By Lynas, Mark
New Statesman (1996) , Vol. 137, No. 4893
The irony is extraordinary. At a time when world leaders are expressing grave concern about diminishing food stocks and a coming global food crisis, our government brings into force measures to increase the use of biofuels--a policy that will further increase food prices, and further worsen the plight of the world's poor.
What biofuels do is undeniable: they take food out of the mouths of starving people and divert them to be burned as fuel in the car engines of the world's rich consumers. This is, in the words of the United Nations special rapporteur on the right to food, Jean Ziegler, nothing less than a "crime against humanity". It is a crime the UK government seems determined to play its part in abetting. The Renewable Transport Fuel Obligation (RTFO), introduced on 15 April, mandates petrol retailers to mix 2.5 per cent biofuels into fuel sold to motorists. This will rise to 5.75 per cent by 2010, in line with European Union policy.
The message could not have been clearer if the Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, had personally put a torch to a pyre of corn and rice in Parliament Square: even as you take to the streets to protest your empty bellies and hungry children, we will burn your food in our cars. The UK is not uniquely implicated in this scandal: the EU, the United States, India, Brazil and China all have targets to increase biofuels use. But a look at the raw data confirms today's dire situation. According to the World Bank, global maize production increased by 51 million tonnes between 2004 and 2007. During that time, biofuels use in the US alone (mostly ethanol) rose by 50 million tonnes, soaking up almost the entire global increase.
Next year, the use of US corn for ethanol is forecast to rise to 114 million tonnes--nearly a third of the whole projected US crop. American cars now burn enough corn to cover all the import needs of the 82 nations classed by the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) as "low-income food-deficit countries". There could scarcely be a better way to starve the poor.
The threat posed by biofuels affects all of us. Global grain stockpiles--on which all of humanity depends--are now perilously depleted. Cereal stocks are at their lowest level for 25 years, according to the FAO. The world has consumed more grain than it has produced for seven of the past eight years, and supplies, at roughly only 54 days of consumption, are the lowest on record.
The president of the World Bank, Robert Zoellick, has already warned that 100 million people could be pushed deeper into poverty because of food price rises caused directly by this imbalance between supply and demand. Even consumers in rich countries are suffering. We now pay higher prices for our food in order to subsidise the biofuels industry, thanks to measures such as the renewable fuels directive.
This is not just a short-term price blip, but the beginnings of a major structural change in the world food market. Population pressure--still something of a taboo subject--is also certainly playing a part. With the world population growing by 78 million a year, and expected to reach nine billion by the middle of the century, there are simply many more mouths to feed.
In addition, rapid economic growth in India and China has created tens of millions of new middle-class consumers, all demanding western-style diets high in meat and dairy products, thereby vastly increasing the quantity of grain required for livestock production.
Weather plays a maj or role, too: the FAO's latest food situation brief reports that, in 2007, "unfavourable climatic conditions devastated crops in Australia and reduced harvests in many other countries, particularly in Europe", while Southern Africa and the western United States have been hit hard by severe drought. Rising oil prices also increase the cost of food, as fossil fuels are important throughout the agricultural process, from tractor diesel to fertiliser production. …