Biofuel Displacing Food in Starving Nations

The biofuel kick, prompted by concern for global warming, is driving up the cost of food in developing nations to the point where the trade has become “a crime against humanity,” according to a UN official quoted in this story from the UK Guardian. Writer George Monbiot begins with a painful allusion to Jonathan Swift:

It doesn’t get madder than this. Swaziland is in the grip of a famine and receiving emergency food aid. Forty per cent of its people are facing acute food shortages. So what has the government decided to export? Biofuel made from one of its staple crops, cassava. The government has allocated several thousand hectares of farmland to ethanol production in the district of Lavumisa, which happens to be the place worst hit by drought. It would surely be quicker and more humane to refine the Swazi people and put them in our tanks. Doubtless a team of development consultants is already doing the sums.

The story goes on to explain how biofuel offers countries that have publicly committed to reducing carbon emissions “a means of avoiding hard political choices.”

They create the impression that governments can cut carbon emissions and – as Ruth Kelly, the British transport secretary, announced last week – keep expanding the transport networks. New figures show that British drivers puttered past the 500bn kilometre mark for the first time last year. But it doesn’t matter: we just have to change the fuel we use. No one has to be confronted. The demands of the motoring lobby and the business groups clamouring for new infrastructure can be met. The people being pushed off their land remain unheard.

As activists slowly awaken to this problem, they lean on solutions that haven’t been sufficiently thought through. One such nostrum: Making biofuel from jatropha.

Jatropha is a tough weed with oily seeds that grows in the tropics. This summer Bob Geldof, who never misses an opportunity to promote simplistic solutions to complex problems, arrived in Swaziland in the role of “special adviser” to a biofuels firm. Because it can grow on marginal land, jatropha, he claimed, is a “life-changing” plant that will offer jobs, cash crops and economic power to African smallholders.

Yes, it can grow on poor land and be cultivated by smallholders. But it can also grow on fertile land and be cultivated by largeholders. If there is one blindingly obvious fact about biofuel, it’s that it is not a smallholder crop. It is an internationally traded commodity that travels well and can be stored indefinitely, with no premium for local or organic produce. Already the Indian government is planning 14m hectares of jatropha plantations. In August, the first riots took place among the peasant farmers being driven off the land to make way for them.

Monbiot rants using the kind of invective of which the British are the masters. I realize he’s telling just one side of the story, but he’s persuasive. Read the whole thing and let me know what you think.

My take: The horrific social problems caused by the world’s rising demand for biofuel probably can’t be solved unless the Law of Unintended Consequences is repealed. Which means we have to find something else.

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One Comment on “Biofuel Displacing Food in Starving Nations”

  1. George Riegg Says:

    “Biofuels could kill more people than the Iraq war”
    it’s people that kill people
    unless the whole of humanity wakes up and stops blaming everythig and everybody else for their little individual woes and starts taking RESPONSIBILITY for their actions there is no chance for anybody

    i moved from the uk to the gambia 4 years ago being sick and tired of the selfish consumerism i was part of. i am not saying that people here are not being more and more infected by the same disease of selfishness but its refreshing to see somebody hungry – and no, i’m not being cynical. i can accept that kind of selfisheness – it’s called survival

    and i have now the opportunity to see the global picture from the other end and i have to say it’s not looking rosy. all the way from the overfed west to the little subsistence farmer here the same principle applies- he who is on top doesn’t care where he stands on. unless we all can see that humanity’s survival depends on changing this fundamental behaviour problem and to start to see each other as brothers and sisters on a global scale….

    no i’m not a fanatic. or a doom monger. but i’m sure glad that i made the concious decision not to have kids. but i am aware that global boundaries are non existent and that we as a race only have 1 chance. and we’re just about to throw it away.

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