Friday, March 25, 2011

Biofuels versus Animal Feed

In this post, I want to compare the amount of global cereal production going to biofuels, with the amount going to animal feed (the animals in turn are mainly eaten by humans as meat, dairy products, etc).  I found the data through 2007 at the FAO here.  The restriction to 2007 is a bit unfortunate, as that was only part way through the recent big expansion of biofuels.  Here's the data on that through 2009:

So just bear in mind as you look at these next graphs that biofuel production has expanded by about 2/3 again since 2007.  Anyway, to the FAO estimates for total cereal production and feed consumption, I added my estimates from the other day of total cereal equivalent of biofuels, and I got this graph:

Firstly, note that total global cereal production was a little over 2 billion tonnes in 2007 (a number worth remembering in the same way that we know global fuel production is somewhere in the range 85-90mbd).  The biofuel wedge is small, but rapidly growing.  By comparison, the amount of cereal going to feed is much larger, but growing more slowly.

In fact, if we look at feed and biofuel as a fraction of total cereal production, it looks like this:

Here you can see that the fraction of cereal used for animal production peaked in the early 1970s and seems to have been gradually dropping ever since (probably a good thing for the health of the global citizenry).  Biofuels, by contrast, were static as a fraction of cereal production at around 3% in the late eighties and nineties, but have jumped in the last decade, probably to around 10% of global cereal production by now.  I think it's this sudden growth of biofuels that is the main shock to the global food system that has led to a reversal of the decades long fall in prices, and in fact price spikes in the last five years.

Still, it's worth observing that if people ate a lot less animal products, the global food supply would go a lot further (a point made decades ago by Francis Moore Lappe).


Greg said...

There may be an element of undercounting in the 'feed' numbers.

The Des Moines Register, via TOD commenter, Seraph:

The Agriculture Department may tweak the wording in its closely watched monthly reports on grain supplies in response to concerns by ethanol producers who say the numbers unfairly fuel criticism of the industry. ...The complaint centers on the estimates of how much corn is used for ethanol production and how much goes into livestock feed.

...One-third of every bushel of corn used in ethanol production winds up as livestock feed, either distillers grains or a gluten product, according to the Renewable Fuels Association.

Off topic as it's not a grain, but the same applies for palm oil. The left-over palm kernel cake is used as a feed.

This is a double whammy for poor people (and tropical forests). They have to bid for food (survival) against a process which provides two sources of revenue.

Stuart Staniford said...

Ah, good point Greg. I don't think it would change the picture qualitatively, but it is an adjustment that should be made.

tom said...

It seemed like your estimate the other day of cereal equivalent of biofuel production was using global production; the REN21 report you linked to says that over a third of global ethanol fuel production is from Brazilian sugar cane. So that shouldn't be counted against global cereal production.

I know you've recognised the distinction before, and in this case it doesn't affect your main point that corn ethanol is a bad idea; but I think it's relevant to the broader discussion of biofuels and food prices. It's also relevant in particular to Tamino's analysis of the FAO food price index, since both the Sugar (a biofuel feedstock) and Dairy (feed intensive agriculture) price indices increased before the July 2010 increase in cereal prices.

That said, it's just nice to see someone trying to address the signal/noise ratio in these issues for a change.

Tim Auld said...

One third of the volume of the corn mash (and other feedstocks) is used for animal feed and the changed composition often makes it a better feed. Most of it is produced for cattle, which can't digest starch well (80% passes through and it produces acidosis in the animal). The yeast only consume converted starch to make alcohol and carbon dioxide, and their dead bodies increase the protein content. This is not an endorsement of industrial corn production.