Unintended Environmental and Social Consequences of Food-to-Fuel Mandates

Today, three top environmental experts addressed reporters, calling attention to the serious consequences of Congressional food-to-fuel mandates on the environment, world hunger, and American consumers. The experts also urged Congress to revisit these policies.

Lester Brown of the Earth Policy Institute, Ken Cook of the Environmental Working Group, and Jonathan Lewis of the Clean Air Task Force were invited by the Grocery Manufacturers Association to share their views on biofuels. They argued that in the rush to find a "homegrown" solution to global warming, the United States ignored the unintended consequences of such policies. The biofuel boom, they explained, has led to increased environmental damage in the form of pollution from coal-fired ethanol refineries, runoff from fertilizer and rapid deforestation in the developing world as farmers rush to take advantage of high commodity prices.

"Congressional biofuel mandates were meant to help reduce the carbon dioxide emissions associated with gasoline consumption," said Jonathan Lewis of the Clean Air Task Force. "However, recent studies show that this well-intentioned policy has actually led to greater environmental challenges, including a net increase in carbon emissions from deforestation."

Ken Cook of the Environmental Working Group added that food-to-fuel mandates are also having an inflationary effect on food prices, and have the potential to prove a major setback to organic farming.

"With over a quarter of American corn being diverted to ethanol production, food prices have been rising at twice the pace of overall inflation," Cook said. "At that rate, many farmers will opt out of organic agriculture, seeking instead to maximize chemically-intensive conventional production. And after decades of encouraging growth, we will see a contraction in the organic agriculture industry."

Cook noted that with tightening supplies for organic grains, the organic dairy and poultry industries would be particularly vulnerable.

"We are importing more of our organic grain and soybeans from China," said Cook.

Recent Producer Price Index data shows that the price of "intermediate goods" used in food production and for animal feed have increased at a seasonally adjusted annual rate of almost 40%. At the same time, global food prices have increased by 57% over the past year, leading to hunger strikes and violence around the world. World Bank President Robert Zoellick recently called on all the world's rich nations to act immediately in order to avoid widespread unrest and conflict.

The three experts argued that a "flying-blind" approach to U.S. biofuel policy has played a role in recent global strife.

"This Earth Day, it is imperative that we examine the effects our so-called environmental 'solutions' are having on vulnerable ecosystems and populations," said Lester Brown, President of the Earth Policy Institute. "As we are rushing to fill our fuel tanks with corn, we are affecting the global price of food and contributing to the destruction of the forests and other vital natural systems we meant to protect. Misguided biofuel mandates are actually exacerbating environmental harms and causing human suffering while failing to truly deliver energy independence," said Brown.

The panelists also called on Congress to put added emphasis on developing cellulosic fuels that are derived from plant-waste, switchgrass, and other non-food stock.

Lewis noted, "The environment, American consumers, and vulnerable populations around the world need Congress to revisit these food-to-fuel mandates immediately. Our policies to fight climate change shouldn't make winning that fight more difficult."

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