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According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), roughly 750,000 people around the world are facing a food security “catastrophe,” meaning that “starvation, death, destitution and extremely critical acute malnutrition levels are evident,” writes The Energy Mix in this recent piece about diminishing food supplies and famines.

Climate Change: Famines and the Food Crisis , Below2C

(This post is sourced from Need-to-Know series authored by Stephen Leahy.)

Food Crisis: prices are 34% higher than a year ago

Food prices are at the highest since the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization started recording them in 1990. In fact, the prices in its Food Prices Index—a measure of the most commonly traded food commodities— are literally off the chart.

As many as 1.7 billion people in 107 countries face large-scale crisis from record-high food and energy prices and growing levels of debt. These countries, mostly in Africa, Asia and the Pacific, and Latin America and the Caribbean, had already been struggling with impacts of the pandemic crisis and climate change.

Exposure to just one additional risk is enough to cause debt distress, food shortages or blackouts, according to a preliminary analysis by the United Nations’ Global Crisis Response Group.

“All of this is hitting the poorest the hardest and planting the seeds for political instability and unrest around the globe.” —UN Secretary-General António Guterres.”

Grim stuff in what will be a challenging year ahead. Here’s some context. Of the world’s cereal crop production (rice, wheat, corn, etc) :

  • 48% is eaten by humans
  • 41% is used for animal feed
  • 11% for biofuels (ethanol, biodiesel)

Of all the wheat, rice, corn, rye, oats, barley, sorghum grown in the US every year a mere 10% is eaten by people. The rest is for animal feed and biofuels.

One person is probably dying of hunger every 48 seconds in Ethiopia, Kenya, and Somalia according to a report Oxfam and Save the Children

Need-to-Know 1: 90% of crops grown in US is used for animal feed or biofuels.

(It is roughly the same proportion (+/-10%) in Canada, Australia, and most of Europe.)

The US converted 121 million tons of its corn crop into ethanol in 2019. Although considered a “green fuel”, ethanol’s lifecycle carbon emissions are no better than gasoline. Some studies say it is worse.

Globally, some 70 million acres of food-producing land is devoted to biofuels that provide less than 5% of the world’s transportation fuels.

Need-to-Know 2: 70 million acres of farmland is used for biofuels.
Need-to-Know 3: Plants make shitty solar panels.

Plants convert approximately 0.023% of the sunlight energy they receive. A solar panel with 20% efficiency converts 20% of the sunshine it receives into electricity. The best solar panels on the market today can reach almost 25% efficiency.

(I did a real-world energy comparison between plants and solar panels — and had it vetted by experts.)

An acre of high-yield corn in the US midwest can be converted into 500 gallons of ethanol on average. If a vehicle could run on 100% ethanol, it would travel 8,750 miles on 500 gallons. (Ethanol has 30% less energy than gasoline.)

An acre of solar panels produces an average 350 megawatt hours (MWh) in one year. That’s enough electricity to be able to drive a Tesla Model 3 some 1,400,000 miles. (Model 3 uses 62 KWh to travel 250 miles.)

That is 160X more miles from solar on the same acre of land in this tank-to-wheels comparison. Among the reasons the Tesla could go 160X further is the 400% better energy efficiency of electric vehicles compared to gasoline or diesel-powered vehicles.

In other words, to match the annual travel distance of EVs recharged from 1 acre of solar, requires 160 acres of corn converted into ethanol. (Even accounting for losses from electricity transmission, battery charging and grid storage.)

Iowa uses 8 million acres to grow corn for ethanol. If Iowa put solar panels on just 50,000 acres that would generate the same amount of vehicle fuel as the 8 million acres of corn-ethanol. Plus no emissions. No fertilizers. No need to plant, water and fertilize a crop every year. BONUS: Iowa would have 7.95 million more acres to grow food people can eat.

Of course there’s more to the food crisis than reclaiming land from ethanol and other types of biofuel production but converting some of those acres to food production is a big part of solving the problem. Who the hell ever thought ethanol and biofuels was a good idea?

Need-to-Know 4: Agrivoltaics – farming solar panels

Agrivoltaics is also known as solar sharing, a practice that takes advantage of the synergies of co-locating agriculture and solar panels.

Solar panels elevated two to four metres (6 to 12 feet) above farm fields help food crops grow with less water. The plants can help panels produce up to 10% more energy because the panels stay cooler, according to studies.

Food prices are high and going higher. The war in Ukraine is making it worse but prices were climbing in 2021. Lots of reasons but one big reason is the tens of millions of acres used for ethanol that do nothing to reduce carbon emissions. A shockingly wasteful use of food-producing land. War and supply chain issues may end but the climate crisis is now a “persistent threat to food security.”

More Stephen Leahy:
Living Well On Less Energy
Eliminate 90% of Greenhouse Gas (GHG) Emissions in 15 Years

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.Creative Commons License

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  1. There’s a lot to unpack here, but a fundamental misunderstanding is the deeper structural problem behind hunger, poverty, where close to 80% of the global “undernourished” are rural, in need of much improved rural economies, higher farm prices. Nearly 70% of LDC population is rural, and many continue to flock to urban ghettos from rural poverty areas. What causes cheap farm prices (hurting this 80% and 70%) is oversupply. Biofuels, whatever their other flaws and prospects, so far help reduce that oversupply. The WTO Africa Group and the global peasant group La Via Campesina have called for supply reduction/price floor policies on the underside of price. The UN Food Prices Index only started in 1990. For decades before that, farm prices were higher and higher, (the farther back you go toward the parity years of 1942-52, [living wage farm prices]). Major farm prices, including grains, were extremely low in the 1990s through 2005, and some continued on, causing massive rural poverty. The global poor greatly need the income from livestock. (See p. 3 of “The state of Food and Agriculture 2009: Livestock in the Balance” for some of these statistics. See WTO Africa Group and La Via Campesina info at my web page, below.) Finally, US farmers have been penalized toward negative impacts on climate, not rewarded toward them, due to the multi-trillion dollar reductions in farm income from price floor reduction (1953-1995) and elimination (1996-2023). [See “The Decline of Farming in Iowa: Part 1:” environmental impacts.]


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