Posts Tagged ‘biofuels’

Graph of the year 2013: Proportion of calories delivered as food

Although already well into 2014, here is my personal “Graph of the Year 2013”: The proportion of produced calories that are delivered to the food system.


Source: Cassidy et al., Environm. Res. Lett. 8 (2013) 034015

The figure is one output of a study carried out by Emily Cassidy and colleagues of the University of Minnesota that was published in the journal Environmental Research Letters.

The researchers approach the challenge to provide sufficient amounts of food amidst global population growth, increased biofuel production and changing dietary preferences from a different angle than is widely done. Instead of estimating the increases in farm prodution necessary to satisfy the rising needs for agricultural products they analyze the current allocation of the world’s crop production to different uses.

According to the study, only 55% of global calorie production is directly used for human consumption. The remaining 45% serve either as animal feed or other uses such as industrial purposes and biofuels. In consequence, 41% of all calories produced are lost from the global food system. While the crops grown on one hectare could satisfy the caloric needs of 10 people, currently only 6 people are fed.

The graph gives a global overview of the fraction of the calories delivered to the food system per calories produced.  It shows that the losses from the food system are highest where livestock production, industrial uses and biofuels production are of a high importance. These are mainly the most affluent regions (e.g. North America, Europe), but also the regions in which agriculture is oriented at the production of animal feed for the global market (e.g. Eastern South America).

The arguably most important conclusion from the analysis is that if the crop calories used for feed and other uses were shifted to direct human consumption, up to around 4 billion more people could be fed. Or, perhaps easier to achieve, already small changes in the allocation of crops to animal feed and biofuels could significantly increase global food availability.



Gin, politics, and the price of grains

10/01/2013 2 comments

On the Agricultural Biodiversity Weblog, Jeremy Cherfas points us to the nice story that at the beginning of his regency the English King William III sought to gain the support of the land-owning aristocracy by keeping the price of grains high. A means of achieving this was the deregulation of distilling, which then led to the famous English 18th century gin boom.

Those who know a bit the political economy of biofuels and the debate on the impact of biofuel policies on food prices may be as quick as Cherfas to draw the parallels to this contemporary phenomenon.

But biofuels aside. Cherfas raises the interesting question whether the demand for grain for distilling has had any impact on food prices in the 18th century? Let’s have a look:


The graph shows the prices of Barley, Rye and Wheat in England from 1650 to 1720. The vertical black line roughly marks the deregulation of distilling by King William (1689 is the date I’ve found after some superficial online search).

What we can observe is that grain prices were declining since the mid 1670s. And indeed, after the deregulation of distilling, this negative trend is reversed and prices started to rise and continued doing so for the following ten years.

Well, as things look like, the price rises have been really substantial. The question is whether drinking alone can cause, say, wheat prices to more than double. It may be more conceivable that 250,272,812 motor vehicles in the US and even more elsewhere running on ethanol blended fuel drive up corn prices …

(Amendment: Many thanks to the International Institute of Social History for making the price series available.)