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Roundtable on Environmental Health Sciences, Research, and Medicine; Board on Population Health and Public Health Practice; Institute of Medicine. The Nexus of Biofuels, Climate Change, and Human Health: Workshop Summary. Washington (DC): National Academies Press (US); 2014 Apr 2.

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The Nexus of Biofuels, Climate Change, and Human Health: Workshop Summary.

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8Biofuels and Food Security Issues

The session moderator, Frank Loy, noted in his introductory remarks that the workshop’s discussions to this point had shown that the competition between food and fuel is central to the main question being addressed by the workshop—that is, whether any kind of products that come from biomass can provide a significant substitute for fossil fuels, in particular for use in the transportation sector. The two speakers in this session delved further into the relationship between biofuels and food security issues.


The session’s first speaker was Lester Brown, founder and president of the Earth Policy Institute and one of the world’s best-known environmental analysts. He spoke on the importance of biofuels in the world food economy.

Food Demand Issues

Last year, Brown began, 129 million tons of grain were converted into ethanol in the United States, and because there are about 400 million tons of grain produced in the country each year, that means that the share going to biofuels is roughly 30 percent. Indeed, the amount of grain going to biofuels production exceeded the amount of grain being used to feed livestock and poultry, he said. “We are now diverting more grain to fuel than to feed.”

To put the 129 million tons into perspective, Brown pointed out that this is more grain than Russia produces in total. “So, we have taken out of the food/feed economy a chunk of grain,” he said. “It is as though Russia had disappeared from the face of the earth, in terms of production.” The point is that the amount of grain being converted into fuel for cars is far from inconsequential. “That 129 million tons is certainly enough to raise food prices worldwide.”

The effects of this are not really felt in the United States, Brown said. “The price of grain doubles, and the value of wheat in a loaf of bread, which was 10 cents before the price of grain doubled, is now 20 cents.” If that leads to a 10-cent increase in the cost of a $3 loaf of bread, few Americans will notice. However, he said, a person who lives in New Delhi and buys wheat from the market to make chapatis is much more sensitive to price increases. “Basically, you are bringing home the wheat and grinding it, and making the chapatis. If the world price of wheat doubles, the price of your chapatis doubles. Low-income people around the world are much more affected by this massive chunk of grain that we are now using to produce fuel.”

Thus, the use of grains to make biofuels is beginning to have consequences that have not been seen before, Brown said, at least not on this scale. “In the past, when food supplies tightened, the low-income segments of world society reduced the number of meals per day to one. They would have just one meal per day. Now, we see a new sort of phenomenon, which is foodless days.” Brown mentioned a survey conducted in the past couple of years that showed how prevalent this phenomenon is. In Nigeria, he said, 27 percent of all families now routinely plan foodless days. In India, 24 percent of families can no longer afford to eat every day. In Peru, it is 14 percent.

“The point is,” Brown said, “that we are moving into a new situation now, in terms of the adequacy of the food supply.” At current prices, there is simply not enough grain to go around, so the prices go up.

The diversion of 129 million tons of grain to the production of biofuels in the United States is obviously a major factor, but there are at least two other factors involved. One is world population growth. Each year there are 80 million more mouths to feed than a year earlier. “There will be 219,000 people at the dinner table tonight who were not there last night. This is relentless, it just keeps going on and on,” Brown said.

The second factor is the increasing amount of grain used for animal feed. Most of the difference between India’s consumption of almost 400 pounds of grain per person per year and grain consumption in the United States, which is roughly 1,400 pounds per year, is due to the production of meat, milk, and eggs. Thus, rising affluence is now a major source of growth in the demand for grain, Brown said. The effect has been most dramatic in China, which has gone from consuming very little meat to now consuming twice as much meat as the United States.

“When people ask me how many people can the world feed, I always ask, ‘At what level of consumption?’ If it is at the U.S. level of consumption, it is about 2.5 billion. If it is at the India level of consumption, it is about 10 billion,” Brown said.

One of the consequences of this growing demand for animal products has been that the demand for corn, which is the basic animal feed grain, has expanded much more than the demand for wheat or rice, which are food grains. In round numbers, world production of corn is about 900 million tons per year, while world production of wheat is about 690 million tons, and rice is about 460 million tons.

The result of this growing demand for animal products combined with the use of grain to power cars has been that the annual growth in the demand for grain has doubled during the past decade. Ten years ago, world grain consumption grew by about 21 million tons per year, while in the past few years, it has grown by 41 million tons per year. “In absolute terms,” Brown said, “we are seeing much greater growth in demand.”

Food Supply Issues

The other half of the food equation is the supply side. A variety of factors are making it difficult for farmers to keep up with the record growth in the demand for grain. The four most important are water shortages, climate change, soil erosion, and hitting the ceiling on grain yields, in particular.

“Water shortages aren’t entirely new,” Brown said, “but water shortages on the scale we are seeing today are unique.” Half of the world’s people live in countries where water tables are falling as a result of overpumping, including the three major grain producers: China, India, and the United States. “The World Bank estimates that in India, 175 million people are being fed with grain produced by overpumping,” he said. “My estimate for China is 130 million.”

In the United States, the irrigated areas in California and Texas, the country’s two largest agricultural states, are steadily shrinking, Brown said. In Texas, that is mostly because the wells are going dry. Many of the wells there rely on the Ogallala Aquifer, which is a fossil aquifer. In California, the shrinkage is partly due to wells going dry, but part of the reason is that substantial irrigation water is being diverted to cities. “Cities can pay much more for water than farmers can,” Brown commented. “In that competition, agriculture always loses.”

And for the first time there is a sub-region of the world with declining grain production as a result of water shortages, that is, the Arab Middle East, including Iraq, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Yemen. In those countries, grain production is not only falling, Brown said, but falling at a fairly substantial rate because the wells are going dry. In Saudi Arabia, much of the pumping has come from a fossil aquifer, and it is almost gone now. “As it goes, so will their wheat production go.”

With the second major factor affecting food supply—climate change—there is still much that is not known, Brown commented. There is a rule of thumb that for every 1°Celsius rise in temperature, a 10 percent decline in grain yields can be expected. A recent empirically based study that drew on data from hundreds of counties in the United States indicates that a 17 percent decline in grain yields for each 1°Celsius rise in temperature may be more realistic.

The root of the issue lies in the relationship between temperature and photosynthesis. As temperature rises, Brown said, so does photosynthesis—but only up to 68°Fahrenheit (F). From 68°F degrees to 95°F, the photosynthesis remains constant, and above 95°f it begins to drop. Once the average temperature reaches 104°F, plants go into thermal shock and photosynthesis stops. Thus, he said, as the world’s average temperature edges up, it will affect grain yields adversely, unless the problem can be somehow offset through plant breeding, which researchers are now trying to do.

Climate change will bring other changes as well, such as changes in rainfall patterns. “The main point,” Brown said, “is that the agricultural system that we have now evolved over an 11,000-year period of rather remarkable climate stability. Now, suddenly, the climate system is changing.” Farmers no longer know exactly what to expect and do not have enough information to do long-term planning.

A third factor affecting food supply is soil erosion. The world is seeing more soil erosion than at any time in history. The United States experienced a dust bowl in the 1930s. To get it under control, farmers turned some of the land back into grasslands and instituted a variety of farming practices designed to minimize soil erosion. When the Soviet Union experienced a similar problem in the late 1950s, they reacted in a similar way. “There are now two dust bowls forming in the world,” Brown said, “both far larger than either the one in the United States in the 1930s or the one in Russia in the late 1950s.” They are in northern China and the African Sahel. Indeed, the entire northern part of China is becoming a huge dust bowl. Rather than overplowing, however, the main reason is overgrazing. “The vegetation is simply being destroyed,” he said.

China has about the same grazing capacity as the United States, but it has far more animals. Although both countries have close to 100 million head of cattle, the United States has only 9 million sheep and goats, while China has 284 million. “They are literally just destroying the vegetation throughout northern China,” Brown said. The government seems politically unable to deal with the problem, because of the potential unrest that would be caused by trying to reduce flocks to a sustainable level.

The fourth factor affecting food supply is that grain yields seem to have reached a point where it will be very difficult to increase them much more. In Japan and South Korea, rice yields were rising for decades. “Suddenly, about 15 years ago, they stopped rising and they have been flat as a pancake since then,” Brown said. China is just now reaching the same yields that Japan has, and unless China can take its rice yields beyond those in Japan—which Brown doubts will happen—that country is also about to hit a ceiling on rice yields. In Europe, wheat yields in the three major producers—France, Germany, and the United Kingdom—have all been flat now for more than a decade. “In none of these countries that have hit the glass ceiling, has anyone been able to break out of it,” Brown said, “because they are being boxed in by the limits of photosynthesis itself. Unless someone can figure out a process that is more efficient than photosynthesis or somehow modify photosynthesis, which is not an easy thing, we are going to have to face the reality of more and more agriculturally advanced countries hitting these glass ceilings.”

Maintaining Stability in the World Food Economy

So, what can be done, Brown asked, to maintain stability in the world food economy? His first suggestion was to abandon the idea of producing biofuels.

In 1978, when the program started, it seemed like a good idea, he said. There was excess agricultural capacity, and the federal government was paying farmers not to plant on some of their land. But the push to produce biofuels did not really get going until after Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005. The disruption of oil refining in the Gulf area caused by Katrina pushed the price of gasoline way up, and suddenly it was quite profitable to convert corn costing $2 per bushel into ethanol. “We had this orgy of investment in the 2005–2010 period,” he said. “Most of the ethanol distilleries were built during that time.” But to ensure food stability around the world, grain-based biofuels need to go.

Second, he said, a worldwide effort is needed to increase water productivity. The focus has been on land productivity for a long time. “We measure land productivity in bushels per acre or tons per hectare,” Brown said, “but we don’t have a measure of water productivity—how many tons of water per ton of grain, for example. It is not part of our mindset.”

People need to start thinking about water productivity, he said, because it is water, not land, that is now the principal constraint on efforts to expand world food production. Raising water productivity will be key to increasing world food productivity, and the first step to raising water productivity will be to price water at its real value. “We have been treating water as a free good for so long that we tend to think it is still free,” Brown said. “It is not. Water is now a very valuable resource.”

A third step will be to stabilize population, which will go hand in hand with eradicating poverty. “There are millions of women in the world today who want to plan their families, but who do not have access to family planning services,” Brown said. “Just getting them the services they want would take care of much of the population growth in the world today.”

It will also be important to cut carbon emissions. “Climate is a major threat to future food security,” Brown said. “I don’t think we can even begin to imagine the consequences of continually rising temperature and the shifts in the earth’s climate system.” A modest rise in sea level would not have a major effect on U.S. agricultural production, but it could seriously affect rice production in Asia because so much rice is produced in river deltas.

Brown said that he believes the goal that many political leaders speak of today—of cutting carbon emissions 80 percent by 2050—will be too little, too late. “If we stay with that, the game will be over long before 2050,” he said. “I think we have to cut carbon emissions 80 percent by 2020… . We need a wartime-like mobilization.”

Brown mentioned the mobilization that took place in the United States during World War II. Within a few months of the Pearl Harbor attack on December 7, 1941, the U.S. industrial economy had been totally restructured, with, for example, the production of new cars shut down so that the automobile industry could produce tanks and planes. “We could do the same thing today if we understood the urgency of doing so,” Brown said. “Instead of producing cars, we could be producing wind turbines on assembly lines, for example.”

Indeed, Brown said, it would be possible to run the entire U.S. economy on wind energy. “Probably the wind energy in Texas alone would be enough,” he said. China is building seven large wind power complexes, the largest of which is in Inner Mongolia. “It will have a generating capacity, when completed, of 38,000 megawatts. That is enough electricity to satisfy the needs of a country like Poland.”

A major advantage of wind power, he said, is that wind scales up like no other energy source. It is not particularly useful on a small scale. For example, it is not feasible to put a wind turbine on the roof of a house, but it scales up nicely. “That is where I think we need to be headed. I think wind will be the centerpiece of the new energy economy,” he said.


The session’s second presenter was Erik D. Olson, the director of food programs at the Pew Charitable Trusts. He spoke on biofuels and domestic foods.

Olson first offered some information on the Pew Charitable Trusts, explaining that it advocates for science-based policies, with an emphasis on pragmatic, effective solutions that engage all stakeholders. He noted that he was speaking on his own behalf, and that his comments should not be interpreted as official Pew policies.


Olson began by providing some background on biofuels. Reflecting on comments by several previous speakers, he listed the reasons for using biofuels as concerns about greenhouse gases and global warming, a desire to reduce the environmental and health impacts of petroleum-based fuels, and concerns about national security—particularly the fact that the United States imports almost half of its liquid fuel (mostly petroleum), with much of it coming from volatile regions. Almost 60 percent of the U.S. trade gap of approximately $1 billion per day is due to oil imports, he said.

Thus, there is a long history of congressional incentives for biofuels. These include the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS), which has appeared in two rounds, RFS1 and RFS2. Historically, Olson noted, the vast majority of biofuels have been based on corn ethanol, with some soy biodiesel emerging recently. However, RFS2 is intended to encourage cellulosic biofuels. Tax incentives have also been used to encourage biofuels production, including several that have lapsed. There is still debate on the remaining tax incentives, and Olson said he thinks there will be additional pressure to get rid of those as well as pressure to end the trade restrictions and tariffs that have been intended to encourage domestic biofuels production.

Almost 40 U.S. states also have incentives for various biofuels, primarily ethanol. Internationally, the European Union, Brazil, and some other major global players are also encouraging biofuels production in various ways.

The Impact of Biofuels on Food Prices

The push for biofuels raised the question: What has been the impact of biofuels production on food prices? “I think there is a general consensus that it has had an impact,” Olson said, “and has caused increases.”

There is no doubt that corn prices have increased dramatically since 2006, as can be seen in Figure 8-1. Obviously, biofuels played a role in that, he said, but there were other factors as well: tight commodity markets, an increasing global population, increased meat consumption, the value of the U.S. dollar, and energy price increases.

FIGURE 8-1. Prices received for corn by month—United States, 2004–2013.


Prices received for corn by month—United States, 2004–2013. SOURCE: USDA-NASS, 2013.

The exact role that the RFS has played in the jump in corn and soybean prices has been fairly controversial, Olson said. Some estimates have suggested that 20 to 40 percent of the price increases in 2007–2008 were related to biofuels policies, specifically to the RFS. Adding to that was the worst drought to hit the United States in decades. In general, he said, extreme weather certainly has been having effects on yield, and thus on increasing prices. This is affecting not just the United States, but also countries around the world. In 2010, for example, Russia experienced a major wheat crop failure.

About 40 percent of the corn grown in the United States is used to produce ethanol, Olson said. However, a portion of the residual value goes to dry distiller grains with solubles, which are fed to livestock, so the total devoted to ethanol would be slightly lower. Globally, about 15 percent of corn crops are used for ethanol production.

Other crops are also being used for biofuels—sugarcane in Brazil, for instance, and soybeans in the United States. By some estimates, Olson said, about 14 percent of U.S. soy acres planted in 2012 went to biodiesel.

All of this suggests that biofuels production is starting to have some pretty significant impacts on food prices in some areas globally, but the impact is different in the United States than in many other parts of the world. Grain prices make up a relatively small percentage of the total cost of food in the United States, most of which is processed, Olson noted. “The amount of money in your box of corn flakes that goes to the actual corn is relatively small. The same with most processed foods, so the impact of price increases on U.S. food is somewhat muted by that fact.” Still, he said, grocery manufacturers and others have been quite concerned about biofuels because of the implications for prices.

The biofuels industry has contested some of the studies that have claimed biofuels production has significantly raised food prices. However, Olson said, there seems to be fairly broad agreement that biofuels production has had some substantial impact on commodity prices and, therefore, that there has been some impact on retail prices. What the exact effect has been is still unclear.

Environmental and Health Issues

There are also a number of major environmental and health issues that need to be considered as the country moves toward additional use of biofuels, Olson said. In the case of corn and soybeans, one major issue is the runoff of pesticides and fertilizer into streams and rivers. Another environmental concern is that as the price of corn has risen, there has been increasing pressure to convert marginal farmlands and even forests into cropland. Life-cycle assessment raises the question of exactly how much greenhouse gas improvement is actually derived from using corn and soybeans to produce biofuels, and water use is yet another major environmental issue.

One major health issue that needs to be addressed, Olson said, is the health effects of a diet that includes a large percentage of processed foods, particularly diets that are heavily dependent on corn and soybean products. That is something that does not get much attention, he said, but an Institute of Medicine workshop (IOM, 2014) will soon be taking a look at this issue—the relationship between sustainable diets and the healthfulness of the diet.1 Biofuels must obviously play a role in the discussion, he said.

Advanced Biofuels

The development of advanced biofuels will play a role in the impact that biofuels have on food issues, he said. There is a variety of ways to produce biofuels other than using corn or soybeans or sugarcane. The RFS is trying to move the system toward greater use of cellulosic biofuels, produced from sawgrass and switchgrass, short-rotation woody crops, and so on. Agricultural and industrial wastes and biogas all have some promise, he said, and algae is really starting to look interesting as a potential source of biofuels.

The most straightforward new technologies to deploy are the so-called “drop-in technologies,” which refer to technologies that can work with the existing infrastructure. For example, Olson said, “You may be able to simply substitute some of these biofuels directly for gasoline or for petroleum-based fuels without major changes in infrastructure, which would obviously save quite a bit of technology, as well as resources.”

There are a number of benefits that are expected from the use of the more advanced biofuels. One is a reduction in greenhouse gases. Another is that at least some of these biofuels would have very little impact on food crop prices and on food crops generally. They are expected to require less fertilizer and pesticide use, they generally use less water, particularly the perennials, and they have fewer land impacts.

Generally speaking, he said, moving toward the more advanced biofuels has promise. The advanced biofuels have the potential to reduce impacts on food prices, to reduce impacts on environment and health, to reduce greenhouse gas emissions far more significantly than traditional biofuels, and to offer some national security benefits by reducing the country’s heavy reliance on petroleum-based fuels that come in from fairly volatile regions overseas.

Some pretty significant challenges remain in the development of these advanced biofuels. There are a number of technological challenges that have so far kept the cellulosic biofuels industry from taking off in the way that many people thought it would. There are also timing problems; shifting the U.S. fuel supply to advanced biofuels is going to take some time, he said, unless there is a complete, dramatic change in the way that we do business. Finally, the infrastructure challenges are very significant as well.


A lively discussion followed each of the two presentations. For simplicity, the two discussions are combined into one here.

Loy began by following up on Brown’s observations concerning the effects that the growing demand for meat and other animal products has on demand for grain. In particular, he asked whether there are any developments that would permit an increase in meat production without the same increased demand for grain.

Brown answered that, in part, the market has actually been doing that. “When we look at the grain requirements to produce meat,” he said, “the rule of thumb is that producing a pound of beef in the feedlot takes about 7 pounds of grain. Producing a pound of pork takes between 3 and 4 pounds of grain. Producing a pound of poultry is about 2 pounds of grain. If you get down to farmed catfish or carp, you can get down to an almost 1-to-1 conversion rate.”

Thus, he continued, one way to lighten pressure on the system is for people to eat less red meat and more white meat—less beef, more chicken, and more fish. “That is what is happening,” Brown said. “What we are seeing in the United States now is that red meat consumption is actually declining.”

There are various reasons for the decline. One is price—a pound of beef costs a lot more than a pound of poultry. A second is concern about the health consequences of eating too much red meat. A third is a cultural shift that is under way. Young people are far less likely than people in previous generations to think of beef as more desirable than chicken—to celebrate special occasions with a steak, for instance.

Brown continued that there is also an ongoing shift in how cars are powered. “It looks as though we are moving toward electricity as the principal source of power for cars, whether it is all electric cars or plugin hybrids,” he said. That obviously has important implications for the demand for biofuels.

At the same time, he said, there is a trend away from using coal to produce electricity. Of 492 U.S. coal-fired generating plants, 121 have closed or are closing, he said. One reason is the availability of inexpensive natural gas, which is taking over a large percentage of generating capacity from coal. Furthermore, greater efficiencies in electrical devices have led to a decrease in electricity usage.

Yet another relevant trend is the growing success of bike-sharing programs in major U.S. cities. These are particularly popular among younger people. These, too, lead to a decrease in demand for transportation fuels.

“I think a lot of the changes are going to be generational,” Brown said. “It will be easier as we make the generational shift.”

Tee Guidotti, Consultant, Medical Advisory Services, asked Brown a question about how wind power could become a major part of the national energy supply when it is so variable. A common criticism of wind power is that it cannot serve as baseload generating capacity because it is not steadily available 24 hours per day, 7 days per week.

What happens, Brown said, is that “as wind farms grow larger, and as we move toward a national grid, then wind becomes baseload, because the wind is always blowing somewhere. We have onshore breezes, we have winds in the Great Plains, we have wind in the mountains, et cetera. There is always wind. It is not as much of a problem as you would think.”

Three of the states in north Germany now get between 40 and 50 percent of their electricity from wind, he said, and they do not experience breakdowns or power outages because of that.

In the United States, the creation of a national grid is actually under way. At this point there are basically three grids in the country: the eastern grid, which goes from the East Coast to the Rocky Mountains; the West Coast grid, which comes down through California and into Arizona and New Mexico; and a Texas grid. “They are now being interconnected in Clovis, New Mexico,” Brown said. “It is not massive lines that have been linked, but the linkage has been made.” What remains to be done is to build sets of high-capacity direct-current transmission lines to move electricity long distances efficiently. “The stage is set in this country now for a national grid, given this connection. It is just a matter of building the links.”

With such a national grid, wind-generated electricity can be moved from place to place as needed. There are investors building giant wind farms in Texas that will supply wind power to the Southeast. Investors in the western states are developing wind farms that will be selling electricity to California. “We are beginning to see a national approach to the management of wind resources falling into place,” Brown said.

In response to a question by Guidotti about algae, Brown pointed out that since algae depend on photosynthesis, they have the same photosynthetic limits that plants have. Furthermore, growing algae requires water and a large area. “I am not sure we are going to see algae playing a major role as a source of fuel or food or feed in the future,” he said. “I know ExxonMobil has been working on this for a decade now, and they still don’t have anything that approaches a meaningful commercial use of the technology.”

Jack Spengler, Harvard School of Public Health, mentioned Brown’s call for an 80 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2020 and asked Brown if he saw any reason to believe that such an aggressive plan could be accomplished.

Not yet, Brown said. “The question is how many summers like last summer will it take in the U.S. Midwest, the Corn Belt, and the Great Plains before we begin to take the climate thing seriously?” He mentioned those parts of the country because the weather there directly affects the food supply. Most people do not understand the difference between 350 parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and 400 million parts per million, but they do understand food prices. “That, I think, is going to be the driver of changes in energy policy,” he said. “It could come much faster than we think.”

Loy noted that at the 2009 Copenhagen Conference, President Obama put a 17 percent reduction from 2005 to 2020 on the table. The conventional wisdom is that 17 percent reduction is doable, but only if the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency adopts regulations regarding emissions from existing coal-fired power plants. “I think that is plausible, but that gets you only to 17 percent.” The difficulty of getting even a 17 percent reduction puts the goal of 80 percent into perspective, Loy said.

Lynn Goldman, George Washington University School of Public Health, asked Olson what role the health sector might play in the discussions about biofuels policy. Part of what this Roundtable is trying to do, she noted, is to shine a light on these kinds of problems from the standpoint of health. So, what could people in the health sector do to have more of an impact or have a more effective voice in policy discussions?

Olson answered that having the health implications well documented and out in the public domain is really important. “I think that the problem has been that the word hasn’t really gotten out quite as much as it might about what the actual public health implications are of the current policies.” People tend to get motivated when their own health may be affected. Also, he said, it is useful when people in the health community are willing not only to document the relevant health effects but also to speak publicly about them, whether in speaking with policy makers or the general public.

Brown added to Olson’s comments by saying that analyses of the health costs of various fuels are usually very limited. “In this country, the epidemiological calculations show that we have 13,100 deaths each year as a result of burning coal,” he said, but beyond that there are probably hundreds of thousands of people who suffer respiratory illnesses from being near a coal plant or from the pollutants released by burning coal, and the discussion of the health effects generally missed much of that. Furthermore, Brown said, the health effects of climate change could be severe, because climate change will affect food production and lead to more hunger and more malnutrition.

Christopher Portier, director of the National Center for Environmental Health, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, noted that the Pew Charitable Trust does some very good health impact assessments (HIAs) and suggested that it would be useful if Pew would take on an HIA of biofuels. The situation “screams” for something like a total HIA of biofuels on a global basis, he said. Olson agreed that the health impact assessment process would be a promising way to frame the issue “because it is somewhat similar to environmental impact assessment, but it is focused on health.” Olson continued, “If somebody were to propose a major review of the health impacts of biofuels policy … I would certainly be interested.”

Jerald L. Schnoor, University of Iowa, noted the different opinions that Brown and Olson had on biofuels, with Brown suggesting they should be eliminated altogether and Olson saying that he saw promise in advanced biofuels. In light of that, Schnoor asked Olson whether it made sense to increase advanced biofuels production to the 16 billion gallons annually called for in RFS2. Given how much land that will require, he said, won’t that also drive up food prices because of the competition for land?

Olson answered that this was a very fair point. He said he believes that the shift to biofuels will have its major impact when the economics change to the point that the RFS is not even necessary. “I think until the economics change, you are not really going to see that major shift toward lower impact on land use and on food prices,” he said.

Catherine Kling, Iowa State University, reiterated a point made earlier in the workshop—that the increase in corn prices does not have much of an effect on food security in the United States. The Consumer Price Index for food has increased only about 3 percent per year since 2004, she said, so “the price of food in the United States is really just a non-issue.” However, in developing countries the price of food is a huge issue, and grain prices can drive major changes in food affordability. So, although this is not a health concern in the United States, it is a huge health concern worldwide.

There is also likely to be a huge disparity in the impact of climate change on the United States versus the rest of the world, Kling said. “We really need to understand that when we are thinking about policy.”




The Institute of Medicine’s Food Forum and Roundtable on Environmental Health Sciences, Research, and Medicine held a workshop on sustainable diets on May 7–8, 2013. Additional information is available at http://www​​/Nutrition/FoodForum​/2013-MAY-07.aspx.

Copyright 2014 by the National Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved.
Bookshelf ID: NBK196459


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