Crime against humanity?

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Bangkok Post 12 July 2008 

Biofuels are harming developing countries, writes Eva Clayton

Riots and protests over high food prices around the world formed the backdrop for statesmen meeting at the G8 summit this week. The goal of the meeting was to issue a statement on food security and chart a way forward toward reducing global food prices. But any announcement must be backed up by significant shifts in government policy that have made the current food crisis significantly worse.

Shifting weather conditions and natural disasters always threaten to disrupt food supplies. The last year has been no different as several of the world's largest and most important food producing regions have been badly hit by Mother Nature.

In the United States, for example, severe flooding in agricultural regions has shocked markets for corn and other staples. Droughts in Australia, one of South Asia's most important food producing countries, have badly diminished food markets. And the devastating cyclone in Burma rattled world rice markets. The results have been staggering. International corn and soy prices have jumped to record levels - above $7 a bushel for corn and a nearly equally astonishing $15 a bushel for soy.

Having just completed a three year assignment with the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, I am intensely aware of the impact unpredictable weather events and natural disasters can have on the health and nutrition of poor families in developing countries.

What can be done? For starters, wealthy countries need to provide short term assistance through emergency food relief to families. This will help them to survive the current crisis and replenish food supply abroad. The goal is to keep starvation at bay.

In the near term, we need to build national food economies through fair and open trade so that there will be more food available and accessible to feed a growing world population. We need to promote and support sustainable agricultural practices and assist small farmers in developing countries.

Moreover, we need we need to harness modern technologies to boost crop yields and generate more food per acre. The green revolution launched by Norman Borlaug that helped Asia generate enough food to feed itself needs to be repeated once again. This will help countries with dynamic economies feed their rapidly rising populations and meet the needs of citizens who demand increased numbers of calories.

But perhaps most importantly we need to stop making natural disasters worse through misguided government policies. In particular, we must reassess our programmes that convert our food into fuels. The race by wealthy nations across the planet to embrace biofuels has made a bad situation far worse.

Keith Collins is a retired chief agriculture economist for the United States government. He recently noted that American mandates for biofuel production, mostly made from corn, were "the foot on the accelerator" of rising global corn prices.

A World Bank report says that biofuels have helped trigger a 75% increase in the cost of food around the world. "Without the increase in biofuels," the report says, "global wheat and maize stocks would not have declined appreciably and price increases due to other factors would have been moderate."

Simply put, when food is being diverted to feed automobiles instead of mouths; as a result, millions of people living in poverty are placed in grave jeopardy.

The situation has become so bad for poor countries struggling to cope with higher food prices that UN Special Rapporteur for the Right to Food Jean Ziegler has called biofuels a "crime against humanity".

As if this were not troubling enough, increased production of biofuels comes with enormous environmental cost. Churning up land in conservation to create more fuel depletes soil resources and can release more carbon into the atmosphere than the gasoline it displaces.

According to Simon Johnson, an economist with the International Monetary Fund, "Making ethanol from corn doesn't generate much net energy-you use almost as much oil producing and transporting the ethanol as you'd use to generate the equivalent amount of gasoline."

The increased reliance on biofuels also removes buffers from streams and rivers, as well as triggering an increased use of fertilisers that adds to pollution.

Wealthy nations need to reassess their mandates for biofuels production. There's not much governments can do to change the weather. But they can change policies that double the social, economic and political damages that result from natural disasters.

Eva M. Clayton is a former assistant director-general, UN Food Agriculture Organisation.