Biofuels can't feed starving people

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

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.

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.

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.

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.

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