Not everyone sees biofuels as the cure-all to our energy woes. By ousting food crops in favor of ethanol-producing ones and sending food prices skyrocketing, ethanol and its ilk are considered as much bane as boon. A United Nations expert even went so far as to call food-to-fuel production a “crime against humanity.” But biofuel’s detractors are missing a bigger picture, argues Pamela Ravasio in The Guardian on Thursday. Never mind the estimated 32 million acres of arable land we’d need to produce 36 billion gallons of biodiesel by 2022, she says, referring to targets set by the 2007 Energy Bill. World cotton growers will farm 88 million acres by year’s end, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. “In other words,” Ravasio writes, “it is the ‘white gold,’ cotton, not fuel, that is in direct competition with food.”

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Abandoning one crop for a more financially advantageous one isn’t new, Ravasio says. Cotton has historically supplanted food crops because of its higher market value. Increased demand for disposable fashion, coupled with fiber shortages from drought, flooding, and export restrictions, have made the price of cotton more bullish than ever. “Dazzled by the 2011 cotton price peak, many farmers jumped on what seemed a promising bandwagon, and have swapped their food for cotton,” she says.

Cotton has historically supplanted food crops because of its higher market value.

But the forces of supply and demand are just as mercurial. In light of high cotton prices, many mills switched to synthetic blends. Production may exceed consumption again in 2012/13, resulting in rising stocks and depressed costs. And so on and so forth.

One fact that remains unchanged, however, is the availability of farmland. Ravasio expects cotton to rise in cost even as debates over land allocation become increasingly fevered (see: food riots in Algeria and Tunisia.) Fashion, after all, could never trump food or fuel in terms of priorities. “Could the days of cheap, fast fashion slowly yet surely coming to an end?” she asks. Or will we simply deplete a different resource to satiate our need for novelty?

+ The Guardian