I see that today's SCMP has a longish piece about biofuel on the mainland (Enormous potential in laggard biofuel - subscription required):
Ethanol – produced by fermenting crops such as corn, soybean, rapeseed and sugarcane, or other plants such as cane-like sweet sorghum, sweet potato and cassava – has figured in the plans of many biofuel producers in the mainland. Beijing hopes to raise the nation’s annual bioethanol output 10-fold to 10 million tonnes by 2020, and that of biodiesel by 20 times to two million tonnes.
But these targets were thrown into doubt in June after Beijing indicated it will ban biofuel projects that use staple food crops as a fuel source, amid rising food prices and food security concerns.
Well, yes indeed. There was an interesting article in The Guardian (The looming food crisis) about the unintended consequences of developing alternative energy sources:
Land that was once used to grow food is increasingly being turned over to biofuels. This may help us to fight global warming - but it is driving up food prices throughout the world and making life increasingly hard in developing countries. Add in water shortages, natural disasters and an ever-rising population, and what you have is a recipe for disaster.
The mile upon mile of tall maize waving to the horizon around the small Nebraskan town of Carleton looks perfect to farmers such as Mark Jagels. He and his father farm 2,500 acres (10m sq km), the price of maize - what the Americans call corn - has never been higher, and the future has seldom seemed rosier. Carleton (town motto: "The center of it all") is booming, with $200m of Californian money put up for a new biofuel factory and, after years in the doldrums, there is new full-time, well-paid work for 50 people.
But there is a catch. The same fields that surround Jagels' house on the great plains may be bringing new money to rural America, but they are also helping to push up the price of bread in Manchester, tortillas in Mexico City and beer in Madrid. As a direct result of what is happening in places like Nebraska, Kansas, Indiana and Oklahoma, food aid for the poorest people in southern Africa, pork in China and beef in Britain are all more expensive.
Challenged by President George Bush to produce 35bn gallons of non-fossil transport fuels by 2017 to reduce US dependency on imported oil, the Jagels family and thousands of farmers like them are patriotically turning the corn belt of America from the bread basket of the world into an enormous fuel tank. Only a year ago, their maize mostly went to cattle feed or was exported as food aid. Come harvest time in September, almost all will end up at the new plant at Carleton, where it will be fermented to make ethanol, a clear, colourless alcohol consumed, not by people, but by cars.
I think it's generally accepted that this is a somewhat crazy policy. I seem to have read several articles recently about the concerns that scientists have, such as this one (Corn biofuel 'dangerously oversold' as green energy):
Ethanol fuel made from corn may be being "dangerously oversold" as a green energy solution according to a new review of biofuels.
The report concludes that the rapidly growing and heavily subsidised corn ethanol industry in the US will cause significant environmental damage without significantly reducing the country's dependence on fossil fuels.
"There are smarter solutions than rushing straight to corn-based ethanol," says Scott Cullen of the Network for New Energy Choices (NNEC) and a co-author of the study. "It's just one piece of a more complex puzzle."
The report analyses hundreds of previous studies, and was compiled by the environmental advocacy groups Food and Water Watch, NNEC and the Vermont Law School Institute for Energy and the Environment. The study was released as the US Congress debates key agriculture and energy laws that will determine biofuel policy for years to come.
The Guardian article suggests that the problem may only be temporary:
Others say that the food price rises now being seen are temporary and will fall back within a year as the market responds. Technologists pin their faith on GM crops, or drought- resistant crops, or trust that biofuel producers will develop technologies that require less raw material or use non-edible parts of food. The immediate best bet is that countries such as Argentina, Poland, Ukraine and Kazakhstan will grow more food for export as US output declines.
I think that is correct. It was widely assumed that growing population would lead to major global food shortages by the end of the 20th century, but in fact that hasn't happened.