/ 11 April 2008

Fuel up, food down

Two years ago, the United Nations’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) expected biofuels to help eradicate hunger and poverty for up to two billion people. Last week, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon raised doubt over that policy amid signs that the world is facing its worst food crisis in a generation.

Since the FAO’s report in April 2006, tens of thousands of farmers have switched from food to fuel production to reduce the United States’s dependence on foreign oil. Spurred by generous subsidies and a European Union commitment to increase the use of biofuels to counter climate change, at least eight million hectares of crops that once provided animal feed and human food have been taken out of production in the US.

Large areas of Brazil, Argentina, Canada and Eastern Europe are diverting crops to biofuels. The result, exacerbated by energy price rises, speculation and shortages because of severe weather, has been big increases of all global food commodity prices.

Lester Brown, director of the Earth Policy Institute in Washington, DC, said this week that land turned to biofuels in the US alone in the last two years could have fed nearly 250-million people.

“This year 18% of all US grain production will go to biofuels. In the past two years the US has diverted 60-million tons of food to fuel. On the heels of seven years of consumption of world grains exceeding supply, this has put a great strain on the world’s grain supplies,” he said.

Many countries that have switched from traditional crops to rice diets as urbanisation has increased face serious shortages. China has put price controls on cooking oil, grain, meat, milk and eggs. In the past two months Vietnam, Cambodia, Egypt, India, the Philippines and Thailand have stopped crop exports or raised prices to more than $1 200 a ton to discourage exports.

In the past week, there have been violent protests around the world over rising food prices. Philippine leaders have warned that hoarding rice could bring economic sabotage charges. A moratorium is being considered on using farmland for housing or golf courses. Fast-food outlets are being pressed to offer half-portions of rice.

Urbanisation and world trade rules have encouraged the dumping of rice and other food on African countries, which now import up to 40% of their food. — Â