AgMRC Blog - A Different Perspective on Food Versus Fuel

Blog entry written by Don Hofstrand, agricultural economist,

The food versus fuel debate has raged over recent years due to the concerns that increasing agriculturally produced renewable fuels will decrease the sectors ability to produce food.  This will result in a decrease in the food supply and negatively impact people, not only in the U.S. but worldwide.  A variety of studies have been conducted to examine the impact on food prices from the competition between these two factors.

Another factor has recently been added to this debate.  It is agriculture’s role in reducing carbon dioxide emissions that leads to global warming.  Much of this discussion has focused around the “afforestation scare” that farmland will be planted to trees.  Being trees are a method of sequestering carbon, planting large tracts of land to trees will reduce the impact of global warming.  So, sequestering carbon will reduce agriculture’s ability to produce food.  This expands the discussion from “food versus fuel” to “food versus fuel versus carbon”. 

This competitive viewpoint is based on the premise that agriculture is a zero-sum game.  In other words, the output from agriculture is fixed. And increasing one of these factors will automatically reduce the other two.  Although there is some validity to this perspective, I would argue that there are methods of organizing agriculture to meet all three of these factors without decreasing any of them.  So my perspective is “food AND fuel AND carbon” instead of “food VERSUS fuel VERSUS carbon”.  In fact, there may be ways of making these three factors “complimentary”.  By this I mean that increasing agriculture’s focus on carbon and renewable energy may actually increase food production. 

As an example, considerable research is being focused on the thermochemical conversion of biomass.  Through a process called “pyrolysis”, biomass is converted to bio-oil, synthesis gas and charcoal.  Bio-oil holds promise for conversion into a variety of renewable fuels.  Synthesis gas has properties similar to natural gas.  And charcoal, when returned to the soil, sequesters carbon and also improves soil productivity.  So, when corn stover, wheat straw and waste wood are used as biomass feedstocks, they produce renewable energy, reduce carbon emissions by substituting renewable fuels for fossil fuels, and sequester atmospheric carbon in the soil.  This is all done while not negatively impacting current food production but potentially increasing future food production by increasing soil productivity.  Even if cropland is taken out of food production and planted to energy grasses such as switchgrass and miscanthus, the short term reduction in food production due to converted cropland will be offset by the increased cropland productivity in the future. 

This is one example of how these factors can be “complimentary” rather than “competitive”.  Agricultural research is likely to uncover additional ways in the future.