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Study to Consider Biofuel Side Effects
UK government will study whether push toward ethanol has triggered nutritional crisis in poor countries.

World Food Program
The UK Department for Transport announced late last month that it would investigate the possible negative side-effects of government biofuel promotion. Both the US and European governments have been using motorist funds to subsidize production of different forms of fuel designed to replace crude oil with something that, when burned, emits less carbon dioxide.

"Future biofuel targets must also take into account the latest scientific evidence about the environmental effects of biofuel production," UK Transport Secretary Ruth Kelly said in a statement. "There has been much recent debate around the risks associated with overly rapid expansion of biofuel production, with evidence now emerging on the indirect, or 'displacement' impacts, of growing demand for agricultural production around the world."

Government officials, however, plan to press ahead without waiting for the study. Kelly ordered the creation of a new government bureaucracy, the Renewable Fuels Agency (RFA), to manage the new regulatory fuel mandates. Beginning April 15, RFA will be responsible for ensuring that five percent of all fuel pumped at gas stations is classified as "biofuel" by 2010. In the US, President George W. Bush set similarly ambitious goal for ethanol use.

"It's in our vital interest to diversify America's energy supply," the president said in his 2007 state of the union address. "We must increase the supply of alternative fuels, by setting a mandatory fuels standard to require 35 billion gallons of renewable and alternative fuels in 2017 -- and that is nearly five times the current target."

RFA will also be in charge of the UK study to quantify the effects of forcing agricultural land use away from food and into fuel production. With crops such as corn being used to create billions of gallons of ethanol, the crop is growing more scarce and therefore more expensive. On Monday, US corn prices reached a record $5.74 a bushel, up from $3.50 last summer. The escalating prices have a ripple effect throughout the agricultural sector with record prices set for other critical food crops including wheat, soybeans and rice. Each rise in a crop's price comes with a corresponding drop in the purchasing power of charitable organizations.

"Current price rises mean that the world's poorest people will have to spend a larger proportion of their income on food," the United Nations World Food Program explains on its website. "This may mean they will buy less food, or food that is less nutritious, or they may have to rely on outside help to fulfill their nutritional needs."

The relief agency cited biofuels and increased energy costs as two leading causes of a nutritional crisis in Central America and several African nations. Other humanitarian organizations have announced scaled-back plans to feed starving children as a result of the increased commodity prices.

The RFA report will also consider whether ethanol production actually leads to a net increase in carbon dioxide emissions.

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