Does biofuel endanger developing nations?

The controversy over the use of biofuel as an alternative and renewable energy source may soon get even more heated.  

A recent statement suggests biofuels policy could be responsible for 200,000 deaths per year in developing nations.

According to the Association of American Physicians and Surgeons (AAPS), one Dr. Indur Goklany, a long time on and off associate of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), believes that current policies governing the production of biofuel are responsible for increased disease and death in economically struggling countries around the globe.

It’s a strong and absolute statement, but Dr. Goklany asserts his assessment is accurate. His rationale is this: as the production of energy crops for biofuel increases, it steers crops and cropland away from feeding people and toward feeding motor vehicles.

As a result, the cost of food increases and  those higher food costs translate to chronic hunger and “absolute poverty” (defined as income less than $1.25 per day).

According to Goklany, since hunger and poverty are known to be leading causes in premature death and excess disease, then some instances of producing biofuel results in increased death and disease.

Dr. Goklany reportedly considered research issued by the World Bank that suggests the increase in in biofuels production over 2004 levels would push more than 35 million additional people into absolute poverty in 2010 within developing countries. 

Goklany also used statistics issued by the World Health Organization (WHO) and came up with an estimate that the increase in biofuel production will cause at least 192,000 excess deaths per year, plus disease resulting in the loss of 6.7 million “disability-adjusted life-years” (DALYs) per year.

Since the WHO estimates that global warming accounts for a toll of 141,000 deaths and 5.4 million lost DALYs, the numbers would indicate that biofuel, intended to reduce the effects of global warming, are actually costing more lives than it saves.

Golkany even went so far as to state that death and disease from poverty are a fact, whereas death and disease from global warming are hypothetical. 

The full report, which was published by Golkany in the AAPS’ journal is available here.

Such an assessment would seem to indicate that policies designed to safeguard food production while producing energy crops for biofuel would be a critical step in preventing unintended consequences in developing nations. 

Plants such as Camelina and Jatropha, which are used to create oils for biofuel as well as poplar and willow trees, which are used to create biomass, have attracted attention recently because they show potential for high yields even when planted on “marginal” quality land, thus limiting impingement on food crops and cropland.

Caleb Denison, EarthTechling