Columbia International Affairs Online: Working Papers

CIAO DATE: 07/2008

Program for the Study of Biofuels, Poverty and Food Security

Kenneth Cassman, Walter Falcon, Jikun Huang, Rosamond Naylor, Mark Rosengrant, David Victor

February 2007

Asia-Pacific Research Center


The recent global expansion of biofuels production is an intense topic of discussion in both the popular and academic press. Much of the debate surrounding biofuels has focused on narrow issues of energy efficiency and fossil fuel substitution, to the exclusion of broader questions concerning the effects of large-scale biofuels development on commodity markets, land use patterns, and the global poor. There is reason to think these effects will be very large. The majority of poor people living in chronic hunger are net consumers of staple food crops; poor households spend a large share of their budget on starchy staples; and as a result, price hikes for staple agricultural commodities have the largest impact on poor consumers. For example, the rapidly growing use of corn for ethanol in the U.S. has recently sent corn prices soaring, boosting farmer incomes domestically but causing riots in the streets of Mexico City over tortilla prices. Preliminary analysis suggests that such price movements, which directly threaten hundreds of millions of households around the world, could be more than a passing phenomenon. Rapid biofuels development is occurring throughout the developed and developing world, transforming commodity markets and increasingly linking food prices to a volatile energy sector. Yet there remains little understanding of how these changes will affect global poverty and food security, and an apprehension on the part of many governments as to whether and how to participate in the biofuels revolution.