Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva warned Wednesday that the global food crisis is a wake up call for the international community to find a long term solution to hunger. While obviously correct in this regard, Lula denied that one of the causes of the current crisis has been the emergent market for ethanol.
“Don’t tell me, for the love of God, that food is expensive because of biodiesel. Food is expensive because the world wasn’t prepared to see millions of Chinese, Indians, Africans, Brazilians and Latin Americans eat”
For obvious reasons, Lula is defending the production of biofuels against critics who charge that the increased production is causing farmers to abandon food crops. Biofuels play a large role in the Brazilian economy, which is itself the largest and most dynamic in Latin America. Defenders of ethanol contend that while it does play a factor in the rising price of food around the world, there are other more pronounced mitigating factors such as drought and increased demand from China and India, which have also caused prices to jump.
Clearly, these are factors, but they cannot be reversed. We cannot expect people in China and India to demand less food and we cannot expect drought to not occur. One thing that can be done is a reduction in ethanol production, which in the United States, is subsidized and encourages more farmers to abandon food crops.
Another defense often thrown around by ethanol supporters is that food prices increases in the developing world have concerned rice and wheat, neither of which is used as a biofuel. This is true, but as the law of market substitution puts it, the rising prices of corn forces people to consume more wheat and rice. As demand for wheat and rice increase, so does price.
According to the World Bank, global food prices have increased by 83 percent in the last three years. Rice, a staple food for nearly half the world’s population, has been a particular focus of concern in recent weeks, with spiraling prices prompting several countries to impose drastic limits on exports as they try to protect domestic consumers.
Meanwhile the 30th Regional Conference of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) began in Brasilia on Monday. While Brazil is trying to convince its regional neighbors that biolfuels are not the cause of the instability, José Arsenio Quintero, head of the Cuban delegation remarked:
“It is ethically unacceptable to convert areas of food production to energy production”
U.N. Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, Jean Ziegler called ethanol “a crime against humanity’ because of its impact on food prices. Brazil has correctly pointed out that its biofuels are created with switch grass, not foodstuff. Carlos Porto, an international adviser to the Brazilian Agriculture Ministry countered Quintero and Ziegler’s assertions.
“It is the United States and the European Union that use foods like maize, wheat and edible oils to make biofuels.”
Brazil’s biofuels are produced with Bagasse, the biomass that remains after sugarcane is processed. While Brazil’s production has not directly lead to the hike, the Brazilian environment has suffered under the ethanol regime. According to the Hamburg based Rettet den Regenwald (Rainforest Rescue) Brazil currently has 6.2 million hectares of sugar cane monocultures and the government wants to expand to 30 million hectares, largely to produce more ethanol for export. While biofuels are less environmentally polluting than petroleum, Brazil has had to open up the Amazon for planting. The deforestation of the Amazon, has created more environmental problems.
Sugar expansion is rapidly destroying the Cerrado, which is the world’s most biodiverse savannah, home to about 5% of all plant species on arth, and to 180 species of reptiles, 113 of amphibians, 837 of birds and 195 of mammals, many of them endemic. 75-80% of the Cerrado vegetation has already been damaged or destroyed and the deforestation rate is twice as high as in the Amazon forest. The Cerrado borders on the Pantanal, the world’s largest wetlands. Earlier this year, Global Nature Fund warned that “the construction of new ethanol distilleries will increase the critical situation which might lead to the ecological devastation of world’s largest wetland by 2050”
The biofuels debate will not end anytime soon, especially with so many corporate interests involved. In the interim, more people will starve as food prices around the world continue to increase.
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