Thursday, 8 May 2008

Bio-fuelling starvation

Sometimes one can feel overwhelmed by the sheer insanity and insatiable greed of global capitalism. As reports multiply of dire food shortages, riots and civil despair across the globe, America and Europe proceed, ever-selfishly, with biofuel production policies to 'alleviate' global warming.

The US and Europe have been strongly urged to cut back on biofuel crops due to the devastating misuse of farming land for non-food production. Among those criticising the policy is US academic Jeffrey Sachs, an adviser to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. Sachs told EU officials in Brussels this week:
"We need to cut back significantly on our biofuels programs...[They] were understandable at a time of much lower food prices and larger food stocks but do not make sense now in a global food scarcity condition...In the United States as much as one third of maize crop this year will go to gas tank. This is a huge blow to the world food supply".
But while Sachs's intervention is laudable, it appears to be a rearguard response to the food crisis rather than a holistic appraisal of why the market for biofuel is being touted by governments and big business as a route to environmental salvation.

The EU has proposed a target of 5.75 per cent biofuel for transport use by the end of 2008. The US want 15 per cent of all transport fuels to come from biofuels by 2020.

But the massive subsidies to promote the industry hide this rather more inhuman equation: the poor go hungry so that cars can keep running - even running 'ethically'. It's the political version of Milo Minderbinder's mad 'syndicate enterprise' in Catch 22. Eco-solutions, corporate style. Was there ever a more graphic illustration of the market's blanket blindness to human suffering and environmental destruction?

The 'case' for ethanol and other biofuel production comes in 'ethical response' to rising carbon emissions. In crude reality, the agri-corporations see it as a lucrative market opportunity; a rush to 'match' the 'new awakenings' of government on the problem of carbon output.

In synchronised form, the fat-cat grocery imperialists are raking in vast profits from the food hikes.

As Joanna Blythman put it in a fine Sunday Herald piece:
"The sums just don't add up. There's a world food supply crisis, the cost of a basket of groceries has shot up by between 10% and 12.5%, yet our supermarkets are recording healthy profits - Tesco's profits last year, for instance, showed a 11.8% rise."

"It seems our retailers are doing very nicely out of the global food crisis, thank you very much, and so are the global agri-business firms, traders and speculators currently raking in fabulous profits. Hungry people are out on the streets from Egypt to Haiti to protest at the rocketing cost of staples, yet Cargill, the world's biggest grain trader, has achieved an 86% increase in profits from commodity trading in the first quarter of this year alone. Meanwhile Bunge, another huge food trader, reported a 77% increase in profits during the last quarter of last year. ADM, the second largest grain trader in the world, registered a 67% increase in profits in 2007."

"The IMF and the World Bank pushed countries to dismantle all forms of protection for their local farmers and to open up their markets to global agribusiness and subsidised food from rich countries. Like chiselling snake oil salesmen, they said that a liberalised market would provide the most efficient system for producing and distributing food."

It's a double-whammy for the impoverished and the planet. While compliant Western governments and the IMF mandarins proclaim open food markets for poor countries, with all the debilitating consequences that entails for the latter, biofuel crop production in the affluent West is driving-up prices to those poorer markets, while still encouraging all the standard forms of carbon-based consumption.

Intrinsic to this lies the myth of biofuel as a 'post-carbon' saviour. The short-sightedness of this policy is matched only by the blind-eye greed of the profiteers. And the warnings were all there. As George Monbiot, among others, show, one didn't need the powers of a seer to understand the disastrous implications of biofuel production for food economics and the environment:
"So what's wrong with these programmes? Only that they are a formula for environmental and humanitarian disaster. In 2004 I warned, on these pages, that biofuels would set up a competition for food between cars and people. The people would necessarily lose: those who can afford to drive are richer than those who are in danger of starvation. It would also lead to the destruction of rainforests and other important habitats. I received more abuse than I've had for any other column - except for when I attacked the 9/11 conspiracists. I was told my claims were ridiculous, laughable, impossible. Well in one respect I was wrong. I thought these effects wouldn't materialise for many years. They are happening already."
Farmers, chemical corporations, governments and errant environmentalists are all now tied-into this false consensus on the market and eco-benefits of biofuels produced from wheat, maize and other staple crops. The impact of deforestation for biofuel palm oil planting is treated with similar myopic indifference. As Monbiot notes:
"But it gets worse. As the forests are burned, both the trees and the peat they sit on are turned into carbon dioxide. A report by the Dutch consultancy Delft Hydraulics shows that every tonne of palm oil results in 33 tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions, or 10 times as much as petroleum produces. I feel I need to say that again. Biodiesel from palm oil causes 10 times as much climate change as ordinary diesel."

More recent studies offer conclusive evidence that biofuel is not just an eco-palliative, it's a completely false economy, contributing to even more greenhouse gases after land clearance and other wasteful variables are factored in:

"“When you take this into account, most of the biofuel that people are using or planning to use would probably increase greenhouse gasses substantially,” said Timothy Searchinger, lead author of one of the studies and a researcher in environment and economics at Princeton University."
Encouragingly, both Cuba and Venezuela have come out in vociferous opposition to US-led biofuel production, pointing to the catastrophic impact of misused land, food shortages and global starvation.

If only the US and EU shared these same human and environmental concerns. As usual, it's profit and greed which comes before pollution of the atmosphere and starving children.


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