by Marion Nestle
Apr 7 2011

Cassava for biofuels?

It’s bad enough that corn is grown for ethanol, but cassava?  Many populations depend on cassava for food.

According to today’s New York Times, cassava is the new “go to” crop to burn for fuel.  Doing this, of course, prices cassava beyond what people can afford:

It can be tricky predicting how new demand from the biofuel sector will affect the supply and price of food. Sometimes, as with corn or cassava, direct competition between purchasers drives up the prices of biofuel ingredients. In other instances, shortages and price inflation occur because farmers who formerly grew crops like vegetables for consumption plant different crops that can be used for fuel.

The Times graph of the increase in use of food for biofuel is sobering:

New York Times, April 7, 2011

The rise in food prices has stopped temporarily, but prices are still an astonishing 37% higher than a year ago, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization

None of this makes sense to me.  We need a sensible food policy and a sensible energy policy.

  • Cassava (manioc/yucca) is one of the most important food crops in the world. It grows in poor soil conditions. You can eat the leaves in addition to the familiar tuber. There are many industrial uses for the plant. The tuber is processed into tapioca starch and is used in paper products and as animal feed. You can even make MSG from it! During times of famine in 1940s Vietnam, my father recalls mixing grated cassava with rice to create fake rice.

    Biofuel makes sense but why not use less fuel? Using cassava for fuel will drive up prices for an important food to many people in developing countries. Oye…

  • Felipe G. Nievinski

    The NYT infographic is misleading. It shows the change in grain use, not grain use itself. I can bet money most people misinterpret that. In fact, not even the NYT gets it right: the units should be tons/year. If showing grain use in tons, the far right of the graph would show a minuscule 6% on top of a gigantic 94%. Not saying we shouldn’t worry biofuels.

  • Felipe G. Nievinski

    And whenever the U.S. gets serious about free-trade — two-way free-trade, I mean — the developing world has lots of ethanol to export. Take Brazil, for instance.

  • THe last comment from Felipe is interesting because Brazil does have a lot of ethanol to export, but they also would have a lot of Cassava to export as they eat a lot of it. I am not 100% sure, but I think I read cassava or manioc flour has replaced regular flour in its consumption in Brazil.
    I also agree with Andrea’s comment. This plant was originally transported on the slave ships between Brazil and Africa as it was incredibly hardy. In developing countries which is a staple food source, wouldn’t it be better to conserve it for what it is meant to be…food!!!
    PS I love cassava chips at a rodizio!! yum!!!