Green fuel vs hungry people
"If you start to fuel cars with crops," says Ed Matthew, "you are instantly putting the world's one billion starving people in competition with the world's one billion motorists. It's as simple as that."
The enormous volume of corn required by the ethanol industry is sending shock waves through the food system. (The United States accounts for some 40 percent of the world's total corn production and over half of all corn exports.) In March 2007, corn futures rose to over $4.38 a bushel, the highest level in ten years. Wheat and rice prices have also surged to decade highs, because even as those grains are increasingly being used as substitutes for corn, farmers are planting more acres with corn and fewer acres with other crops.
By putting pressure on global supplies of edible crops, the surge in ethanol production will translate into higher prices for both processed and staple foods around the world. Biofuels have tied oil and food prices together in ways that could profoundly upset the relationships between food producers, consumers, and nations in the years ahead, with potentially devastating implications for both global poverty and food security.
Biofuels may have even more devastating effects in the rest of the world, especially on the prices of basic foods. If oil prices remain high -- which is likely -- the people most vulnerable to the price hikes brought on by the biofuel boom will be those in countries that both suffer food deficits and import petroleum. The risk extends to a large part of the developing world: in 2005, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, most of the 82 low-income countries with food deficits were also net oil importers.
It is one of the most hotly debated environmental topics of the year - whether the drive to produce alternative so-called green fuels will take food from the mouths of the hungry.
Is it ethical to burn food while people starve?
For environmental groups like Friends of the Earth, it's a no brainer. "If you start to fuel cars with crops," says Ed Matthew, "you are instantly putting the world's one billion starving people in competition with the world's one billion motorists. It's as simple as that."
Green groups and aid agencies cite biofuels as forming part of the "perfect storm" of poor harvests, rising oil prices and a surge in demand for food from China and India that are all pushing up the price of everything from pasta to a loaf of bread.
Mexican anger at more expensive corn flour led to the so called "tortilla riots" at the beginning of the year. The price rises were attributed to the United States' large-scale switch from food to fuel production, meaning less maize exported to its southern neighbour.
However, a look at the bigger picture reveals that an apparent straight case of fuel taking precedence over food is misleading. Biofuels could be in the vanguard of much higher standards for international trade in agricultural commodities
For years, Mexican dependency on cheap American corn had ruined the Mexican maize business and millions of farmers had left the land. Now Mexicans are starting to grow maize again. It is a slow process, but it will start to reduce their dependency on the north.
And this is a key part of the debate, according to the UK National Farmers Union's biofuels advisor Jonathan Scurlock. He thinks that greater demand for food and fuel could help galvanise agriculture in developing countries, which for many years have had their farming industries crushed by cheap imports.
Farmers in the West point out that their past food surpluses dumped on developing world markets never alleviated hunger. "It would be a very good thing if developing countries could produce something that we in the West were prepared to pay a fair price for."
However, Friends of the Earth is sceptical that farmers in developing countries will see much benefit from the growth in bio fuels. Mr Matthew says large global corporations and landowners are more likely to be the winners, while the small farmer will lose out.
"But let's be frank," he says, "the public can afford to pay more for quality food and the impact will be to bring more land worldwide into production." Mr Scurlock firmly believes there is enough land worldwide to grow both food and fuel comfortably.
He says we would never have had such a massive tobacco industry if we had wanted only to use land for growing food crops.
Urgent issueIndeed, United Nations figures show there to be around 2 billion hectares (f5 billion acres) of degraded land globally that could be put into production - 25% in Africa, 25% in Asia, 25% in the Americas; the rest scattered around the world in places like Ukraine and Kazakhstan. This is land that has either been used for agriculture then abandoned or has been mismanaged or contaminated.
The environmental group, WWF produced a report earlier this year, concluding that 18 million hectares of rainforest in Southeast Asia are currently lying idle after being cleared for timber production. This land could, if responsibly managed, says WWF, be used for palm oil production. And that is the crux of the matter - the need to ensure that biofuels are ethically produced.
In the UK, fuel suppliers are having to adapt to the Renewable Transport Fuel Obligation - requiring 5% of all fuel sold by 2010 to come from renewable sources. There is growing concern that sourcing must be included in the environmental criteria set by the European Union.
"Biofuels could be in the vanguard of much higher standards for international trade in agricultural commodities," he says. Radio 4's Costing the Earth: Food versus Fuel is broadcast on Thursday 4 October at 2100BST, repeated Friday 5 October at 1500BST.
Biofuel rush harmful, Oxfam warns
The rush for biofuels could harm the world's poorest people, Oxfam has said. In a new report, the UK aid charity appears to be joining a growing chorus of concern about the side-effects of Europe's drive to get fuel from plants.
The European Union wants to cut the CO2 emissions from burning fossil fuels and has demanded that 10% of all transport fuels should come from plants by 2020. But Oxfam warns poor farmers risk being forced off their land as industrial farmers cash in on the biofuel bonanza.
Its report says to meet the rise in demand, the EU will have to import biofuels made from crops like sugar cane and palm oil from developing countries. The rush by big companies and governments in Indonesia, Colombia, Brazil, Tanzania and Malaysia to win a slice of the "EU biofuel pie" threatens to force poor people from their land, it adds.
This could destroy their livelihoods, lead to the exploitation of workers and hit food availability and prices, says the report.
It is now demanding the EU reviews its biofuel policy and wants safeguards put in place to protect the poor. The European Commission says it is working to make sure its biofuel policy does not backfire.
Scientists have said it takes so much energy to produce some biofuels that it would be cleaner overall to burn petrol in our cars, he said. To make it worse, he added, valuable rainforest is still being cleared to make way for fuel crops like palm oil.Top of page
Robert Bailey, a policy advisor at Oxfam, said: "In the scramble to supply the EU and the rest of the world with biofuels, poor people are getting trampled.
"The EU proposals will exacerbate the problem. It is unacceptable that poor people in developing countries should bear the cost of questionable attempts to cut emissions in Europe. "Biofuels are not a panacea - even if the EU is able to reach the 10% target sustainably, and Oxfam doubts that it can, it will only shave a few per cent of emissions off a continually growing total," he said.
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