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What is the food versus fuel debate?




Photo: André Künzelmann, UFZ

In early 2007 a “tortilla crisis” struck Mexico. The price of maize, the key ingredient in tortillas, doubled in just a few weeks, making this staple product unaffordable for many Mexicans. The situation was the result of export subsidies, which had been chipping away at Mexico’s agriculture for many years, and of America’s ballooning appetite for bioethanol. Instead of delivering maize to Mexico as usual, the US used a lot of it to produce lucrative bioethanol, which sent prices soaring south of the border. The tortilla crisis shows that growing cereal crops (like maize) and wood to produce biomass for use in energy production can clash with the cultivation of food crops. This is because we do not have an endless supply of agricultural land, and the areas we do have are not always used in the best way. “Food versus fuel” is a neat name for the debate surrounding the competition between the two types of crop use. Researchers investigating solutions are looking for ways of using biodegradable waste to produce biofuels and are developing energy-efficient cultivation and extraction methods for using e.g. algae oils for biodiesel production.

Prof. Dr. Daniela Thrän, Head of the Department “Bioenergy” at the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research – UFZ, Doris Böhme, Head of Press and Public Relations at the UFZ, and Paul Trainer, Press and Public Relations Department of the Deutschen Biomasseforschungszentrums (DBFZ) answered this question.