In the context of global shortages of fossil energy oil and natural gas in particular governments worldwide are focusing on biofuels as renewable energy alternatives. In parallel, almost 60 per cent of the world’s population is malnourished increasing the need for grains and other basic foods. Growing crops, including corn, sugarcane and soybean, for fuel uses water and energy resources vital for the production of food for human consumption.
There are also a number of environmental problems linked to converting crops for biofuels, including water pollution from fertilizers and pesticides, global warming, soil erosion and air pollution.
According to an estimate, biofuels are responsible for a 75 per cent increase in world food prices over the last decade. Concern over climate change and increasing competition for cropland had prompted Europe and the US to encourage the use of biofuels, driving up the price of raw materials used in their production, such as wheat, soy, corn and palm oil.
Almost all of the increase in global corn production from 2004 to 2007 was used for biofuel production in the US while existing stocks became depleted by an increase in global consumption for other uses.
Actually, there is simply not enough land, water and energy to produce biofuels. In most cases, more fossil energy is required to produce a unit of biofuel compared with the energy that it provides. Growing crops for biofuels not only ignores the need to reduce natural resource consumption, but exacerbates the problem of malnourishment worldwide by turning food grain into biofuels. Thus, increased use of biofuels further damages the global environment and especially the world food system.
In the process of converting crops into biofuels, valuable land is taken up for growing edible crops for biofuels. Not only are these renewable energies inefficient, they are also economically and environmentally costly and nowhere near as productive as projected. The question, then, arises whether it is ethical to produce inefficient renewable energies at the expense of an already malnourished population.
In some countries the rising food prices have resulted in food riots and in the case of Haiti, the Prime Minister was forced out of office. The food crisis appeared to explode overnight, reinforcing fears that there are just too many people in the world. But according to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), over the last 20 years, food production has risen steadily at over two per cent a year, while the rate of population growth has dropped to 1.14 per cent a year.
Though, population is not outstripping food supply, there are more people hungry and at greater numbers than before. In other words, “There is food on the shelves but people are priced out of the market.” In the recent past, there have even been “angry demonstrations against high food prices in countries that formerly had food surpluses”.
Immediate factors for the food crisis include droughts, low grain reserves, high oil prices, and a doubling of per-capita meat consumption in some developing countries. But these factors are not as worrisome as the diversion of more than five per cent of the world’s cereals to agro fuels or biofuels.
The claim by the US and some European countries that the impact of biofuels on the food crisis has been small has been self-serving. The attempt of developed countries to blame demand from rising poorer countries like India and China as a bigger cause for rising food prices, holds little water. As a World Bank study says, “Rapid income growth in developing countries has not led to large increases in global grain consumption and was not a major factor responsible for the large price increases.”
The report mentions three ways in which biofuels have distorted food markets. First, grain has been diverted away from food, to fuel (over a third of US corn is being used to produce ethanol; about half of vegetable oils in the EU goes towards the production of biodiesel); Second, farmers have been encouraged to set land aside for biofuel production; and Third, the rise in biofuels has sparked financial speculation in grains, driving prices up higher.
The World Bank has also estimated that an additional 100 million more people have been driven into hunger because of the rising food prices. Another institute, the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) estimates that 30 per cent of the increase in the prices of the major grains is due to biofuels. In other words, biofuels may be responsible for some 30-75 million additional people being driven into hunger.
However, all these causes are only the proximate causes of food price inflation and they do not explain why in an increasingly productive and affluent global food system next year up to one billion people will likely go hungry.
The expansion of industrial agri-foods has crippled food production in the Global South and emptied the countryside of valuable human resources. But as long as cheap, subsidized grain from the industrial north kept flowing, the agri-foods complex grew, consolidating control of the world’s food systems in the hands of fewer and fewer grain, seed, chemical and petroleum companies. As a result, three companies, Archer Daniels Midland, Cargill, and Bunge have come to control the world’s grain trade.
Chemical giant Monsanto controls three-fifths of seed production. Unsurprisingly, even as the world food crisis continues, the profits of Archer Daniels Midland, Monsanto and Cargill have jumped 20 to 60 per cent.
Recent speculation with food commodities has created another dangerous ‘boom’. After buying up grains and grain futures, traders are hoarding, withholding stocks and further inflating prices. Genetically Modified (GM) foods are increasingly being seen as a technical savior. If it works, food could be grown with higher yields and in places where natural conditions are usually unfavorable. With increasing threats of climate change, it would seem this technology is potentially more important. What such technologies will not address.
However, are the political, economic, social and environmental root causes and choices that govern what is grown, why, how it is priced, and why even when there is enough food, so many cannot afford it.
The answer lies in understanding that food has become a commodity like any other product, say a computer, a pair of shoes, etc. So, in order to understand why people go hungry we must stop thinking about food as something farmers grow for others to eat, and begin thinking about it as something companies produce for other people to buy. Much of the best agricultural land in the world is used to grow commodities such as cotton, sisal, tea, tobacco, sugar cane, and cocoa, items which are non-food products or are marginally nutritious, but for which there is a large market.
Also, millions of acres of potentially productive farmland are being used to pasture cattle, an extremely inefficient use of land, water and energy, but one for which there is a market in wealthy countries. Further, more than half the grain grown in the United States is fed to livestock, grain that would feed far more people than would the livestock to which it is fed. Thus, the problem is that people who do not have enough money to buy food (more than one billion people earn less than $1.00 a day), simply do not count in the food equation.