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Are biofuels ethically defensible?

According to the United Nations, 100 million tons of grain and corn is grown each year to make ethanol-- while almost a billion people are starving. Not every acre of the land that’s used for ethanol production is viable for food crops-- but much of it is. Already, there’s strong evidence that the push for biofuels has reduced access to food for those who need it most.

What do you think? Is the push for biofuels ethically defensible? If not, can we make it so? Share your thoughts.

We live in a free-market economy. Price will push ethics aside. Right now, it’s more profitable to grow grain for biofuel. When the price of food reaches the point where it is more profitable to sell grain for food, you’ll see the biofuel production drop. Ethical? Is it really a question of ethics? Should a doctor who specializes in elective cosmetic surgery, and makes way more money than, say, a pediatrician, question the ethics of his career choice? We could take this question a lot further, and find that many, maybe even most, industries and occupations aren’t as ethical as they could be. I guess the real question is, where is the line drawn between ethics and business?

Promotion of biofuels is not unethical based on your criteria if one includes in the statement the research that’s going on in the areas of the use of things like marine organisms. Should these yield results we could have fuel soures that do not impact agricultural production of foodstuffs.

The push for ethanol, however, is indefensible. Not only is the push for ethanol indefensible on the basis of ethics, it’s also indefensible on the basis of reducing dependence on foreign oil, dependence on dino fuels from a save-the-earth perspective, and by any other intelligen measure. Production of ethanol has been shown to require more dino fuel than would be required for the gasoline it displaces. It also reduces mileage, meaning it takes more ethanol to go the same distance as it would take gasoline.

Mexico has also suffered skyrocketing prices for their corn-based foodstuffs due to the agricultural community in that area switching to production of commodity for the ethanol market. The lower socioeconomic strata is suffering an inability to buy the foods that were their dietary staple.

I would say you have started at the end rather than the beginning. If we just reduced the amount of driving and used more public transportation… less fuel means less pollution and more food.

Free-market nothing. The only reason why biofuels are economically viable is because of government subsidies.

I don’t disagree with you; however, the farmer doesn’t care where the money comes from, just who pays the most for the crop.

In addition it pays to keep in mind that it is also a great way for all profit seekers in existing and related industries (including big oil) to continue to make plenty of $$ while everyone pretends that ethanol is some kind of “advance” in energy technology.

GJ is absolutely right. The only reason corn-based ethanol exists today is because of government mandates and subsidies, backed by the farm lobbies and corn states. I just got back from Wichita, KS, drove by one of MANY bankrupt ethanol plants. Ethanol from corn is a ‘crime against humanity’, according to researchers. It results in next to zero (some would say negative) reduction in oil imports, and has jacked up grain prices (including wheat and others) to no good effect. The claim that it’s a ‘first step towards other alcohols’ (like celullosic alcohols, fuel from algae, etc), is likewise nonsense. The alcohol plants being built today are largely identical to those built during the last alcohol boom/disaster cycle during the last gas crisis. How do I know this? My brother is a chemical engineer who helped design them, both then and now.

As for biodiesel, it certainly OK when made from waste oils, but that’s a very small volume. It is responsible for the ENVIRONMENTAL DISASTER in Indonesia, where rain forests were cut down to plant palm oil plantations (read about it here

So I see no defense for biofuels as the US is currently pursuing them. Ethanol from sugar cane? That’s OK, but I do worry about deforestation for cane plantations.

Corn based Bio-Fuel…Makes no sense to me…Ethically or financially.

However…companies are working on turning Algae into biofuel ( If this works it’s a GREAT idea. Doesn’t impact the food supply.

Production of ethanol has been shown to require more dino fuel than would be required for the gasoline it displaces.

First, ONE researcher (Prof. Pimental, of Cornell U) has found ethanol to be enegry-negtative, everyone else has found it to be at least modestly positive. (A group of researchers at Berkley had been associated with his work, but they backed out when the shortcomings of the methodology were revealed.)

Second, the energy used to produce ethanol is predominately domestically sourced (as opposed to the gasoline it displaces.)

Finally, the “third world” is mentioned as a loser due to higher fuel prices. Funny, back when I was in school a few years ago, the complaint was how US subsidized agribusiness and the associated LOW food prices were harming the third-world by preventing them from being food-sufficient. What, pray tell, is the “Goldilocks” price level for food?

(Although, as a free-market economist, I think it’s folly to turn corn into fuel ($2/200-proof gallon) as long as there are people willing to pay more money for cheap moonshine…)

“Second, the energy used to produce ethanol is predominately domestically sourced (as opposed to the gasoline it displaces.)”

While I understand that coal-based electricity and natural gas is part of the source for energy for ethanol production, I wonder why an ethanol backer explained the rise in corn prices not as caused by the demand for ethanol, but by rising oil/diesel/gasoline prices! If that’s true, then oil/diesel/gasoline DOES make up a large share of the production costs for corn.

Also, recent articles in Scientific American, National Geographic, and Consumer Reports all indicated the benifits of ethanol from corn are very limited. If the benefits are limited, and the costs are high, it’s not worth it.

Well, ethanol and petroleum are substitutable with one another. Thus, an increase in price for one can be reasonably expected to cause demand to shift to the other, causing a corresponding increase in price.

For instance, if the gov’t passed a tax tripling the cost of beer overnight, wouldn’t there suddenly be a lot more wine drinkers? Wouldn’t this shift in the demand curve cause the price of wine to go up? (Despite the fact that it takes no beer to make wine.)

“Well, ethanol and petroleum are substitutable with one another.”

This is what ethanol proponents are trying to deny-- namely that demand for ethanol is what is causing the price of food staples to go up. They’re trying to claim that it’s going up because of the effects of higher fuel prices on production and transportation costs of corn.

A billion people will continue to starve REGARDLESS of how we manage our corn crop. U.S. farmers are not willing to feed the worlds excess population for nothing…

There are 200 countries pretending to be “Sovereign Nations”… Many of them can’t even feed their own people…We need to consolidate this political mess into say 10 strong Nations. Then we can deal with these problems. But there is ZERO support for that…Thousands of useless politicians thrown out of work overnight…None of THEM miss any meals…

Part of this whole issue is that if the free-market were allowed to reign, the American farmer would not be able to stay in buisness. Since the 1920’s at least the problem with US agriculture has been oversupply-- farmers produce way too much and so the prices are unstable and generally low. That’s good for consumers, but it means that the market price farmers get doesn’t cover the price of production most years.

The solution to this FDR came up with initially was paying farmers to destroy crops. That didn’t go over too well-- see The Grapes of Wrath. Eventually they settled on just paying farmers not to grow crops, which has turned into sort of a joke, but at least isn’t as popular as destroying perfectly good crops.

But then along comes ethanol. It provides a lower-government outlay solution to the oversupply problem and (at least appears) to ease the high fuel price problem. If you’re a Congressman in a farm state, it’s a tough proposition to say no to, especially when you’re one of these conservatives that farm states elect on social issues who are for smaller government, but are at the same time obligated to keep the government largess coming to their districts. For this problem, ethanol works great-- it’s a farm subsidy that really doesn’t look very much like a farm subsidy.

Personally, though, I think if we concede that in the bounds of the free market, we cannot have both the cheap food prices we’re used to and farmers who make a living wage (which is I would argue undeniably true), and that therefore some sort of market manipulation has to take place, the most “moral” way to do it is by buying up crop surpluses for use as food aid, not in a phoney-baloney fuel program that leads to us burning more fossil fuels.

Most Americans have no clue how much money the annual “Agricultural Bill” amounts to…$250 Billion and up…An Unbelievable gravy train…

Americans like to talk about a “Free Market Economy”, but they don’t know what that is. It has never been put into practice. We live in a “To Big To Fail” economy…A backstage Socialism worked out over the years…

I saw and reccommend a documentary called “King Corn” it will give you a look into farm subsidies. One comical aspect of farm subsides is the criteria use to define a zone that qualifies for “emergency” or extra help. The zons in Texas where pieces of the space shuttle fell qualified and simply because that’s where the pieces fell.
There is so much back room dealing and just flat out incompetence involved with farm subsudies the situation seems hopeless.

Yes, I believe it is ethically defensible. Not to counter any of the arguments below, but it takes practice to make things work right. Right now it may be producing a negative net affect on energy consumption and food supplies, but it could lead to efficiencies in production that could end up in a net gain for both energy consumption and food production.

Foe example, if the waste parts of the corn plant like the leaves and stalks could be made into bio fuel efficiently, then the kernels could go into the food supply. Now the plant earns two ways making it more profitable for the farmer as well as a bargain for consumers.

Just because an idea doesn’t work the first time, it doesn’t mean its a bad idea. Look at the Vega engine. It had problems with cracking, but the 319 alloy is now used in a majority of engines produced today.

Cellulosic ethanol, if achieved, will be great. However, the well-known technology being used to make corn-based ethanol has nothing to do with developing that technology. Zero. Zip.

First let’s clear the air here. Biofuels is a very complex term. Corn based fuels, may not be viable, but Waste Vegitable Oil diesel fuel would work. And, no, I am not talking about the type of WVO fuel that uses defenistration (sp?). I am talking about minimally processed WVO diesel.

A WVO car would have the benefit of providing duel use out of one resource: frying and driving.

Issues concerning the WVO solidifying could easily be addressed throught the use of lining the fuel system with carbon nano tubes. This might have been problematic 6 years ago when it was easy to create these tubes but not make them grow in a straight line, however that was solved by groing them on a quartz crystal matrix back in 2005. These tubes are excellent conducters of heat and would be able to keep a WVO tank hot and liquid even in a North Dakota winter.

Right now there are businesses that convert diesel vehicle to running on WVO, so the technology for a pure WVO car is out there. In fact in Lovell Colorado, the company Lighting Hybirds has created a promising vehicle that uses turbo power and “bio-diesel fuels”.

Can this happen? Can we make it? Yes, and it would require less resources, design time and effort than electic or hydrogen vehicles. The question is why isn’t this happening.

All that corn so many are so worried about being used for bio-fuels could be turned into corn oil, used in frying, and THEN used as a fuel. We only need the courage and the drive to do it.