What do “feedstock experts” do? In the “renewable” world, the term “feedstock” is used to mean any renewable, biological material that can be used directly as a fuel, or converted to another form of fuel or energy product raw material used to supply or fuel a machine or industrial process. These would include lots of different plant and algal materials that are used to derive fuels like ethanol, butanol, biodiesel, and other hydrocarbon fuels. When we speak of feedstocks in the biofuels and biochemicals industries, we most often think of algae, animals, municipal waste, a variety of purpose-grown grass crops like switchgrass, corn stover and starch, vegetable oils, sugar cane juice and bagasse, and woody plants, although new feedstocks continue to emerge. While biomass is certainly the oldest source of fuel energy, its use in the production of transportation fuels is relatively new. While biofuels can certainly substitute for fossil fuels, and provide carbon from a renewable source, the competition for biomass continues as a key issue in the debate on bioenergy. This is because biomass is also used as food, in many materials bioplastics and textiles, and for other energy use. With food, in particular, this inevitably leads to the “food v. fuel” debate. Those opposed opine that when some of these feedstocks are used in making biofuels (like corn and soybeans), less of these are left for human consumption, thus causing the price to rise. While this argument is frequently heard from those with significant financial interests that are adversely affected by biofuels, it is important to know the truth. The reality is that the price of food has steadily increased over the years, and is most often tied to rises in inflation. The most significant increases in food prices were in years well before the advent of biofuels.
Biofuels are not the culprit. The price of oil is a major determinative factor in the price of food. Why? Because when it becomes more expensive to transport food, its cost goes up. Food prices have risen as an indirect result of our changing climate. As greenhouse gases are emitted, heat is trapped. When this happens, air temperatures rise absorbing more moisture and resulting in less rain. The resulting drier farmland is not only more difficult to farm, but when it does rain, the water is more likely to run off (as opposed to being absorbed), which in turn creates flooding. All of these negatively impact grain prices. The point to remember is that as we discuss the impact of biofuels on the cost of food, we must see the full picture. Notwithstanding, it is very important that we continue to develop feedstocks that do not compete in the food chain, such as manure and wastewater. Experts, including ours, are working daily on making certain that we create a balanced system for the future of the planet.
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