Indur M. Goklany, Ph.D. Journal of American Physicians and Surgeons
ABSTRACT Biofuels: Rationale and Questions Higher global demand for biofuels, driven mainly by policies in industrialized countries with the stated purpose of enhancing energy independence and retarding climate change, has contributed to rising global food prices. As a consequence, more people in developing countries suffer from both chronic hunger and absolute poverty.
Hunger and poverty are major contributors to death and disease in poorer countries. Results derived from World Bank and World Health Organization (WHO) studies suggest that for every million people living in absolute poverty in developing countries, there are annually at least 5,270 deaths and 183,000 Disability-Adjusted Life Years (DALYs) lost to disease. Combining these estimates with estimates of the increase in poverty owing to growth in biofuels production over 2004 levels leads to the conclusion that additional biofuel production may have resulted in at least 192,000 excess deaths and 6.7 million additional lost DALYs in 2010.
These exceed WHO’s estimated annual toll of 141,000 deaths and 5.4 million lost DALYs attributable to global warming. Thus, policies intended to mitigate global warming may actually have increased death and disease in developing countries. In the past few years, in response to concerns about global warming and increased dependency on foreign sources of petroleum, several developed countries, most notably the United States and the European Union, have instituted subsidies and mandates to stimulate production and use of biofuels in order to help displace hydrocarbon fuel consumption. This has engendered substantial debate about the merits of these policies, much of it focused on (a) whether production and consumption of biofuels (e.g., ethanol from corn or biodiesel from soybean oil) would indeed reduce net energy consumption from non-renewable sources and net greenhouse gas emissions, and (b) their environmental consequences for land, water, and wildlife resources.
Questions have also been raised regarding the unintended consequence of biofuel production on human well-being. In particular, it has been argued, and several analyses confirm, that higher food prices, induced in part by greater demand for biofuels, could increase hunger and poverty in developing countries. Since hunger and poverty are major contributors to death and disease around the world, it is, therefore, conceivable that the higher demand for biofuels could add to the global burden of death and disease. If that were the case, it would, ironically, militate against one of the reasons offered to encourage biofuel production, namely, to reduce the health effects of global warming, particularly in developing countries.
It would also reduce the perceived net benefits of policies designed to encourage biofuel production, whether they are instituted to reduce global warming or enhance energy security. To date, however, no estimates are available of the potential magnitude, if any, of the global health impacts of biofuel production, precluding a more comprehensive analysis of policies designed to stimulate biofuel production. This exploratory analysis develops order-of-magnitude estimates of increases in death and disease in developing countries in 2010 due to greater global demand for biofuels and the resulting increase in poverty. Absolute poverty is defined as living on less than $1.25 per day, in 2005 international dollars. Poverty-related global health risk factors are identified using information provided in the World Health Organization (WHO) 2009 report, .
The cumulative burden of death and disease from these poverty related health risk factors in the developing world is assumed to be proportional to the poverty headcount.
Increase in Death and Disease in 2010 for Developing Countries due to Biofuels
Recall that De Hoyos and Medvedev estimated an increase in the poverty headcount of 32 million in 2010 due to the increase in biofuel production over the 2004 level. They also estimated that the poverty headcount in developing countries for 2005 was 1,208 million. By contrast, the World Bank estimated that the 2005 poverty headcount was 14% higher, that is, 1,374 million. The difference between the two estimates is mainly that the World Bank’s analysis covered more countries. To reconcile these two estimates, De Hoyos and Medvedev’s estimate for increase in headcount due to higher biofuel production should be adjusted upward by 14% to 36.4 million. Thus, assuming proportionality in developing countries between the headcount for absolute poverty on one hand and poverty-related death and disease on the other and keeping all else the same, the increase in the poverty headcount in 2010 due to biofuel demand translates into 192,000 additional deaths and 6.7 million additional lost DALYs
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