I’ve written several times over the years on the insanity of a system that forces underdeveloped countries to grow cash crops – for instance coffee and cocoa beans – for export to the west while millions starve.

George Monbiot in Tuesday’s Guardian writes a timely piece on the matter, focusing on how our “appetite for biofuels is causing starvation in the poor world.”

Swaziland is a prime example of the problem. Here, 40% of its population is facing hunger, while the country’s staple crop – cassava – is being grown with the intention of producing ethanol for export to the west. Elsewhere, rainforests, the lungs of the earth, are being cleared for the production of biofuel crops.

At a time when the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organization is reporting that global food stocks are the lowest in a quarter of a century, the biofuel problem just makes you want to wretch.

The current problem is not helped by the rising price of oil (as I write it is nearing $100 a barrel), growing populations, extreme weather and ecological problems. Last week the UN Environment Programme announced that the planet’s water, land, air, plants, animals and fish stocks were all in "inexorable decline". Fifty seven countries, including 29 in Africa, have been hit by floods and crops have been wiped out by drought and heatwaves in Asia, Europe, China, Sudan, Mozambique and Uruguay.

All of which means the laws of supply and demand become more pronounced. John Vidal wrote in Saturday's Guardian:

“Record world prices for most staple foods have led to 18% food price inflation in China, 13% in Indonesia and Pakistan, and 10% or more in Latin America, Russia and India, according to the UN Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO). Wheat has doubled in price, maize [the US produces 70% of the world Maize crop, a staple diet in many countries. Last year 20% of the maize yield was given over to the production of ethanol] is nearly 50% higher than a year ago and rice is 20% more expensive, says the UN.

Lester Brown, the president of the Worldwatch Institute said: "The competition for grain between the world's 800 million motorists, who want to maintain their mobility, and its 2 billion poorest people, who are simply trying to survive, is emerging as an epic issue."

Says Josette Sheeran, director of the UN’s World Food Programme, "There are 854 million hungry people in the world and 4 million more join their ranks every year. We are facing the tightest food supplies in recent history. For the world's most vulnerable, food is simply being priced out of their reach."

Meanwhile the EU has set itself targets that directly impact on the world’s starving millions: 5.75 per cent of transport fuel must come from biofuels by 2010, and 10 per cent by 2020. This is all to do with reducing the European carbon footprint. But this switch to biofuels hardly helps matters as Monbiot observes:

“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…..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.”

Monbiot finishes with a warning:

“If the governments promoting biofuels do not reverse their policies, the humanitarian impact will be greater than that of the Iraq war. Millions will be displaced, hundreds of millions more could go hungry. This crime against humanity is a complex one, but that neither lessens nor excuses it. If people starve because of biofuels, Ruth Kelly [Secretary of State for Transport] and her peers will have killed them. Like all such crimes, it is perpetrated by cowards, attacking the weak to avoid confronting the strong.”

While I welcome Monbiot’s criticism of this issue, It is not so much the “strong”, the oil and biofuel, the transport and food production industries that need confronting. it is more a case that the damned system that allows them to operate as they do, that allows them to put profits before human and environmental interests, needs to be abolished

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