by Asinus Asinum Fricat
Wed Apr 30th, 2008 at 03:00:17 PM EST
With food riots about to topple the Haitian government, from Mexico to Pakistan, Egypt to Cameroon, protests have turned violent. Rioters tore through three cities in the West African nation of Burkina Fasom a few weeks ago, burning government buildings and looting stores. Similar protests exploded in Senegal and Mauritania late last year. And Indian protesters burned hundreds of food-ration stores in West Bengal last October, accusing the owners of selling government-subsidized food on the lucrative black market.
Is this a sign of things to come? The answer is yes, because the world's governments have so far turned a blind eye to this crisis. Was this discussed at Davos in any length? Yes, up to a point, as Evelyn Vaughn would surmise, as Indian Trade Minister Kamal Nath warned that prices of some foodstuffs had doubled in his country. So when are we going to set up a food summit, we ask? Referring to the challenge of providing food at affordable prices, he said: "Next year in Davos we'll be discussing this." Next year! Once again, the Gods of procrastination are smiling. In the meantime, let them eat grass.
Diary rescue by Migeru
Although World Bank president Robert Zoellick also sounded the alarm, saying the cost of the basic nutritional requirements of people in many countries, mainly in Africa, was rising sharply, not much is being done. So let's look at the main reasons behind this. Much has been discussed about the rise of Biofuels. It would be naive to blame rising costs solely on them (the chief financial officer of Brazil's state-run energy group Petrobas, Almir Barbassa, argued that market forces were at work and farmers could not be told what to grow. Brazil is the world's biggest producer of sugar cane, which is used to make the biofuel ethanol as well as sugar). More on Brazil below.
There are many factors behind the spike in world food prices. Australia, a major wheat exporter, has been in the midst of a severe drought for the last two years (Australia, which has a 15 percent share of the world wheat trade, is the second-biggest exporter of the grain after the United States) and the rise of China and India means that the majority of their population is moving from one meal a day to two, as it should; but the real culprit is no less than GW Bush, whose disastrous wars and incompetence have have weakened your dollar to an all time low. Since most commodities are priced in US dollars, and that means sellers are looking for higher prices to insulate themselves from the falling greenback, and that pushes staples beyond the reach of the world's poorest.
Now let's discuss the biofuels and its pros and cons.
The Pros: there are many eco-benefits to replacing oil with biofuels like ethanol and biodiesel (though it should be noted that bioethanol is vastly superior to biodiesel because it can be made from a wider range of raw materials and generates a higher yield and better carbon reductions). Since such fuels are derived from agricultural crops, they are inherently renewable. Additionally, ethanol and biodiesel emit less particulate pollution than traditional petroleum-based gasoline and diesel fuels. They also do not contribute to global warming as much, since they only emit back to the environment the carbon dioxide (CO2) that their source plants absorbed out of the atmosphere in the first place. I am sure that there are a few more reasons than the ones noted above, if you know of any, please comment.
The Cons: first, the many risks associated with them are environmental impacts of monocultures, increased rainforest clearance in developing countries for growing biofuel stock, higher costs than other forms of carbon reductions, harsh agricultural labor conditions, and increased use of genetically engineered crops, in other words, the ugly heads of Monsanto & similar companies strike again. Also Ethanol is ethyl alcohol, often referred to as grain alcohol; E85 is a blend of 85 percent ethanol and 15 percent gasoline. Since alcohol is a corrosive solvent, anything exposed to ethanol must be made of corrosion-resistant (and expensive) stainless steel or plastic, from fuel-injection components to the tanks, pumps and hoses that dispense E85, as well as the tankers that deliver it. That's somewhat prohibitive.
Growing corn is an intensive process that requires pesticides, fertilizer, heavy equipment and transport. When considering the viability of ethanol, the total impact of all that activity needs to be taken into account. One acre of corn can produce 300 gal. of ethanol per growing season. So, in order to replace that 200 billion gal. of petroleum products, American farmers would need to dedicate 675 million acres, or 71 percent of the nation's 938 million acres of farmland, to growing feedstock. Clearly, ethanol alone won't kick out fossil fuel dependence. It is worth noting that both the US and the EU use far less efficient biofuels production methods, mainly rapeseed in Europe and corn in the US. Science has shown that, environmentally, the advantages of rape and corn are marginal: for every unit of energy used in the production of ethanol from cane, eight units of energy are created. Corn and rape create less than two units of energy for every unit used in production, both with far lower carbon savings than cane. You could say that since both the US and the EU subsidize heavily ethanol production, thereby using the taxpayers money to pay farmers incentives to switch from food crops to producing an extremely inefficient and environmentally dubious fuel, which in turns exacerbate spikes in food prices.
Water: my last diary on water clearly denotes why scarcity of water was named by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon as a top priority and he warned that conflicts lay ahead if the provision of the vital resource could not be assured.
"Population growth will make the problem worse. So will climate change. As the global economy grows, so will its thirst. Many more conflicts lie just over the horizon," he said in a speech on Thursday. Ban reminded the gathering of the world's wealthy powerbrokers in Davos that the conflict in Darfur in Sudan was touched off by a drought. "Too often where we need water, we find guns," he said.
The Brazil connection: Brazil's ramped up ethanol production has not had any impact on its food production, not as yet anyway. It's one of the world's few places with ample land available to be brought into agricultural production (and we're not talking Amazon here, that's not counting it into the equation). From the point of view of the Brazilian government, their principal source of ethanol is made from sugar cane which seems to be the most suited to mass cultivation. Problem is that it happens to be a chemical-intensive monoculture and can, in the future, set off a massive deforestation should the government decide to expand its program. Most Brazilians do not want to chop down their rain forests but it could well happen, unless the world's governments come to their senses and address the biofuels conundrum.
Increasingly, poor farmers around the world are asking themselves why should they have to turn their food crops into fuel crops for the benefit of the world's rich drivers, therein lies the rub.
As President Bush noted in his comments on the economy, "Prices are up at the gas pump and in the supermarket."
Really? We hardly noticed!