Organic Consumers Association

Campaigning for health, justice, sustainability, peace, and democracy
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For related articles and information, please visit OCA's Environment and Climate Resource Center page and our Organic Transitions page.

Here is an excerpt from my book Grass, Soil, Hope:

What is the best way to utilize sunlight: grow food or to produce fuel?

For millennia, the answer was easy: we used solar energy to grow plants that we could eat. Then in the 1970s the answer became more complicated as fields of photovoltaic panels (PVPs) began popping up around the planet, sometimes on former farmland. This was part of a new push for renewable energy sources, and as the technology has improved over the years so did the scale of solar power projects on land that could otherwise produce food.

In the 1990s, the food vs. fuel debate took a controversial turn when farmers began growing food crops for fuels such as corn-based ethanol, with encouragement in the form of government subsidies. Today the production of biofuels, including massive palm oil plantations, has become big business, often at the expense of hungry people. As a result, the land requirement of the biofuels industry, not to mention its deleterious impact on ecosystems and biodiversity, has become huge-and it keeps growing.

Making the situation even more complicated and controversial is a simple fact: according to scientists, the amount of land needed to replace fossil fuels with biofuels exceeds all the farmland available on the planet. In other words, increased competition between food and fuel for agriculturally productive land means that the stage is set for food shortages and rising conflict as the projected human population on Earth swells to nine billion by 2050.

This food vs. fuel debate has drawn considerable attention recently, with a number of potential solutions being proposed as a way out of what is quickly becoming a serious conundrum. Here are a few, briefly:

It's a definition issue: According to a group of researchers, the trouble is no one can agree on what defines "surplus" land, including idle, marginal, reclaimed, and degraded land. Devising a common language, they said, means we'll be able to "creatively utilize surplus land" for energy and the environment.

It's a plant issue: Researchers say we're using the wrong feedstocks for bioenergy production. Native grasses, flowers, and herbs offer the best chance for creating sustainable biofuels instead. Making that dream a reality, however, would require new technology to harvest, process, and convert this plant material, said one report.

It's an ethics issue: Is it moral to produce fuel from food that could otherwise feed hungry people and drive up food prices as a result? Is it right for rich nations to exploit poor ones for their fuel needs? Before we can resolve this conflict, say philosophical types, we need to sort out our ethics first.

It's a free market issue: Allocating which parcel of land should be used for food and which for fuel should only be determined by free market mechanisms, say many in the private sector. And the role of government subsidies and regulations should be minimized, they add.

It's a geopolitical issue: The use of land for food or fuel cannot be separated from wider global struggles for economic security, political dominance, and social justice, say activists and government leaders.

It's a technological issue: The conflict can be solved, say engineers, by improvements in solar technology on the one side, and plant productivity on the other. This includes ongoing research to "improve" photosynthesis, a chemical process considered by some biotech companies to be too inefficient (I kid you not).

Notice that all of these options have one thing in common: they still see it as a choice between food or fuel, silicon or carbon. There is no common ground, no coexistence, no win-win solution.         

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