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Politicians cause another food crisis

The drought in America has had predictable knock-on effects on expectations of this year's harvest. There is certainly a sense of panic in the FT's report (H/T RP Jr):

The world is facing a new food crisis as the worst US drought in more than 50 years pushes agricultural commodity prices to record highs.

Corn and soyabean prices surged to record highs on Thursday, surpassing the peaks of the 2007-08 crisis that sparked food riots in more than 30 countries. Wheat prices are not yet at record levels but have rallied more than 50 per cent in five weeks, exceeding prices reached in the wake of Russia’s 2010 export ban.

However, this is only half the story. Vast quantities of corn in the US have to be converted to biofuels by law.

[T]he biggest potential for a reduction in corn demand comes from the ethanol industry, which is using roughly 5bn bushels of corn, or nearly 40 per cent of the US corn crop, each year to make fuel for cars and animal feed.

In essence, the demands of politicians (and farmers) have, once again, turned a food problem into a food crisis.

You would have thought that after the UN referred to biofuels as a "crime against humanity" there might have been at least a pause for thought. It seems, however, that pork barrel politics can win out over pretty much anything and the headlong rush to reduce the supply of food and to increase the supply of ethanol continues unabated.

And it's not just in the US either. The Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (POST; headed by Lord Oxburgh) recently reported on the use of biofuels in the UK and there is little sign of concern over the contribution of biofuels. Indeed, the report notes that a parliamentary inquiry in 2007/8 determined that biofuel production had little impact on food prices. If the proportion of the US corn crop diverted to ethanol production is indeed 40%, it's hard to imagine how they reached this conclusion.

From the POST report, we learn that the UK government recently published a biofuels strategy. From this, we learn that the Committee on Climate Change has recommended that biofuels targets should be flexible, a suggestion that has met the following response from the government:

We recognise that tensions could exist between bioenergy and food prices. Biofuels mandates that can be temporarily flexed or otherwise relaxed at times of agricultural price pressures have been raised in international fora as possible solutions for reducing the severity of these spikes. We will be undertaking further analysis on the potential merits of this and other mitigating options in the coming months.

I'm sure that people who can no longer afford a loaf of bread will be much reassured by the fact that the UK government is discussing flexing their biofuels mandates.


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  • Response
    Response: Farming madness
    While the weather in the UK has been, with barely a break, a miserable wet time resembling one of those bits of the Old Testament where God gets a bit pissed off with His Creation, it has been stinking hot in some other countries, notably the wheat-growing parts of the US. ...

Reader Comments (38)

Thank you so much for writing this Bish - and making the connection once again between projected problems for the poorest and biofuels.

Jul 20, 2012 at 8:00 AM | Unregistered CommenterRichard Drake

Part of the problem is we have a sizeable number of very important MP's who have never known anything else other than being an MP. These people ARE disconnected from reality hence why nothing ever gets done.

Perhaps Richard North is right? Maybe it is time to pit the fear of the population back in to MP's?


Jul 20, 2012 at 8:31 AM | Unregistered CommenterMailman

Hence the arab spring ...

Jul 20, 2012 at 8:34 AM | Unregistered Commenterconfused

'In essence, the demands of politicians (and farmers) have, once again, turned a food problem into a food crisis....'

Can't quite see why we farmers are to blame! We're trying to grow as much as we can.

Jul 20, 2012 at 8:52 AM | Unregistered CommenterCharlie Flindt

The real problem is the number of lawyers in the EU bureaucracy. Not only do these people have no knowledge of how an industrial society works, they can legally insist on their crazy ideas being implemented without having mandatory assessment by professionals.

This is why the German Power Grid is near collapse.. Our Power Grid is to follow real soon. These people are now insisting on electric cars with no power to charge the batteries!

Jul 20, 2012 at 9:07 AM | Unregistered Commenterspartacusisfree

"You would have thought that after the UN referred to biofuels as a "crime against humanity" there might have been at least a pause for thought. It seems, however, that pork barrel politics can win out over pretty much anything and the headlong rush to reduce the supply of food and to increase the supply of ethanol continues unabated."

Quite - and I think you'll find that the UN are fully supportive and pushing the agenda -

"Bioenergy, defined as energy produced fromorganic matter or biomass, has recently become one of the most dynamic and rapidly changing sectors of the global energy economy. Accelerated growth in the production and use of bioenergy in the past few years is attracting interest from policy makers and investors around the globe...

"The gradual move away from oil has begun. Over the next 15 to 20 years we may see biofuels providing a full 25 percent of the world's energy needs"
-Alexander M Iler, Assistand Director-General for the Sustainable Development Department, FAO

... Recent oil price increases have had devastating effects on many of the world's poor countries, some of which now spend as much as six times as much on fuel as they do on health...In such national settings the macroeconomic benefits of channelling fuel revenues into poor rural economies could be substantial ..."

United Nations "Sustainable Bioenergy: A Framework for Decision Makers"

Jul 20, 2012 at 9:15 AM | Unregistered CommenterMarion

Last year when traveling in America I was shocked at the price of corn on the cob during harvest season! Three ears for a dollar instead of a dozen for a buck!

Jul 20, 2012 at 9:24 AM | Unregistered CommenterPaul in Sweden

Confused...the Arab Spring has had the exact opposite effect that our friends on the left want it to have (less freedom, price increases, religious intolerance etc).


Jul 20, 2012 at 9:58 AM | Unregistered CommenterMailman

Spartacusisfre says "The real problem is the number of lawyers in the EU bureaucracy. Not only do these people have no knowledge of how an industrial society works, they can legally insist on their crazy ideas being implemented without having mandatory assessment by professionals.

This is why the German Power Grid is near collapse.. Our Power Grid is to follow real soon. These people are now insisting on electric cars with no power to charge the batteries!"

Unfortunately, it's not just Eurocrats. For those who had the patience to continue watching the DECC Climate Change Committee meeting beyond GWPF's stint (another BH thread) would have seen a very determined performance by advocates on wind energy, questioned (if you could call it that) by a number of what looked like tailor's dummies. I've promised myself I'll check out the credentials of these committee members, because they didn't seem to have any idea. The windies were making statement after statement with no back up but no challenges either. If HMG is going to make its decision on whether to cut wind energy ROC subsidy based on this committee's work, expect the status quo.

Jul 20, 2012 at 10:02 AM | Unregistered CommenterIan_UK

In special circumstances, at the margin, renewables can make useful contributions. But its that extrapolation from a marginal contribution to (apparently) arbitrary figures like 15, or 20, or even 25% of our energy needs from renewables that is the heart of the problem. While all sorts of things are theoretically possible, all sorts of things can also be bloody silly, and full of unintended consequences. Our political elite - hahaha - indeed needs cleverness, but it does need to balance that with judgement.

Jul 20, 2012 at 10:07 AM | Unregistered Commenterbill

Charlie Flindt Jul 20, 2012 at 8:52 AM

I don't know whereabouts you farm, but in the south-west, huge areas of farmland are likely to be covered in solar panels. I'm talking of lots of applications going in for 100+ acre solar farms. There are vast numbers of applications for smaller schemes involving typically 10 acre fields.

And as the CEO of RWE in Germany said, solar power in northern Europe is as sensible as growing pineapples in Alaska.

The decision to heat or eat is rapidly getting worse.

Jul 20, 2012 at 10:09 AM | Unregistered CommenterPhillip Bratby

It is a heartless crime to turn food into fuel when so many people around the world do not have enough to eat spending almost all of their income on food. There is an abundance of alternative fuels availble and much more to be exploited. Why are charities like Oxfam not shouting louder about this international outrage.

Jul 20, 2012 at 10:13 AM | Unregistered CommenterRoss Lea

Ross; what you must realise is that the renewables' and biofuels' scams are driven by corruption.

Jul 20, 2012 at 10:19 AM | Unregistered Commenterspartacusisfree

RegenSW, a QUANGO in the south-west dominated by vested interests with profits in renewables, has proudly announced 327MW of new solar capacity in the south-west in the last year. Most of that is farm-based. At about 10acres per MW installed, that comes to about 3,000acres of farmland either taken out of farming, or only suitable for minimal grazing. With a capacity factor of about 10%, the amount of electricity actually produced is derisory and, of course no electricity is produced when demand is highest.

Jul 20, 2012 at 10:23 AM | Unregistered CommenterPhillip Bratby

The big player in this is the US where subsidies were introduced to encourage ethanol production from corn and biodiesel from soy as a huge sop to the powerful farming lobby, especially in electorally sensitive states. These were backed up by mandates on biofuel blends in all fuel sold, export subsidies and protective tariffs to block the import of Brazillian sugarcane ethanol (both cheaper and with lower impact on food production). The processes are far from efficient: there are claims that the "well-to-wheel" CO2 footprint is little different from conventional fuel.
Some of this is being dismantled due to trade legislation and the impact of surging domestic oil production but, I fear, common sense is unlikely to prevail until after the elections.

Jul 20, 2012 at 10:30 AM | Unregistered CommenterMikeH

'Much like the late 19th century produced plenty of sordid stories and crime in the development of the oil industry, there is a lot of organised crime rushing to get involved in renewable energy. We can either praise the mafia’s newfound sense of ecological correctness or note the large amount of government subsidy being thrown around rather carelessly.

Lord Oxburgh is chairman of Falck Renewables, a windfarm manufacturer that is a subsiidiary of the troubled Falck Group in Milan, Italy. The projects that Falck Renewables build seem to follow a pattern:

Their project in La Muela, Spain, was associated with the arrest of 18 people on organised crime issues.

“Powerful wind turbines churned the air above La Muela last week but the stir in this small Aragonese town was caused by the arrest of the mayor and 18 other people on charges that reveal a new phenomenon in Spain: eco-corruption.”'

Jul 20, 2012 at 10:40 AM | Unregistered Commenterspartacusisfree

Neither Britaion nor the human race has any productivity problems other than those imposed by political parasotes (that includes the farmers as well as the polticos).

Jul 20, 2012 at 10:59 AM | Unregistered CommenterNeil Craig

Zed and follow- up comments removed

Jul 20, 2012 at 11:43 AM | Registered CommenterBishop Hill

"Why are charities like Oxfam not shouting louder about this international outrage."
Jul 20, 2012 at 10:13 AM | Ross Lea

Ross, Oxfam doesn't give a damn, it is four square with the other NGOs in lobbying for the cut back of production in the Western Industrialised societies. If it gave a damn it would have lobbied for the re-introduction of DDT in those African countries where the enviros had succeeded in getting it banned. They didn't and 40 million human beings died, and are still dying, from a disease that was wiped out in Europe and the US through the use of DDT. And our Spring is still full of birdsong.

Jul 20, 2012 at 11:49 AM | Unregistered Commentergeronimo

It is criminal insanity to use food crops for biofuels. We have no MPs in the UK who understand science let alone know anyone who does.

Jul 20, 2012 at 11:49 AM | Unregistered CommenterJohn Marshall

Re: Jul 20, 2012 at 10:40 AM | spartacusisfree

Another example -

"They had to burn the village to save it from global warming"

"But in this case, the government and the company said the settlers were illegal and evicted for a good cause: to protect the environment and help fight global warming.

The case twists around an emerging multibillion-dollar market trading carbon-credits under the Kyoto Protocol, which contains mechanisms for outsourcing environmental protection to developing nations.

The company involved, New Forests Company, grows forests in African countries with the purpose of selling credits from the carbon-dioxide its trees soak up to polluters abroad. Its investors include the World Bank, through its private investment arm, and the Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corporation, HSBC."


Re: Jul 20, 2012 at 11:49 AM | John Marshall

"It is criminal insanity to use food crops for biofuels. We have no MPs in the UK who understand science let alone know anyone who does."

How true, particularly of Ed Miliband,our then Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change who was responsible for pushing the horrendously expensive Climate Change Act 2008 through parliament and then touring the country in the run up to Copenhagen along with Franny Armstrong (of 10:10 notoriety) warning of the dangers of negative feedback loops leading to runaway global warming (and yes he did say negative feedback loops!!!

The 'Age of Stupid' indeed!

Although to be fair MP Graham Stringer was beginning to question it -

"There are proposals to increase worldwide taxation by up to a trillion dollars on the basis of climate science predictions. This is an area where strong and opposing views are held. The release of the e-mails from CRU at the University of East Anglia and the accusations that followed demanded independent and objective scrutiny by independent panels. This has not happened. The composition of the two panels has been criticised for having members who were over identified with the views of CRU. Lord Oxburgh as President of the Carbon Capture and Storage Association and Chairman of Falck Renewable appeared to have a conflict of interest. Lord Oxburgh himself was aware that this might lead to criticism. Similarly Professor Boulton as an ex colleague of CRU seemed wholly inappropriate to be a member of the Russell panel. No reputable scientist who was critical of CRU's work was on the panel, and prominent and distinguished critics were not interviewed. The Oxburgh panel did not do as our predecessor committee had been promised, investigate the science, but only looked at the integrity of the researchers. With the exception of Professor Kelly's notes other notes taken by members of the panel have not been published. This leaves a question mark against whether CRU science is reliable. The Oxburgh panel also did not look at CRU's controversial work on the IPPC which is what has attracted most series allegations. Russell did not investigate the deletion of e-mails. We are now left after three investigations without a clear understanding of whether or not the CRU science is compromised.".—(Graham Stringer.)”

Jul 20, 2012 at 12:25 PM | Unregistered CommenterMarion

"It is criminal insanity to use food crops for biofuels."

We should not blame farmers, who are in business to make profit like any other business, and they always follow the money. Unless there is a command economy, of course - is that what we want?

Once oilseeds - soybean, oilseed rape - are defatted the residue is used as food for livestock. It is moot, from year to year, whether the driver for growing oilseeds is demand for the oil or for the meal (via meat). As a bonus, feeding by-product to livestock works wonders in the looking-glass world of carbon accounting, and lowers the LCA CO2e/kg of meat. This is an excellent means of green-baiting.

Given the powers I would disallow any SPS (UK farm handout scheme) and export subsidies on any crops exported from the UK. Then we might get some realistic balance back into UK food production. An outbreak of parochialism is needed - screw World Trade.

And vegans would have to live on whatever can be grown here. No more tofu.

Jul 20, 2012 at 1:14 PM | Unregistered CommenterFilbert Cobb

To understand the true nature of the insanity being exhibited by a substantial part of the population, it only necessary to understand a simple message, which is that so long as there are voters to be conned, politicians will act as lemmings to destroy our Society.

Thus Merkel, a PhD theoretical chemist justifies her energy approach, which has almost destroyed the German power grid, on the basis that he World will fry unless this is done.

The real scum are those who deceived such senior politicians, and themselves have their hand in the cookie jar. I've already alluded to one such individual, a geologist who should know better [most geologists dismiss the IPCC scam because they know there have been periods with far higher CO2 and in ice ages.

Jul 20, 2012 at 1:41 PM | Unregistered Commenterspartacusisfree

spartacusisfree : "The real scum are those who deceived such senior politicians..."

     Can't make that line ring for me, Spartacus. Senior politicians so deceived merit no elevation above anyone. We give them the wherewithal to scrutinize and investigate, so if they are played for suckers they are the ones who deserve our final outrage.
     Not knowing the gun was loaded is a plea of the weak and foolish and a line in an old western drawl...

Jul 20, 2012 at 1:56 PM | Unregistered CommenterRoger Carr

Just two days ago I was offered a great chance to invest in commodities markets. According to the report I received, I could earn over 13% by reaping the advantages of price increases. The US drought was mentioned as a positive thing. I answered by telling that I found this kind of investing morally corrupt.

But this shows pretty well how bad news can just be converted to a way to profit. So decision makers get to choose: To change the system, ignore the problem or profit by investing.

BTW, the offer came from a group who invests heavily in wind power. When I asked if they are really that bad at math and physics, they said that they do know that wind power doesn't work, but it's just a safe and profitable way to tax the government. Didn't invest in that either.

Jul 20, 2012 at 3:09 PM | Registered CommenterVieras

Some sympathy for your argument but ultimately, it was the responsibility of King then Beddington to check the IPCC science was correct. They did not and King is on record as making incorrect statements on the science at a meeting in Moscow then flouncing out in a temper when he was corrected by the Russians. Beddington isn't a scientist so is less culpable.

Any competent professional should see the IPCC Energy budget is based on incorrect physics but far too many did not when all you do is sum up the inputs and outputs, including the TOA DOWN assumption.

Jul 20, 2012 at 3:20 PM | Unregistered Commenterspartacusisfree

Fiddled data, dodgy physics and uselss models. And now human beings are going to starve to death.

Slingo et al have a lot to answer for!

Jul 20, 2012 at 3:55 PM | Unregistered CommenterRoger Longstaff

Agreed; you can't have a real physical system creating more energy than goes in.

My bet is that if you peer deeply into the model(s) there may be a disconnect between the assumption of albedo used to determine the energy input and the albedo derived within he models as part of the time steps. Purely a guess but you can't avoid something like it. it could be a fudge factor which creeps calibrate.

Jul 20, 2012 at 4:26 PM | Unregistered Commenterspartacusisfree

Just for once I agree with the BBC - biofuels are a "crime against humanity":

Jul 20, 2012 at 6:16 PM | Unregistered CommenterRoger Longstaff

Biofuels are a "crime against humanity" in many ways.
They is worst that bird mills and solar farms.
Corruption and lies drive all this.

Jul 20, 2012 at 7:28 PM | Unregistered CommenterAndres Valencia

AGW- a crime against Humanity.

But only if we believe in it.

Jul 20, 2012 at 8:51 PM | Unregistered CommenterDon Keiller

In discussing the culpability of our MPs I think you have to examine what they did to inform themselves. Almost without exception MPs voted onto committees like the DECC select committee get all their information in house.
I expect an MP who is on a specialist committee to educate himself on the subject because he is truly desirous of doing his job right, oh dear.

The answer to all this crap is to accept that we are not yet anywhere near ready to predict anything useful about our climate, stop trying to control it and instead plan for all eventualities.
Just look at this year alone:

We discovered that sea grass is a massive carbon sink, nobody knew until this year.
We now know that Gypsum created along the lines where tectonic plates meet; could be controlling climate.
We have papers predicting that Ozone is the biggest influence on climate.
Svensmarks huge new paper based on the known correlation between temperature and sunspots gives a galaxy spanning explanation of how cosmic rays are controlling climate.
Governments dont even know this stuff is happening, they dont want to know either at least my MP who is on the DECC committee does not.

Jul 20, 2012 at 9:01 PM | Registered CommenterDung

It is criminal insanity to use food crops for biofuels. We have no MPs in the UK who understand science let alone know anyone who does.

Jul 21, 2012 at 11:58 AM | Unregistered CommenterJohn Marshall

Further to my post 20th July 10-13 am

There is another shocking article on Jo Nova's blog on this thread. The worlds politicians should hang their heads in shame.

Jul 22, 2012 at 10:10 AM | Unregistered CommenterRoss Lea

Yes indeed, the UN (in all its many guises) has much to answer for

Similar to the EU it seems to create many of the problems for which it then requires extra massive funds (and even bigger bureaucracies to distribute them) in order to 'solve' those problems it has created.

Interested readers should do their own research and draw their own conclusions

Decide for themselves the best use for the funds they provide to governments.

Jul 22, 2012 at 2:00 PM | Unregistered CommenterMarion

Greenpeace etc now oppose the use of biofuels though in the past they promoted them. They seem to have done an excellent job of cleaning evidence of their early support from the Web. As usual they manage to escape any responsibility for the negative effects of their campaings.

Does anyone have any useful links to Green NGOs past support for biofuels?

Jul 23, 2012 at 4:57 PM | Unregistered CommenterGeary

Re: Jul 23, 2012 at 4:57 PM | Geary

Jul 25, 2012 at 8:27 PM | Unregistered CommenterMarion

Re: Jul 23, 2012 at 4:57 PM | Geary

Hi Geary,

You may find these useful

Jul 25, 2012 at 8:34 PM | Unregistered CommenterMarion

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