Sunday, November 11, 2007

Starve the Third-World, Fatten Corn Farmers

We published an editorial cartoon on this, but it’s time for a post. Via Nick Schweitzer, how the craze for biofuels starves people in poor countries.
The western appetite for biofuels is causing starvation in the poor world

Developing nations are being pushed to grow crops for ethanol, rather than food - all thanks to political expediency

George Monbiot
Tuesday November 6, 2007
The Guardian

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.

This is one of many examples of a trade that was described last month by Jean Ziegler, the UN’s special rapporteur, as “a crime against humanity”. Ziegler took up the call first made by this column for a five-year moratorium on all government targets and incentives for biofuel: the trade should be frozen until second-generation fuels - made from wood or straw or waste - become commercially available. Otherwise, the superior purchasing power of drivers in the rich world means that they will snatch food from people’s mouths. Run your car on virgin biofuel, and other people will starve.

Even the International Monetary Fund, always ready to immolate the poor on the altar of business, now warns that using food to produce biofuels “might further strain already tight supplies of arable land and water all over the world, thereby pushing food prices up even further”. This week, the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation will announce the lowest global food reserves in 25 years, threatening what it calls “a very serious crisis”. Even when the price of food was low, 850 million people went hungry because they could not afford to buy it. With every increment in the price of flour or grain, several million more are pushed below the breadline.

The cost of rice has risen by 20% over the past year, maize by 50%, wheat by 100%. Biofuels aren’t entirely to blame - by taking land out of food production they exacerbate the effects of bad harvests and rising demand - but almost all the major agencies are now warning against expansion. And almost all the major governments are ignoring them.

In principle, burning biofuels merely releases the carbon the crops accumulated when growing. Even when you take into account the energy costs of harvesting, refining and transporting the fuel, they produce less net carbon than petroleum products. The law the British government passed a fortnight ago - by 2010, 5% of our road transport fuel must come from crops - will, it claims, save between 700,000 and 800,000 tonnes of carbon a year. It derives this figure by framing the question carefully. If you count only the immediate carbon costs of planting and processing biofuels, they appear to reduce greenhouse gases. When you look at the total impacts, you find they cause more warming than petroleum.

A recent study by the Nobel laureate Paul Crutzen shows that the official estimates have ignored the contribution of nitrogen fertilisers. They generate a greenhouse gas - nitrous oxide - that is 296 times as powerful as CO2. These emissions alone ensure that ethanol from maize causes between 0.9 and 1.5 times as much warming as petrol, while rapeseed oil (the source of more than 80% of the world’s biodiesel) generates 1-1.7 times the impact of diesel. This is before you account for the changes in land use.

A paper published in the journal Science three months ago suggests that protecting uncultivated land saves, over 30 years, between two and nine times the carbon emissions you might avoid by ploughing it and planting biofuels. Last year the research group LMC International estimated that if the British and European target of a 5% contribution from biofuels were to be adopted by the rest of the world, the global acreage of cultivated land would expand by 15%. That means the end of most tropical forests. It might also cause runaway climate change.
We, of course, remain skeptical of global warming alarmism.

But while Monbiot is less skeptical, his analysis indirectly supports our position.

If the relevant elites can’t properly figure out that biofuels are a bad idea (or if they are too corrupt to admit that), why should be expect them to be any better where “global warming” is concerned?

It is so utterly typical that monomaniacal obsession with one “social problem” causes people to do things that have nasty ripple effects. A more balanced analysis of policy would have seen those coming.

But politicians and activists don’t want a balanced analysis of policy.

They want a crusade.

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