Paying for biofuels in your supermarket

On March 12, representatives of about 80 of America's largest baking companies, representing more than 85 percent of our baking industry, marched in Washington to protest the dangerously low supplies of wheat, rye and other grains. The 'Band of Bakers March on Washington' highlighted, among other things, that use of corn for ethanol and soybeans for biodiesel is impacting food security here and abroad. As producers turn to growing corn for the ethanol market, back-to-back yearly shortfalls in wheat production have left wheat stocks at a 30-year low.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the price of a bushel of wheat rose from $4.71 in February 2007 to $10.40 in February 2008, while durum wheat, used in pastas, rose from $5.16 to $16.40 per bushel in the same time period. The USDA predicts that U.S. wheat supplies will be lower than at any time since 1948, when our population was only 147 million. Our nation's supply of rye is depleted and bakers now have to import rye from Germany and the Netherlands.

These escalations in the prices of grains and grain products (hundreds of food staples) are creating hardships for consumers’ food needs all over the world. The United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization reported that food prices increased 40 percent in 2007 alone. The cruel program of converting food to fuel is increasing hunger for billions of the world's poor and is a major contributor to undocumented immigration to the U.S.

Besides diverting U.S. agricultural land to corn from other grains, biofuel production also has devastating environmental consequences. Brazil's hundreds of miles of sugarcane plantations for ethanol have come at the expense of huge areas of the Amazon rainforest basin. Asian rainforests are being bulldozed to plant palm oil plantations for biodiesel, mainly for Europe. The loss of these 'carbon sinks,' which have taken centuries to develop, contributes to global warming. Critical water supplies are also depleted since 9,000 gallons of water are needed to produce one gallon of biodiesel.

Industry apologists claim that these objections will be met in a few years when 'cellulosic' biofuels can be created from non-edible plant wastes and plants, such as switchgrass. However, Iowa State University researchers reported in a recent publication that the production of cellulosic biofuels will require tax credits of $1.55 per gallon, making it unacceptably costly. Also, a recent Princeton University study concluded that production from any proposed biofuel source is far worse for the environment, including accelerating climate change, than is the current production of gasoline.

What alternative? Conservation! The 3 percent to 5 percent gain in fuel supplies that biofuels are supposed to provide could be met many times over by raising auto fuel efficiency by an easily-obtainable 20 percent, or by a major investment in public transportation and bicycle paths, or by challenging the ''throw away'' economy with a massive recycling industry, or by rejuvenating our urban centers and limiting the continuing destructive waste of suburban sprawl, or by major investments in renewable energy sources. These programs could even generate profits for new industries within our capitalist economy.

The biofuels industry poses no challenge to the oil industry. In fact, Big Oil openly supports biofuels. These two giant industries are dictating the world's energy program. This program is based on one overriding consideration: maximum profits for them. They have enormous resources to dictate government policies. Only strong voices for change can set the world in a new direction for sustainable energy policies that benefit people and save the planet from ecological disaster.

David Kennell (kennell@borcim.wustl.edu) is professor emeritus of molecular microbiology at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis.