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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.

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This does not mean that we should stop producing alternative energy altogether, because there are some situations in which it is not in direct competition with agriculture – where it occupies land that cannot be used alternatively for food production – or by using woodlands or biomass. Above all, it is crucial to encourage research into a second generation of biofuels, selecting new species, improving production efficiency, and using marginal lands (such as coppices) that are not alternative farmlands.

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Governments must therefore stop subsidizing farmers to produce less food, forcing poor countries to spend money they don't have to find daily bread for those who are starving to death. And this objective must be immediately translated into political decisions.

We must immediately provide the $500 million needed by the World Food Program to address this emergency and the $1.5 billion dollars wanted by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO).

But at the same time, it is essential to address the underlying political problem in order to reverse the prospects of further food price hikes before the countries with food surpluses prohibit food exports (as they have already started to do). Such a scenario would transform the current crisis into a worldwide tragedy.

Two major forthcoming international events – the FAO meeting in Rome and the G-8 meeting in Japan – must provide the setting for discussing and deciding on a new policy to halt the damage being caused by current policies and to redistribute food resources where they are most needed.

These will not be painless decisions, but something has to be done to ensure that both the United States and Europe stop producing fuel in competition with food. Incentives must be earmarked to studies and research into the production of new generation biofuels.

People can no longer be allowed to starve to death in Africa simply because there are some people in the US or inside the European Union who consider that the votes of farmers or landowners are worth more than the survival of millions of men and women. It is true that today's policies were decided at a time when we thought we were living in an energy-poor and food-rich world. But that is no longer the case today.

It's imperative that we change policies as soon as possible, because the remedies that have been adopted so far are worse than the sickness they were designed to cure. Globalization is demanding the adoption of these sound policies, and Italy certainly cannot evade her responsibilities.

Romano Prodi is Italy's outgoing prime minister.