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Biofuels can't feed starving people

Using crops for energy is a noble idea, but it's led to a hunger crisis.

By Romano Prodi / April 29, 2008


After all the talk about the energy crisis and financial crisis, we have finally become aware of an even more dire drama: the food crisis.

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Billions of people, particularly in Africa, Asia, and Central and South America, are victims of a gradual and unsustainable rise in the prices of all farm products – wheat, soybean, rice, maize, milk, and meat. Riots are breaking out daily, and at least three dozen countries urgently need wheat and rice shipments.

Some governments, such as Egypt's, are being forced to redirect a large proportion of their resources generated by sound economic growth to subsidize bread, while others in the Horn of Africa, the sub-Saharan countries, and Haiti are struggling to find remedies in the face of starvation and famine.

Why are farm prices so high? Improving diets in China, India, and many other countries are one reason. But the growing consumption of meat comes at a steep cost: Five times more land is required to feed people on meat than on cereals.

The soaring costs of fuel and fertilizer are another major factor. Little can be done to change those trends in the near future. But there is a policy that's rapidly aggravating the situation: repurposing land needed to produce food for biofuel production. This is putting food into conflict with fuel – at a time when both are scarce. It's a real, tragic conflict, and we must change course.

On paper, biofuel production is being pursued for a noble purpose: to reduce the dependency on petrol and diesel fuel for transport, thereby reducing the environmental impact of carbon dioxide emissions. But things are not working out in this way.

According to the latest surveys, using existing biofuel production technologies, the energy balance is only marginally positive, if not negative. Some distinguished experts maintain that 30 percent more energy is needed to produce biofuels in the United States than the energy actually produced.

Overall, this is a massive disaster in both energy and in environmental terms. Consider that the amount of wheat needed to create enough ethanol to fill the fuel tank of a single SUV would feed one person for a whole year. Millions of acres of land have been abruptly taken out of food production, under pressure from powerful agricultural lobbies and as a result of ill-informed environmental lobbies.