Is it ethical to use food as fuel sources?

Rather than hijack this thread, I decided to start another.

This article is about the link between rising food costs and the use of food crops to produce fuel. According to it the use of crops for fuel, coupled with the growing prosperity in other nations causing a growing demand for those foods as well, is leading to a spike in food prices. It contends that eventually it will cause greater world hunger.

Is this alarmism? Or is it as real a possibility as those unnamed economists and agribusiness executives believe it is?

I find the use of food to create fuel to be more than a little disturbing. Although I realize we will have to find alternative food sources, I don’t think this is the way to go. There are enough hungry people as it is, and that makes the thought of using food this way faintly obscene to me. The fact that crops are not of static yields each year is part of that problem - this year there may be great harvests and all the needs for making ethanol and food are met. But what about next year when weather and insects conspire to create shortfalls? Best case scenario it just leads to costs increases of food and fuel, both of which will hurt those can already afford these things the least. Worst case - famines.

I’m also concerned about the far-reaching repercussions of food price hikes. If costs for food go up, it will hit the working poor the heaviest. More of their already tight budgets will need to go towards feeding themselves. Given a large enough price hike, we’ll all end up paying for this through the necessity of creating more social welfare programs (or expanded eligibility for existing ones like foodstamps and fuel assistance). It seems to me that there is a huge potential for increasing misery through our attempts to create fuel sources from food.

That said, perhaps I’m feeding into artificial concerns. Maybe I’m not seeing the whole picture. What do you think, are there ways to justify using food to create fuel that take ethics into account?

I think it’s scandalous what’s happening with corn grown for ethanol. A big subsidy racket for Arthur Daniels Midland.
They advertise on PBS they are treating the world as one big farm, but it’s more like one big 16th century Caribbean sugar economy, and we are the slaves.

[sub]psst! It’s Archer, not Arthur.[/sub]

I’m not sure it’s as simple as it sounds. To the extent that we are raising the price of food simply for additional fuels, I would say that it’s wrong to do that. But petroleum based fuels are becoming increasingly expensive, which both raises the price of food (and pretty much anything else) and also reduces the amount of money available to buy food (and pretty much anything else). Again, the poor are the ones who feel the increases the most.

One could push for the development and use of fuels from energy crops (rather than from crops that are also used for food), but this takes resources from food crop production (land, fertilizer, water, agricultural expertise) and so makes food crops more scarce, and hence, more expensive. But again, the continued reliance on petroleum (or other fossil-based) fuels has the downside of being a cause (according to most climate scientists, despite the long-raging debate here at the SDMB) of climate change, which is likely to change food production capacities into the future.

So, all that said, I do think we need to be extremely careful about a major effort to use agriculture to address our need (desire?) for transportation fuels. There are all sorts of ethical issues that need to be addressed, and historically we tend to ignore those in favor of making money, particularly for big industries like Arthur’s brother, Archer Daniel Midlands. :wink:

(Edited to correct pesky spelling mistakes)

In a free market, land will be put to its most efficient use, whether that be crops for food, crops for fuel, a strip mall, or a whore house.

The problem arises when you put subsidies into the mix, as they distort the market. Agriculture subsidies have been reducing food market efficiency since before the combustion engine was dreamed up.

Subsidies are the part of the equation that borders on unethical.

Beyond that, it becomes an issue of “fairness” an issue that economics is unequipped to tackle.

I don’t see how conversion of food to fuel could be considered unethical, unless you consider any economic activity that produces fuel instead of food to be unethical.

For example, lets say that someone wants to build a new oil refinery. They could use their capital/materials to make more farms and farm equipment, and thus produce more food. Is it unethical to build a refinery instead? If not, why is it different to, say, build more farms, and take the produce from the farms to an ethanol plant. Both produce the same result, that we got more fuel when we could have had more food.

Is it immoral to use any food crop for anything that isn’t food? Soybeans have been processed into plastics for decades. In the past few years researchers have been doing the same thing with corn. Those products are biodegradable while petroleum based plastics aren’t. So is it moral to make plastics from food crops but not fuels?

Ethanol, whether it comes from corn, sugarcane or any other plant is made from the cabohydrate portion of the plant. The protein from the corn is extracted from the process and used for livestock feed. Is diverting some amount of carbohydrates (but not protein) from the food chain more or less moral than using it to make high-carb foods? Same thing with biodiesel – the oil from the plant is used, while the protein gets turned into feed.

If the technology to make fuel from cellulose ever gets perfected, will we cut native plants from forests and wetlands or will we divert land that’s currently being used for food or fiber crops? Is either one of those alternatives more or less moral than drilling for oil in the North Sea, Gulf of Mexico or Arctic National Wildlife Refuge?

If we want to conserve petroleum either by higher prices or rationing, is that moral to millions of people who depend on cars or trucks for the livelihoods, not to mention those who use oil to heat their homes?

There is no strictly right or wrong answer. Every option presents a series of tradeoffs.

I think it is unethical, but not for the same reason. Basically, it doesn’t present a real solution- right now it is not efficient, and even if it becomes that way, it opens up a whole new slew of problems (pesticides, etc.)

The solution is within our hands and completely free. We need to start building cities in a way that we use less energy of any kind. We don’t need technology, we need sensible urban planning.

Anything that is planted in the ground and not used for food would divert acreage so you can add wood to the catergory. And we’ve been using wood since God created atheists.

Growing biofuel is a win-win situation because it absorbs carbon dioxide in the process as apposed to releasing existing Co2. It uses existing distribution nodes and is consumed by existing engine technology. That is a tremendous environmental savings in the short run and this is a transition technology.

Whether it makes sense to use food as fuel depends on the economics of the situation, which other people know a lot more about than I do.

I’ll just point out that a big part of the hunger problem is not just having enough food to feed the world’s hungry, but getting that food to the hungry—i.e. transportation, which involves fuel.

As long as you’re willing to live where you’re told to live and pay any increases involved with such planning then I’m OK with that idea. I will be living in a McMansion outside of town next to the politicians who do all the urban planning. Granted it will be the dollar-menu version but that’s where I’ll be living.

Why the sarcasm? We already have large cities with public transportation. With a few notable exceptions they are expensive urban hell-holes. The exceptions are just expensive. I drive 25,000 miles a year and the cost of fuel is less than 6% of my disposable income.

The “free market” is an explicitly amoral system. That is, it only shows what course of action leads to greatest efficiency but not whether that course of action is in and of itself, a moral one. The moral issue is one which is completely seperate from the efficiency issue and needs to be addressed separately.

Food has always been an interesting economic case because, roughly, our demand for food is constant with respect to income. An upper class american has 100,000x the wealth of the average african but only eats maybe 10x the amount of acreage in food. As long as food is largely seperate from other economic systems, the rich and poor are not in competition because the rich are already eating as much food as they want. By and large, apart from a few failed states with corrupt or inept governments, everyone around the world can be fed adequately and we generally regard that as a good thing and we don’t think much about it.

The equation changes when food becomes linked to oil because the demand for oil DOES scale roughly linearly with income and you pit the oil demands of the rich directly against the food demands of the poor. An American may be willing to pay $5 a gallon to drive down to disneyland for the weekend but an african might not be able to afford that much to feed himself.

Under a free market system, the efficient choice is to give the American his holiday and allow the African to starve to death because the American is worth 100,000x as much as the african and this was an efficient use of resources. However, this free market definition of worth conflicts radically with our innate moral sense of worth and you would be hard pressed to find someone who would argue in favour of that position.

Such inequality happens all the time and yet we don’t really think about it because it’s such an entrenched part of the landscape. We’re willing to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars for expensive cancer treatment that saves the life of one rich american and yet can’t spend a few dollars for malaria nets that would save the life of one African. By doing so, we ARE implicitly saying that American lives are worth many thousand times an African life yet we are uncomfortable thinking of it in those terms. The invention of biodiesel means that something which was previously equal moves to become something radically unequal and throws the entire issue into sharp relief.

To me, this is an incredibly tricky issue. One of common mistakes people make is assuming that the free market system proscribes a certain morality which it doesn’t and this is one case where I think it’s obvious the free market system leads to hugely immoral outcomes. At the same time, the cat’s almost out of the bag and I don’t see any way to push it back in. As long as the rich are vastly richer than the poor and the rich have a demand for oil, biodiesel is going to drastically alter the world, and not in a good way.

But the free market system does, over the long term, represent the ethical position of utilitarianism. It’s just not pretty to look at when you see the “losers,” of utilitarianism up close. But that’s because the free market improves millions of lives a little at a time, in ways that are hard to see, in exchange for coldly allowing some people to get priced out.

Not saying that utilitarianism is the single only ethical precept we should follow, but it is an arguable one, and the free market, over the long term, has been the best economic approach to meeting that goal.

ETA: Your analysis applies to health care as well–we don’t like to look at what happens when people are priced out of a market for what we may think of as necessities.

The free market is not in any way a utilitarian system unless you assume a person’s capacity for pleasure/pain is directly proportional to their wealth which is absurd.

Such inequalities happen because of the disparity in economic freedom between the United States and Africa. America is a stable, democratic relatively free-market economy. Africa consists primarily of kleptocracies contantly engaged in tribal warfare. They do not enjoy the free markets that would allow them to the develop the wealth to purchase mosquito netting.

Does the equation change if we talk about using sugar instead of corn? Americans only consume 29 pounds of sugar per capita but in many countries consumption is much higher. If, as Brazil has done, a nation can use its domestic crops to replace a large amount of imported oil, is that starving its own people or lifting itself out of energy poverty?

City planning does’t mean some sort of apocalyptic socialist dystopia. Our cities are planned right now. Every last one of them. We simply need to take a few common step measures- things that can make life better in both cities and suburbs. Such as placing schools in the center of housing developments instead of on the outskirts. Or placing wide parking lots behind establishements instead of in front of them. Once you lay a street, that street is going to be there for a hundred years. We need to start laying our streets with our future in mind. This means having work, shopping, schools etc. within walking distance of where people live. This doesn’t mean you need to live in some kind of loft downtown. This just means that when city planners look at the hundreds of things they look at when developers are building a suburb (environmental impact, school access, traffic studies…) they need to look at how transit plays in to things as well.

The average American spends around 7k on their car (payments, registration, insurance, fuel, repairs…). That’s a good chunk of the average income. We will all benefit from more sensible urban planning.

Of course, we arn’t all going to turn to daily bus riders overnight. But we can start making a few commonsense measures to at least make it POSSIBLE to live car-free or at least not be dependent on cars for things like grocery shopping and going to school.

I agree with what you’re saying about the economics of food being different than that of other commodities. Where I disagree is that anything changes about the morality of production just because foodstuffs are an intermediate product. If it is immoral for an American to drive down the street on corn-based ethanol, it is just as immoral for him to do so using petroleum when he could have spent the money on growing corn and shipping it to Africa. One mechanism uses the market to decide how to use the corn, and one uses individual willingness to forego ease of transportation in favor of sending food to Africa. But the end result is the same: resources are used to transport the rich rather than feed the poor.

Crops availability, for food or fuel, is not a limited quantity. As the value to the farmer goes up, the quantity of the crop being raised will also go up. More acres will be planted. Better seed will be developed. More expensive equipment, which raised the yield/acre, will be used. So converting 3.4billion bushels of corn into ethanol (USDA’s forecast for 2007-2008) will not result in a 3.4billion bushel reduction in food.

USDA figures show a projected increase of about 10.2million acres of corn to be planted next year over this year and just shy of an extra 2 billion bushels being harvested in the US. USDA projections actually show an increase of 1.26 billions bushels of corn being used for food and seed next year (that doesn’t include corn used as feed)

In addition, a report from Purdue figures that in Indiana, the average yield of corn/acre rises 1.6 bushels per year. With a projected 90.5 million acres of corn being planted in the next year, and assuming similar numbers for the rest of the country, that alone is an extra 145mill bushels of corn grown in the US.

So what does that mean? Not much. As mentioned previously, the problem isn’t a lack of food, worldwide. It’s getting the food to where the people need it. Until such a time as we can’t grow enough food (grow, not deliver), I don’t see anything unethical about it.

I think we can make more fuel crops than food crops for the simple fact that fuel can be made from food unfit for human consumption.

Crops grown in contaminated soil, poisoned with too much pesticides or something, stale or rotting or rancid, your car or truck won’t care.

Unless the contaminants survives the biofuel processing and fouls your O2 sensor or catalytic converter, toxic foodstuffs won’t make your car sick.