Global warming, biofuels worsen world hunger

October 19, 2007

On October 16, events in more than 150 countries marked World Food Day, which commemorates the founding of the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation, with the theme of "the right to food".

Despite the UN's 1974 World Food Conference setting the ambitious goal of ending world hunger "within a decade", freedom from hunger remains more like a privilege than a "right". According to the FAO, at least 800 million people in the world go hungry every day, and the lives of at least 400 million children being blighted by malnutrition in the first few months after being born.

The FAO has declared that hunger is "the most critical manifestation of poverty", with about 1.5 billion people having to live on less than US$1 a day and someone dying of hunger every 3.6 seconds.

This dire situation is only set to worsen as an combination of climate change, social conflict, the global push for biofuels and rising oil prices combine to push more people in poor countries into hunger.

The persistence of widespread hunger is a result of reliance by the FAO and most of the world's governments on either "market forces" or superficial quick-fixes of increasing food aid to eliminate hunger.

As long as the systemic causes of hunger and poverty are ignored any goals, no matter how well-meaning, will be bound to fail. As Cuban President Fidel Castro noted at the UN's 1996 World Food Summit: "Hunger, inseparable companion of the poor, is the daughter of the unequal distribution of wealth and of the injustices of this world. The rich do not know hunger...

"It is capitalism, neoliberalism, the laws of a savage market, external debt, underdevelopment, unequal exchange, which are killing so many people in the world."

The worst hunger is found in rural areas of the Third World. Small-plot farmers and cooperatives have been worst affected by global trends. International financial institutions such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund have pushed for trade liberalisation in poor countries as a condition for receiving much-needed loans. First World governments have hypocritically forced poor countries to eliminate subsidies for farmers while maintaining billions of dollars worth of subsidies to their own farmers.

Other factors bearing down on small farmers in the Third World have been the pressure to grow export-oriented cash crops rather than food crops for domestic consumption, the higher costs of seeds due to genetic patenting by Western corporations, and the slow pace of land reform.

For one or all of these reasons, increasing numbers of Third World farmers have found they are unable to compete with the uncompetitively priced First World agricultural products dumped onto poor countries, and are forced to sell their land leading to the mass exodus to urban slums.

With less food produced domestically, poor countries are losing the struggle to achieve food sovereignty, thus becoming more dependent on the corporate-dominated world market for food supplies. A drop in the exchange rate relative to the US dollar or the euro of a poor country's currency or a sharp increase in world commodity prices can quickly cause such a country to descend into a food crisis.


Today, poor countries already ravaged by "economic rationalist" policies aimed at promoting "market forces" — which, in reality, means subordination of their economies to the profit drive of First World corporations — are at risk of such a plunge into food insecurity. The effects of global warming as well as misguided policy responses to it (such as biofuels), are starting to create a worldwide increase in food prices that has been dubbed "agflation".

Poor weather conditions have contributed to lower-than-expected wheat crop yields in Australia, Canada and Europe. As a result, world wheat stocks have hit their lowest level in almost three decades and the price of wheat has rocketed beyond a record US$9 — double last year's price.

Dairy and meat prices have also increased, as grain is the main feed for cattle. Recent record oil prices, which reached $89 a barrel on October 18, will also squeeze the economies of poor countries.

The price rises have already sparked food riots in India, protests in Italy and have led the Russian government to impose a hefty tax on grain exports in order to curb profiteering at the expense of domestic supplies.

Disturbingly, First World governments could be about to decrease their aid to poor countries just when these countries need it the most. The September 28 Seattle Times reported Abdolreza Abbassian, an FAO analyst, as saying: "The surge in grain prices means aid to developing nations from the US, the European Union [EU] and Australia may drop to 5.5 million tons this year, the lowest since at least the 1970s."

Biofuels push

The primary driver of agflation is US President George Bush's push to have the US use greater amounts of biofuels, particularly ethanol. Washington plans to cut US petrol consumption by 20% over 10 years, requiring production of some 132 billion litres of ethanol. Similarly, the EU is planning to use 20% biofuels by 2020.

Washington is aggressively pursuing a policy of domestic ethanol production from maize, which in turn is inflating world corn prices. More destructively, Third World countries are being encouraged by First World governments to dedicate more of their limited arable land to the production of biofuels crops.

However there is not much land to spare. According to the April edition of Third World Resurgence magazine, "40% of the Earth's land is already used up for agriculture. Estimates show that more than one-third of all agricultural lands would need to be converted to biofuel production in order to raise its share in domestic consumption of transport fuels to 10%."

Regardless of the real problems involved in biofuel production, the US and Brazil signed a controversial ethanol deal in March that aims to encourage the development of biofuels projects in poor countries, particularly in the Caribbean and Central America, and promote a global biofuels market.

Brazil and the US will also cooperate more closely on researching and developing biofuels technology. Other poor countries in Asia and Africa are also jumping on the biofuels bandwagon.

Unlike the US, Brazil produces most of its ethanol from bagasse (sugar-cane waste), rather than from corn.

Writing in April 30 edition of the Cuban Communist Party daily Granma, Fidel Castro warned that the increasing use of biofuels derived from corn by the US and other rich countries will create a global food crisis that could condemn more than 3 billion people to death from starvation.

Ironically, biofuels may actually exacerbate global warming rather than ameliorating it. Certainly deforestation in order to make way for biofuel crops is already having a devastating effect on forest cover in Malaysia and Indonesia.

Indonesia was recently named as the world's third largest emitter of greenhouse gases, largely because the slash and burn method of deforestation in tropical regions is releasing massive amounts of CO2 not only from the burning of vegetation but also from the soil.

Runaway climate change will multiply the problems for the billions of people living in poor countries, including exacerbating the extent of hunger. Extreme weather such as floods, droughts and hurricanes will even more severely impact upon food production.

Real solutions

What is needed to address climate change, which is now intimately connected with solving world hunger, is not more deceptive "quick-fixes" like biofuels, but a multi-faceted rearrangement of food production, transportation and energy infrastructure.

Socialist Cuba is the outstanding example for the world to look to for inspiration about how to deal with the two crises of global warming and hunger. Despite having suffered a five-decades long economic blockade by Washington, Cuba was voted by the World Wildlife Fund this year to be the only country in the world to have achieved sustainable development.

Instead of fossil-fuel intensive export-based agriculture, Cuba practices organic horticulture; instead of ever-increasing highways and cars, Cuba encourages public transport and bike riding; instead of blindly continuing on with fossil-fuel based energy, Cuba is researching renewable energy sources.

The Cuban government has provided its citizens with free, new, energy efficient light-bulbs as part of a national energy-saving policy that has saved the country more than $1 billion per year in imported fuel oil.

By 2005, Cuba had cut its greenhouse gas emissions by 40% compared with 1990.

Cuba's achievements have been possible because decisions regarding key aspects of its society and economy have not been held to ransom by corporate interests, but are freely chosen by a collectively empowered and mobilised population.

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