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Biofuels the price of gas

Published on April 11th, 2011 | by Jo Borrás


GOP Front Group AAPS Behind Bogus Biofuel Death Claims

April 11th, 2011 by  

The article below was originally featured on Cleantechnica’s sister site, Gas 2.0.

Every once in a while, I read something that doesn’t quite jive. Sometimes it’s a simple typo or a misplaced decimal point, and a quick double-take + common sense will straighten things out. Other times, like when I read a report on Autoblog Green about the Association of American Physicians and Surgeons (AAPS) predicting a move to ethanol-based bio-fuels “could kill 200,000 people a year”, something more sinister (or possibly just “more stupid”) is behind the apparent disconnect.

Reading the article (which I encourage everyone to do), the argument the AAPS is making essentially “boils down” to a single passage, which reads –

Increased production of biofuels increases the price of food worldwide by diverting crops and cropland from feeding people to feeding motor vehicles. Higher food prices, in turn, condemn more people to chronic hunger and “absolute poverty” (defined as income less than $1.25 per day). But hunger and poverty are leading causes of premature death and excess disease worldwide. Therefore, higher biofuel production would increase death and disease.

– got that? At first glance, it might seem like solid reasoning.

It’s not.

Before I get down to the business of analyzing the logic behind that argument critically (i.e., like a good little philosophy major) I’m going to play a little “logical argument game” with the AAPS. Mind you, this little game will not actually refute the argument in any way (but we’ll get to that, I promise) and serves no grander purpose than letting me vent about something that irks me, but play along. I think you’ll enjoy it.

Logical argument game: attack ad hominem.

Generally speaking, the validity of a given argument is independent of the arguer – which is to say: it doesn’t matter who says “2+2=4″, the statement is either true or false on its own merit. So, when an ultra-conservative GOP lobby calling itself “the Association of American Physicians and Surgeons” says things like “HIV doesn’t cause AIDS“, “the homosexual lifestyle reduces lifespan by 20 years”, and that “human activity has not contributed to climate change”, these shouldn’t take away from the group’s credibility.

So, despite the fact that other medical and scientific journals have claimed that the AAPS “is waging a war on science- and evidence-based medicine in the name of its politics” and that the New York Times described AAPS’ members as an “ultra-right-wing … political-economic rather than a medical group”, that shouldn’t influence our reading of the AAPS’ “biofuels kill” argument (in gray) above.

So, while the AAPS are (op-ed comment in 3 … 2 … 1 …) a malicious, racist, and homophobic bunch of ******bags, their malicious, racist, and homophobic ******baggery is not a logically valid reason to automatically disbelieve what they’re saying about biofuel production being causally related to 200,000 deaths each year.

See? That was fun! Sophomoric, sure, but still fun. Besides, we don’t need to go after the AAPS’ own creditability to cast doubt (if not totally dismantle) their “biofuels kill” argument. From here on out, we’ll apply sound, 101 “intro-logic” level reasoning to the argument and see how it stands up.

Let’s start with the first sentence of the AAPS’ statement, which reads “Increased production of biofuels increases the price of food worldwide by diverting crops and cropland from feeding people to feeding motor vehicles.” The sentence itself, as a grammatical English sentence, is really a compound sentence, making a first point (increased production of biofuels increases the price of food), whose truth is implied by a second point (biofuel production diverts crops and cropland from feeding people to feeding motor vehicles). As a logical argument, the compound sentence could be rewritten as “If you divert crops and cropland from feeding people to feeding motor vehicles (by increasing production of biofuel), then the price of food worldwide would go up.” If you look at it that way, you can see a few major problems.

  1. There are plenty of ways to produce biofuels from sources that aren’t food, ranging from non-food algae to non-edible fish waste, shrimp shells, poop-filled diapers, and landfill waste … surely increased production and implementation of landfill waste and poop won’t divert existing food away from people (excepting the AAPS’ members – who are so full of it that they may actually be full of it).
  2. The availability of crops and croplands is just one of several factors influencing the global cost of food (per this 2008 DoE report). Another (volatile!) factor in food prices? The price of oil (which is required to plant, harvest, store, transport, and distribute food) is a major factor in end-user food prices (indeed, the Wall Street Journal presents the connection between high oil prices and food prices as causal).
  3. According to the US Department of Energy under George W. Bush, increased biofuel use reduces both the demand for and price of gas and diesel fuels, which could (per no. 2, above) actually decrease global food costs.
  4. Even if you do divert some crops and croplands to product biofuels, doing so could just as likely save lives as end them, even if you accept the hyperbole of the AAPS. How so? Look at the picture at the start of this post, and consider the number of people killed in war – not only ideological wars but (especially) resource wars …

… I’m going to take a bit of a side-track here and point out that 3,976 Iraqi civilians were killed in 2010 as a direct result of what many have called a war for oil. That was 2010, which was an improvement compared to the 4,680 civilians killed in 2009. This war has been going on for nearly 10 years now, and the heaviest fighting was early on. How many deaths, then, were directly caused by just this one war, even if you exclude combatants? 40,000? 50,000? That’s not worldwide, that’s just this one war in Iraq! What’s causing those deaths? Tanks, Hummers, planes, etc. all had their role – and the continuous wartime operation of all these vehicles is adding to the demand for oil to the tune of 40 million barrels a year over and above peacetime ops (395,000 barrels per day, according to the DoD). This sort of massive oil use is driving up costs according to exactly the same “supply/demand” model the AAPS applies to crops and biofuel – which begs the question: How many deaths were caused by the rise in oil prices that were a direct result of feeding the war for oil machine?

“Too many.” is the correct answer.

Note, also, that these are not hypothetical deaths – these deaths are happening now, and they are happening precisely because we haven’t shifted our focus away from petroleum fuels. The AAPS doesn’t care about these deaths, however – because these deaths don’t advance the AAPS’ agenda …

… before we get back to the (super fun!) attacks ad hominem, though, let’s get back to the AAPS’ “biofuls kill” argument. We’ve already shot a few holes in the reasoning and consequences laid out in the first part of the argument, but what about its second half – wherein the AAPS’ writers are “leading” us to their conclusion? That conclusion being, “Therefore, higher biofuel production would increase death and disease.” Again, this is based on the validity of the first sentence in the argument (the one we already beat down) so, in a pure “classroom” sense, we can ignore this completely.

This isn’t a classroom, though, so I’ll make it as clear as I can: because it is not immediately clear that increased biofuel production would directly cause an increase in food prices (see items 1, 2, 3, and 4, above) it is not possible to causally connect higher biofuel production with increased death and disease.

For objectivity’s sake, the AAPS’ full press release is included below.

TUCSON, Ariz., March 28, 2011 /PRNewswire-USNewswire/ — U.S. and European policy to increase production of ethanol and other biofuels to displace fossil fuels is supposed to help human health by reducing “global warming.” Instead it has added to the global burden of death and disease.

Increased production of biofuels increases the price of food worldwide by diverting crops and cropland from feeding people to feeding motor vehicles. Higher food prices, in turn, condemn more people to chronic hunger and “absolute poverty” (defined as income less than $1.25 per day). But hunger and poverty are leading causes of premature death and excess disease worldwide. Therefore, higher biofuel production would increase death and disease.

Research by the World Bank indicates that the increase in biofuels production over 2004 levels would push more than 35 million additional people into absolute poverty in 2010 in developing countries. Using statistics from the World Health Organization (WHO), Dr. Indur Goklany estimates that this would lead to 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. These exceed the estimated annual toll of 141,000 deaths and 5.4 million lost DALYs that the World Health Organization attributes to global warming. Thus, developed world policies intended to mitigate global warming probably have increased death and disease in developing countries rather than reducing them. Goklany also notes that death and disease from poverty are a fact, whereas death and disease from global warming are hypothetical.

Thus, the biofuel remedy for global warming may be worse than the disease it purports to alleviate.

Sources: too many to list, but clicking on the embedded hyperlinks above will get you there, and I encourage anyone with even the slightest bit of interest in politics and environmental policy to do just that.

Photo: Associated Press

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About the Author

I've been involved in motorsports and tuning since 1997, and write for a number of blogs in the Important Media network. You can find me on Twitter, Skype (jo.borras) or Google+.

  • Dave

    The precision of your counter-argument notwithstanding, my concern is you had entirely too much fun writing this. So I hope this was altruistic and not for pay. We wouldn’t want to get paid for doing what we love doing, would we?
    One of the most well-articulated arguments I’ve read in a long time. Keep at it. I’ll be joining the CleanTechnica ranks as a new contributor very soon.

  • Anonymous

    The problem is that in the US biofuel is mostly corn because there is a very powerful corn lobby. It seem true to me based on the data that bio fuel caused world wide food prices to surge upward.

    So I think we should abandon the term “biofuel”, its too broad, encompasses corn, sugar, soy based fuels which use fossil fuel based fertilizers and are not helping carbon output. And that term also contains switchgrass, which grows on infertile land and doesn’t need fertilizer or pesticides. We need terms to tell the difference so we can have a better conversation. I am against corn and palm and sugar based bio fuels, but for switchgrass and waste fuels.

  • Pingback: 4 Eco-conscious Developments for the Super-rich of the Future – CleanTechnica: Cleantech innovation news and views()

  • Bpl5019

    OMG corn based ethanol may be a bad idea. Oh wait we’ve been saying that since it was first proposed on a large scale. Some days I can’t wait for all the underfunded research to come through so we can just get on with doing things intelligently.

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