Discussion Paper

The Long-Run Impact of Biofuels on Food Prices

Oct 30, 2015 | Ujjayant Chakravorty, Marie-Hélène Hubert, Michel Moreaux, Linda Nøstbakken

Summary

The conversion of pasture and forest land to farming due to biofuels mandates may cause a modest increase in food prices—although population growth and income-driven preferences for meat and dairy over cereals may play as much of a role.

Key Findings

  • Biofuels may raise food prices in the short run, but over the long haul, new land is brought under cultivation, which brings down food prices.
  • An aggressive renewable fuels mandate may not lower global carbon emissions, because oil prices go down and consumption increases in other nations.
  • Changes in dietary patterns away from cereals toward meat and dairy products, especially in developing countries, increase pressure on land resources, and may cause a rise in food prices.
  • Increase in global acreage under farming leads to clearing of pasture and forest lands, and large indirect emissions that offset some of the savings from replacing gasoline with ethanol and other biofuels.

Abstract

More than 40 percent of US corn is now used to produce biofuels, which are used as substitutes for gasoline in transportation. Biofuels have been blamed universally for past increases in world food prices, and many studies have shown that energy mandates in the United States and European Union may have a large (30–60 percent) impact on food prices. In this paper, we use a partial equilibrium framework to show that demand-side effects—in the form of population growth and income-driven preferences for meat and dairy products rather than cereals—may play as much of a role in raising food prices as biofuels policy. By specifying a Ricardian model with differential land quality, we find that a significant amount of new land will be converted to farming, which is likely to cause a modest increase in food prices. However, biofuels may actually increase aggregate world carbon emissions, due to leakage from lower oil prices and conversion of pasture and forest land to farming.