Let them eat cake

It takes around 230 kg of corn to feed a child in the ‘developing world’ for a year, according to UN estimates. By a ghoulish coincidence, that’s around the same amount of corn as is needed to produce enough biofuel to fill a 50-litre fuel tank on a car – once.

World grain stocks are the lowest they’ve been in 25 years, with just 5 million tons in the kitty, enough for between 8 and 12 weeks.

There have been recent and ongoing food protests and riots in countries from South Africa to Egypt, Haiti, Cameroon and Burkina Faso. As food shortages mount, prices have been climbing fast, so that even where food exists, in many cases it’s rapidly becoming out of reach for the very poor.

The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) estimates the the ‘on the table’ cost of food in poorer countries that rely heavily on imports has shot up by 74%.

Niger, Sierra Leone and Eritrea, for example, import over 80% of their entire food needs, making their populations acutely vulnerable to international price hikes.

It remains one of the bitterest ironies that efforts to reduce global dependence on fossil fuels should instead backfire directly into starvation for the world’s poor.

The US, the world’s largest food producer, this year will divert almost a fifth of its total grain production into biofuels – feeding cars, in other words, instead of people. Even more alarmingly, the US plans to produce fully 45% of its massive and growing fuel requirements from biofuel sources over the next seven years.

Asia’s growing prosperity means that hundreds of millions of their emerging middle classes are now clamouring for meat and dairy products, where a few years ago their diets were almost exclusively vegetable-based. This couldn’t have come at a worse time.

It seems like only a short time ago that biofuels were being touted as part of the ‘green’ revolution. The EU enthusiastically adopted targets for the percentage of fuel at the pumps that should be sourced from ‘renewables’.

The scientists were, as usual, more sceptical and they have shown overwhelmingly that the race to replace fossil fuels with biofuels is simply a case of re-ordering the sequence in which you’d like your calamities to occur – with of course the world’s poor once more getting it in the teeth.

The link between the biofuel boom and tropical rainforest clearance is well established, and is yet another example of ‘blowback’, a term borrowed from the military, where an action in one area can trigger unforeseen and undesirable consequences elsewhere (the arming and training of the Mujahadeen in Afghanistan by the US to fight a proxy war with the USSR is a famous example).

The problem that lies at the root of the fossil v biofuels standoff is that neither route challenges us to actually reduce our energy addiction, or to adopt sustainable practices. They simply present two different, but in many respects, equally ruinous paths to the same sorry end.

Small wonder that the Bush administration, after years of refusing to sign up to Kyoto commitments, and after doing its level best to torpedo Bali late last year, is viewed with such suspicion in its enthusiastic adoption of so-called green biofuel alternatives.

Simple, zero cost steps, such as requiring motor manufacturers to improve fuel efficiency and the elimination of the crazy tax breaks on SUVs would, in an instant, save the burning of million of barrels of oil, and it might also save the Alaska national park from being turned into a filthy oilfield.

Bush certainly brings to mind Winston Churchill’s observation that in the end, you can count on the Americans to do the right thing – but only once all the alternatives have been exhausted.

ThinkOrSwim is a blog by journalist John Gibbons focusing on the inter-related crises involving climate change, sustainability, resource depletion, energy and biodiversity loss
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5 Responses to Let them eat cake

  1. Billy the kid says:

    Whats the story with the Irish govt. and biofuels? werent we beign told a while back taht that was the Green thing to do? There were load of ads for cars blowing leaf petals out their exhaust pipes, so pure and natural they were. And of course there were big tax breaks for buying the likes of a Saab, if memory serves. Are these being phased out?

  2. Lenny B says:

    good article. Read your piece in the Irish Times the other day about water shortages and how its going to make food shortages a hell of a lot worse. We really have screwed up with both hands, havent we? Still, I’d rather know what was going on than be just a lemming shuffling towards the cliff – that seems to be what most people are choosing.

  3. Rory Monaghan says:

    I agree with Lenny B, great article. However I believe two important points should be highlighted.
    1. There needs to be a distinction drawn between starch-based biofuels (what the US and others are making from corn) and potentially useful cellulosic biofuels. Cellulosic biofuels, if the technology is perfected, have the potential to be of real value, converting non-food plant matter into fuel.
    2. The corn ethanol effect is only a small contributor to the current increase in food prices. The more important reasons are: changing diets in Asia (as you mention), and the skyrocketing cost of commodities (i.e. oil). Fossil fuels go into virtually every stage of the food production process: fertilizers, sowing, harvesting, processing, transportation, packaging and refrigeration (if necessary). Finding ways of reducing fossil fuel dependence in agriculture would be a good starting point.

  4. John Gibbons says:

    Thanks for the posting Rory. Your point about differentiating in biofuels in favour of using non-food plant matter is entirely valid. Still though, it’s hard to escape the feeling that we’re just plain burning way too much fuel, period. I know it’s a big ask to start addressing our energy intensive lifestyles as the root of the problem, but if we don’t, aren’t we really just rearranging the deckchairs?

  5. Pat Naghten says:

    Very interesting article on biofuels and very relevant comments – I was reminded of the quote (can’t remember the source) that “America didn’t conserve her way to greatness”. It seems to me that lies at the heart of the problem – that there has to be continuous growth in consumption for an economy to be successful.
    Until we get away from this growth model and make it ‘cool to conserve’ (sorry about the slogan, but you know what I mean). For example, instead of looking for 2.5% biofuels, why not just reduce consumption by the same amount – that probably amounts to one less car trip per week for the average driver.

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