It’s Time to Get Biofuels Out of Your Gas Tank

The global trade in the cheapest foods is grinding to a halt.

In April, Indonesia temporarily banned exports of palm oil, cutting off India from one of its biggest sources of imported nutrition. India, in its turn last month, set a ceiling on exports of sugar, helping to keep more calories in the domestic market. Sugar is now hovering around its highest price in five years, while palm oil and soybean oil are at record levels.

Surprisingly enough, a single factor connects all of these disparate events: biofuels.

Two decades ago, no one could have predicted an electric vehicle manufacturer might end up as the world’s richest man. Without battery-powered cars, replacing gasoline and diesel with plant-derived alternatives seemed like the best way of tackling emissions from road transport. Since then, a technological revolution has overturned what we thought we knew about energy-efficient vehicles — but the blending mandates that guarantee a rising share of bioenergy in the world’s fuel pumps have stayed in place, and even been enhanced.

As a result, an industry that always had questionable advantages is now starting to be an impediment to cleaner modes of transport. Worse, the pressure it’s putting on the planet’s limited farmland is hampering our ability to feed the world’s poorest. It’s time to start dismantling the pipeline connecting farms to gas tanks before it does any more harm.