December 06, 2007
Biomass Energy Push Making Diets Less Healthy?

Want another argument against biomass energy? It will make vegetables more expensive. Lower calorie foods such as vegetables are generally healthier and yet their prices are rising most rapidly.

As food prices rise, the costs of lower-calorie foods are rising the fastest, according to a University of Washington study appearing in the December issue of the Journal of the American Dietetic Association. As the prices of fresh fruit and vegetables and other low-calorie foods have jumped nearly 20 percent in the past two years, the UW researchers say, a nutritious diet may be moving out of the reach of some American consumers.

UW researchers Dr. Adam Drewnowski, director of the Center for Public Health Nutrition, and Dr. Pablo Monsivais, a research fellow in the center, studied food prices at grocery stores around the Seattle area in 2004. They found that the foods which are less energy-dense -- generally fresh fruits and vegetables -- are much more expensive per calorie than energy-dense foods -- such as those high in refined grains, added sugars, and added fats.

When the researchers surveyed prices again in 2006, the found that the disparity in food prices only worsened with time. Lower-calorie foods jumped in price by about 19.5 percent in that two-year period, while the prices of very calorie-rich foods stayed stable or even dropped slightly, the researchers found. The general rate of food price inflation in the United States was about 5 percent during that period, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

"That the cost of healthful foods is outpacing inflation is a major problem," said Drewnowski. "The gap between what we say people should eat and what they can afford is becoming unacceptably wide. If grains, sugars and fats are the only affordable foods left, how are we to handle the obesity epidemic""

The demand for land to grow grains will squeeze out the growth of vegetables. Industrializing Asians and affluent people driving big SUVs are both pushing up the costs of fruits and vegetables. This is happening both due to rising affluence and the big push for corn ethanol and other biomass sources of energy.

World cereal and energy prices are linked according to the International Food Policy Research Institute.

World cereal and energy prices are becoming increasingly linked. Since 2000, the prices of wheat and petroleum have tripled, while the prices of corn and rice have almost doubled (Figure 6). The impact of cereal price increases on food-insecure and poor households is already quite dramatic. For every 1-percent increase in the price of food, food consumption expenditure in developing countries decreases by 0.75 percent (Regmi et al. 2001). Faced with higher prices, the poor switch to foods that have lower nutritional value and lack important micronutrients.

Birds and lions and tigers and bears (oh my) are all getting squeezed out of habitats by population growth, industrialization, oil reserves depletion, and the push for biomass energy. We have too many people, worsening resource limitations, and politicians who are compounding the problem with dumb energy policies aimed at raising incomes of farmers first and foremost. We need fewer babies, more nuclear power, and some breakthroughs in the cost of photovoltaics.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2007 December 06 12:07 AM  Energy Biomass

Jerry Martinson said at December 6, 2007 9:30 AM:

I'm not sure that demand for ethanol and biomass is behind the reason why fruits and vegetables are rising in price faster than grains. Most of the fresh fruits and vegetables eaten in the US are grown in California and most of the corn/maize is grown near a belt from Iowa to Indiana. I think the greater demand for corn due to ethanol will push up corn prices faster relative to fresh fruit and vegetable prices because it is far cheaper in general to grow more corn on the mostly-idle land on the margins of the corn belt than it would be to grow it in California on land that is now making strawberries. Since there is a lot of swapping corn production with soybeans on the same field, these two crops do compete for land and, I think demand for corn could also increase soybean prices as well. But I think direct economic linkage between ethanol demand and the price increases for most other fruits and veggies isn't very strong.

I think the things making prices for fruits and veggies (outside of soybeans) rise faster than grain prices over the study period are:

1. Fruits and veggie production is more fuel intensive than grains and fuel costs have outpaced inflation.
2. Fruits and veggie production is much, more labor-intensive than grains. Grain/corn production is much more mechanized and has benefited much more from biotech changes.

I agree that Americans already each too much corn-based products (including corn-finished beef)- there is even a distinctive radioactive carbon signature that Americans have compared to people living other countries due to the vast amounts of corn products that Americans eat.

Nancy Lebovitz said at December 9, 2007 6:39 AM:

When energy is more expensive, it costs more per calorie to ship low density food. It also costs more to keep food refrigerated.

Randall Parker said at December 9, 2007 8:37 AM:


Agreed on all counts. I was just reading an article about rail energy efficiency and one of the things they mentioned was that the ratio of payload to rail car is lower for lower density goods. Therefore lower density goods are less energy efficient to ship.

This same pattern has to apply to harvesting as well. You have to drive a harvesting machine over more field area to get the same amount of calories harvested. Then this also applies to planting too.

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