Fueling Up on the Food Supply; Some Worry Ethanol Consumption Will Increase World Famine

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Byline: Andy Zieminski, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

Ethanol derived from corn, sugar and other crops is fueling a debate over how a plant-guzzling future will affect food and the world's undernourished poor.

Global food and agriculture experts fear that as more countries turn to crops as an energy source, spurred by worries of global warming and oil dependency, food prices could go up and out of the reach of the very poor.

President Bush is serious in his promotion of the use of biofuels, as a way of lessening U.S. energy dependence and helping the environment.

"Your capacity to make biofuels and our desire to use biofuels will make an interesting match as we work to become less dependent on oil and better stewards of the environment," Mr. Bush said in February at a White House meeting with Panamanian President Martin Torrijos.

He said he is committed to introducing $35 billion worth of biofuels into the U.S. market within the next 10 years.

"If you're dependent upon oil from overseas, you have a national-security issue," Mr. Bush said in March after touring a biofuels depot in Sao Paulo, Brazil. "In other words, dependency upon energy from somewhere else means that you are dependant upon the decision from somewhere else."

Others call biofuels a plot against the world's poor because it depletes the supply of cheap grain.

However, most agree the situation is not as bleak as "the sinister idea of converting food into fuel," as Cuban President Fidel Castro said in a March editorial written for Granma, the newspaper of the Cuban Communist Party.

In the right circumstances, higher food prices resulting from widespread ethanol production could prove beneficial, rather than devastating, to the developing world's impoverished masses. Which way things go depends largely on how the technology advances and what policies countries adopt as they strive to promote and protect their own bio-energy industries.

"The debate is very complicated. No matter how it's portrayed, it should be portrayed as a complex problem," said Raya Widenoja, a biofuels researcher with the Worldwatch Institute.

The global output of ethanol increased 20 percent, to 13.5 billion gallons annually, from 2004 to 2006, according to the Renewable Fuels Association, a U.S. trade group.

With vast growth ahead - the United States aims to be producing about 35 billion gallons in 10 years - governments around the world are hoping to turn farming into a domestic energy industry.

"Biofuel development presents a tremendous opportunity for many economies, including energy-poor economies and poor farmers," said Josette Sheeran, director of the U.N. World Food Program (WFP), in an Aug. 1 speech at Washington's Cosmos Club. "But on the immediate horizon, the world's most vulnerable are faced with the challenge of rising food costs and the tightest grain markets in memory."

The WFP and other aid agencies are also feeling the squeeze, because they buy the food they use for emergency famine relief on the open market, said Siwa Msangi, a researcher at the International Food Policy Research Institute.

Although most Americans grumble when the price of bread or milk increases, they spend the money anyway. But the millions of people who scrape by on a dollar or two a day simply can't afford to.

For people living in poverty, the general rule is that with each one percent increase in the cost of food staples, they have to cut back 0.7 percent on their consumption, Mr. Msangi said.

Mr. Msangi and his colleagues projected that even with aggressive improvements in biofuel technology, the world price of corn could increase 23 percent by 2020. The price of cassava - a major staple in sub-Saharan Africa, Asia and Latin America - could increase 54 percent, potentially leading to serious problems with malnourishment among those who don't grow their own food. …