is not enough, now they also bear the great responsibility to reduce GHG, aren’t we asking too much from them? (Especially when the overall consequences have not been fully measured). All these unreal expectancies around biofuels are materialized in green energy directives coming from the EU and the US that are pushing developing countries to satisfy their increasing demand with devastating effects, such as land use change, threat to biodiversity and the most important and criticized issue of this strategy, food security.

Responsible world leaders have seen these measures taken precipitously and without a coherent objective, this is like solving a problem by creating another one somewhere else. For such a large industry there should be at least one guideline in place to regulate and control its development, but for example in Brazil, the second bioethanol producer in the world after the US there is not even a Strategic Environmental Assessment. The advance towards a regulated strategy has been slow and although there are other environmental tools as EIA and green certificates (Green Ethanol Program), they have proven insufficient and what they really show is the lack of coordinated efforts to overview the whole problem.

I’m not sure if the present and future consumers of biofuels are fully aware of the consequences of these measures, and when we think about the population affected by the drought in Africa (13 million!), you don’t need to make extensive research to realize that something wrong is going on, it’s just a matter of better planning, and the tools already exist.


Koh, L.P., & Ghazoul, J. 2008. Biofuels, biodiversity and people: Understanding the conflicts and finding opportunities. Biological conservation (141), p: 2450-2460


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