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More Psuedo-Science and the Preposterous Claims of Anti-Ethanol Activists

March 29, 2011

           

A new pseudo-analysis published by the controversial and discredited Journal of American Physicians and Surgeons claims that biofuels expansion is increasing hunger and poverty-related health risks in developing nations. The four-page article was written by Indur Goklany, a long-time biofuels critic and contributor to the Cato Institute, also a long-time opponent of renewable fuels. Based on an ill-conceived and opaque method that misinterprets and misrepresents the findings of the World Bank and other researchers, the paper is nothing more than anti-farmer and anti-biofuel vitriol cloaked as real analysis. It simply can't be taken seriously and it's not at all surprising that the only publication that would ever consider publishing this piece would be the Journal of American Physicians and Surgeons. The Journal of American Physicians and Surgeons is an "open source" (i.e., not peer-reviewed) journal published by the Association of American Physicians and Surgeons (AAPS). The organization and its members have been routinely criticized for masking political agendas behind a thin veil of "science." The journal has been rejected over and over by the mainstream medical profession and legitimate medical media sources. The journal is widely recognized as a spigot for political ideology and it is not listed in any major academic literature databases. Previous articles in the journal have been denounced by the World Health Organization, American Academy of Pediatrics, and others. The journal's lack of integrity aside, the assumption-laden premise of Goklany's paper is preposterous. It argues that biofuels demand pushes agricultural commodity prices higher, which in turn leads to higher food prices, which then pushes developing nation households into poverty, which results in increased incidence of premature death and disease. The paper's slapdash method involves selectively choosing worst-case data on the possible impacts of biofuels expansion on commodity and food prices, then pairing it with worst-case data from other sources on the impacts of higher food prices on poverty rates, and finally adding in worst-case assumptions about poverty-related health risks. The four-page paper relies primarily on two previously published studies (Cororaton et al., and De Hoyos and Medvedev) that utilized World Bank economic models to estimate the impact of biofuels expansion on commodity and food prices. In its press release, the AAPS passes these studies off as "research by the World Bank," when in fact the two studies in question only used World Bank models and their authors were careful to point out that, "The views expressed here are those of the authors and should not be attributed to the World Bank or any affiliated organization." Notably, in 2010 the World Bank itself renounced the results of its own study on biofuels and food prices from 2008 that used the same suite of economic models used in the studies underlying Goklany's paper. In 2010, a World Bank study admitted that speculative investment in commodities had far more to do with the food price increase in 2008 than biofuels. Goklany conveniently sidesteps the latest information from World Bank. One of the studies Goklany relied heavily upon (Cororaton et al.) found that if countries meet their announced biofuels production targets (such as the U.S. RFS2, Canadian RFS, and EU Renewable Energy Directive), prices for corn and other feed grains would increase by just 1% by 2020, wheat prices would rise by 1.2%, and oilseeds by 1.5%. Because these commodities are minor components in most finished food items, overall food prices would be 0.5% higher in the developing world and just 0.2% higher in the developed world, according to Cororaton et al. Not satisfied by these rather dull numbers, the Goklany instead article apparently chose the results from a worst-case scenario in the Cororaton study that wildly exaggerates biofuels production by 2020. At least that's what it looks like—it's nearly impossible to follow the methodology from start to finish and there's no supporting material available to our knowledge. In any case, it is dishonest and absolutely ludicrous to suggest that a 1% increase in corn prices over the "business as usual" case between 2004 and 2020 would somehow force more households into poverty, especially when consumers in developing nations get few if any of their daily calories from feed grains like corn. The article also brazenly ignored Cororaton's conclusion that biofuels expansion also offers economic benefits to the developing world. These economic benefits likely would offset any slight increase in food prices that could possibly be traced to biofuels. In his paper, Cororaton stated, "Expansion of biofuels leads to higher wages of unskilled rural labor relative to wages of the other labor types which are skilled urban, skilled rural, and unskilled urban. This is true in developing countries." Biofuels as a source of rural development—gee, what a concept. Even if the article's conclusions could be taken seriously, which they cannot, one must question why the author would not counterbalance the supposed increased health risks associated with biofuels expansion with the documented health benefits associated with biofuels. For instance, research by the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory found that eliminating 10 percent of emissions from gasoline-run motor vehicles in the U.S. through the substitution of biofuels would result in reducing annual health damages by up to 20,000 disability adjusted life years (DALY). The ability of biofuels like ethanol to reduce carbon monoxide emissions and decrease toxic gasoline compounds like benzene, toluene and ethylbenzene was totally overlooked by the author. He also ignored the fact that biofuels like ethanol eliminate the need for the known cancer-causing carcinogen MTBE, which is still used in many developing countries in Africa, Central America and the Middle East. Hopefully, the media and medical community will put this junk science where it belongs—in the trashcan.