While billions condemned to starvation & death, Bush Jnr’s spin hides corporate roots of food crises Print E-mail
 Monday May 12 2008

Why bush is wrong in blaming Indians

By Dr Vandana Shiva
Scroll down to also read "Multinationals make billions in profit out of growing global food crisis" and "How Biofuels Could Starve the Poor"

President George W. Bush has a new analysis on the global rise in food prices. At an interactive session on the economy, President Bush argued that prosperity in countries like India has triggered increased demand for better nutrition. "There are 350 million people in India who are classified as middle class. That is bigger than America. Their middle class is larger than our entire population. And when you start getting wealthy, you start demanding better nutrition and better food. So demand is high and that causes the price to go up." While this fabricated story might work to divert the US political debate from the role of US agribusiness in the current food crisis (both through speculation and through diversion of food to bio-fuels) and might also present economic globalisation as having benefited Indians, the reality is that Indians are nutritionally worse off today than before globalisation. The poor are worse off because their food and livelihoods have been destroyed. The middle classes are worse off because they are eating worse, not better, as junk food and processed food is forced on India through globalisation. India is now the epicentre of the malnutrition of the poor who do not get enough and the malnutrition of the rich, whose diets are being degraded with Americanisation of food culture.

Indians eating less and worse
The myth that Bush is propagating is a "growth myth." While the Indian economy has grown, the majority of Indians have grown poorer because as a result of globalisation, they have lost their land and livelihoods. Most Indians are, in fact, eating less today than a decade ago. The per capita availability of food has declined from 177 kg per person per year in 1991 to 152 kg per person per year. The daily availability of food has declined from 485 gm to 419 gm per day.

Economic growth has gone hand in hand with growth in hunger. India is perceived as an economic superpower with almost nine per cent growth. However, because this growth is based on a large-scale takeover of land belonging to the tribals and peasants and destruction of the livelihoods of millions in agriculture, textiles and small-scale industries, poverty has grown.

Earlier, Indian farmers had seed security because 80 per cent of the seeds were their own, and 20 per cent came from the public sector seed farms. Globalisation has forced India to allow biotech giants like Monsanto into the seed market. And Monsanto’s growth comes at the cost of farmers’ lives. More than 2,00,000 have committed suicide as they were trapped in debt created by high-cost, non-renewable and unreliable seed.

Indian farmers also had market security. They grew the diverse crops. They grew rice and wheat for the national food security system which provided them a remunerative price and provided the poor affordable food through the public distribution system

Globalisation has destroyed the securities of both the producer and the poor by integrating the local and domestic food economy with the speculative global commodity trade controlled by agribusiness.

Force Feeding is not Free Trade
While Indians are eating less, India is definitely buying more soya and wheat as a result of forced imports. Imports have been forced on India by the US agribusiness, aided by the pressure of WTO rules and the US government.
This is not "demand" from India, this is "dumping" bad food on India. In 1998, India was forced to import soya even though we had adequate edible oils. With nearly $200 per tonne of subsidies these imports amounted to dumping. Millions of India’s coconut, mustard, sesame, linseed, groundnut farmers lost their market, their incomes and their livelihoods.

In 2005 India was forced to import wheat as part of the US-India agreement on agriculture. These are forced imports, designed to destroy domestic production to create markets for US agribusiness. This is force-feeding not free trade. The US wheat was declared unfit for eating but the US arm-twisted India to dilute health standards to import bad wheat.

Destruction of domestic production worldwide can only result in food scarcity and food insecurity and when food moves into the hands of global agribusiness who see profits through price fixing and speculation, a food emergency is inevitable.

The absolute decline in food production arises from three factors. First, the transformation of ecological biodiverse systems to chemical monocultures, which produce more commodities but less food and nutrition for the household and for local economies.

Second, the shift from food crops to cash crops for exports.

Third, the vulnerabilities created by climate change to which industrial farming and globalised food systems make a significant contribution. Food security requires a strengthening of local and domestic food economies, the defence of rural livelihoods and small farmers and the reigning in of the global grain giants and their price fixing. We need an anti-trust action against the agribusiness corporations which are at the heart of the current food crisis.

GM Food is problem, not solution
There is also an increasing reference to new seeds and genetically modified crops as a solution to the food crisis. However, GM crops are part of the food crisis. Bt. Cotton has destroyed food production in India and has pushed farmers to suicide.

Cotton used to be grown as an intercrop with food crops. Now it is a monoculture. And with high costs of production and low prices of produce, farmers are trapped in debt and hunger. In any case, GM seeds do not produce more food.

There are only two traits commercialised in 20 years ­ herbicide resistant crops, and Bt. toxin crops. Neither is a yield trait. In India we see high risks of crop failure with average yields of Bt. Cotton at 300-400 kg per acre. Not 1,500 kg per acre as advertised by Monsanto.

The present crisis is in part a consequence of transforming biodiverse systems to monocultures of globally traded commodities. With commodities getting transformed to feed and fuel, there is a shortage in food availability. Unless food sovereignty is put back in the equation, the crisis will continue to deepen.

Food Sovereignity is the answer
The current food emergency is a result of half a century of non-sustainable farming and one-and-a-half decades of trading unfairly in food. The United Nations has called an emergency meeting in early June to address the food emergency. Even the World Bank has called for an urgent response.

Will the response intensify non-sustainability and injustice, or will the global community use the crisis to strengthen sustainability, justice and fairness?

There are already signals that global agribusiness, which has created the crisis (both historically and currently), will use it to increase its stranglehold on the world food system. Lowering import duties has been one response of governments to deal with rising food prices. But lowering import duties encourages destruction of domestic markets and domestic production, thus aggravating the agrarian crisis. The crisis of rising food prices is a direct result of countries being forced by the World Bank, WTO and regional and bilateral agreements to import food from the US agribusiness.

The World Bank call to increase contributions to the World Food Programme by $500 million and President Bush’s call to Congress to add $770 million in food aid could become another subsidy to Cargill and ADM if the procurement is not based on creating fair markets for farmers at the local and regional levels.

The globalised system under corporate control is a guaranteed recipe for food disasters and food famines. We can either stop the damage through food democracy and rebuild food sovereignty by strengthening local economies or the corporate powers that have created the emergency will use it to deepen and expand their profits. While billions are condemned to starvation and death, they will use political leaders like President Bush to give a false spin on the causes of the food crisis.

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Dr Vandana Shiva is the executive director of the Navdanya Trust.
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 London ~~ May 4 2008

Multinationals make billions in profit out of growing global food crisis

Speculators blamed for driving up price of basic foods as 100 million face severe hunger


Market shoppers in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, one of the countries that is experiencing acute food shortages and rising costs (Getty Images)

By Geoffrey Lean, Environment Editor

Giant agribusinesses are enjoying soaring earnings and profits out of the world food crisis which is driving millions of people towards starvation, The Independent on Sunday can reveal. And speculation is helping to drive the prices of basic foodstuffs out of the reach of the hungry.

The prices of wheat, corn and rice have soared over the past year driving the world's poor – who already spend about 80 per cent of their income on food – into hunger and destitution.

The World Bank says that 100 million more people are facing severe hunger. Yet some of the world's richest food companies are making record profits. Monsanto last month reported that its net income for the three months up to the end of February this year had more than doubled over the same period in 2007, from $543m (£275m) to $1.12bn. Its profits increased from $1.44bn to $2.22bn.

Cargill's net earnings soared by 86 per cent from $553m to $1.030bn over the same three months. And Archer Daniels Midland, one of the world's largest agricultural processors of soy, corn and wheat, increased its net earnings by 42 per cent in the first three months of this year from $363m to $517m. The operating profit of its grains merchandising and handling operations jumped 16-fold from $21m to $341m.

Similarly, the Mosaic Company, one of the world's largest fertiliser companies, saw its income for the three months ending 29 February rise more than 12-fold, from $42.2m to $520.8m, on the back of a shortage of fertiliser. The prices of some kinds of fertiliser have more than tripled over the past year as demand has outstripped supply. As a result, plans to increase harvests in developing countries have been hit hard.

The Food and Agriculture Organisation reports that 37 developing countries are in urgent need of food. And food riots are breaking out across the globe from Bangladesh to Burkina Faso, from China to Cameroon, and from Uzbekistan to the United Arab Emirates.

Benedict Southworth, director of the World Development Movement, called the escalating earnings and profits "immoral" late last week. He said that the benefits of the food price increases were being kept by the big companies, and were not finding their way down to farmers in the developing world.

The soaring prices of food and fertilisers mainly come from increased demand. This has partly been caused by the boom in biofuels, which require vast amounts of grain, but even more by increasing appetites for meat, especially in India and China; producing 1lb of beef in a feedlot, for example, takes 7lbs of grain.

World food stocks at record lows, export bans and a drought in Australia have contributed to the crisis, but experts are also fingering food speculation. Professor Bob Watson – chief scientist at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, who led the giant International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology for Development – last week identified it as a factor.

Index-fund investment in grain and meat has increased almost fivefold to over $47bn in the past year, concludes AgResource Co, a Chicago-based research firm. And the official US Commodity Futures Trading Commission held special hearings in Washington two weeks ago to examine how much speculators were helping to push up food prices.

Cargill says that its results "reflect the cumulative effect of having invested more than $18bn in fixed and working capital over the past seven years to expand our physical facilities, service capabilities, and knowledge around the world".

The revelations are bound to increase outrage over multinational companies following last week's disclosure that Shell and BP between them recorded profits of £14bn in the first three months of the year – or £3m an hour – on the back of rising oil prices. Shell promptly attracted even greater condemnation by announcing that it was pulling out of plans to build the world's biggest wind farm off the Kent coast.

World leaders are to meet next month at a special summit on the food crisis, and it will be high on the agenda of the G8 summit of the world's richest countries in Hokkaido, Japan, in July.

Additional research by Vandna Synghal
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May 7, 2007

How Biofuels Could Starve the Poor

By C. FORD RUNGE AND BENJAMIN SENAUER

From the May/June 2007 issue of 

C. Ford Runge is Distinguished McKnight University Professor of Applied Economics and Law and Director of the Center for International Food and Agricultural Policy at the University of Minnesota. Benjamin Senauer is Professor of Applied Economics and Co-director of the Food Industry Center at the University of Minnesota.

THE ETHANOL BUBBLE
In 1974, as the United States was reeling from the oil embargo imposed by the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, Congress took the first of many legislative steps to promote ethanol made from corn as an alternative fuel. On April 18, 1977, amid mounting calls for energy independence, President Jimmy Carter donned his cardigan sweater and appeared on television to tell Americans that balancing energy demands with available domestic resources would be an effort the "moral equivalent of war." The gradual phaseout of lead in the 1970s and 1980s provided an additional boost to the fledgling ethanol industry. (Lead, a toxic substance, is a performance enhancer when added to gasoline, and it was partly replaced by ethanol.) A series of tax breaks and subsidies also helped. In spite of these measures, with each passing year the United States became more dependent on imported petroleum, and ethanol remained marginal at best.

Now, thanks to a combination of high oil prices and even more generous government subsidies, corn-based ethanol has become the rage. There were 110 ethanol refineries in operation in the United States at the end of 2006, according to the Renewable Fuels Association. Many were being expanded, and another 73 were under construction. When these projects are completed, by the end of 2008, the United States' ethanol production capacity will reach an estimated 11.4 billion gallons per year. In his latest State of the Union address, President George W. Bush called on the country to produce 35 billion gallons of renewable fuel a year by 2017, nearly five times the level currently mandated.

The push for ethanol and other biofuels has spawned an industry that depends on billions of dollars of taxpayer subsidies, and not only in the United States. In 2005, global ethanol production was 9.66 billion gallons, of which Brazil produced 45.2 percent (from sugar cane) and the United States 44.5 percent (from corn). Global production of biodiesel (most of it in Europe), made from oilseeds, was almost one billion gallons.

The industry's growth has meant that a larger and larger share of corn production is being used to feed the huge mills that produce ethanol. According to some estimates, ethanol plants will burn up to half of U.S. domestic corn supplies within a few years. Ethanol demand will bring 2007 inventories of corn to their lowest levels since 1995 (a drought year), even though 2006 yielded the third-largest corn crop on record. Iowa may soon become a net corn importer.

The enormous volume of corn required by the ethanol industry is sending shock waves through the food system. (The United States accounts for some 40 percent of the world's total corn production and over half of all corn exports.) In March 2007, corn futures rose to over $4.38 a bushel, the highest level in ten years. Wheat and rice prices have also surged to decade highs, because even as those grains are increasingly being used as substitutes for corn, farmers are planting more acres with corn and fewer acres with other crops.

This might sound like nirvana to corn producers, but it is hardly that for consumers, especially in poor developing countries, who will be hit with a double shock if both food prices and oil prices stay high. The World Bank has estimated that in 2001, 2.7 billion people in the world were living on the equivalent of less than $2 a day; to them, even marginal increases in the cost of staple grains could be devastating. Filling the 25-gallon tank of an SUV with pure ethanol requires over 450 pounds of corn -- which contains enough calories to feed one person for a year. By putting pressure on global supplies of edible crops, the surge in ethanol production will translate into higher prices for both processed and staple foods around the world. Biofuels have tied oil and food prices together in ways that could profoundly upset the relationships between food producers, consumers, and nations in the years ahead, with potentially devastating implications for both global poverty and food security.

THE OIL AND BIOFUEL ECONOMY

In the United States and other large economies, the ethanol industry is artificially buoyed by government subsidies, minimum production levels, and tax credits. High oil prices over the past few years have made ethanol naturally competitive, but the U.S. government continues to heavily subsidize corn farmers and ethanol producers. Direct corn subsidies equaled $8.9 billion in 2005. Although these payments will fall in 2006 and 2007 because of high corn prices, they may soon be dwarfed by the panoply of tax credits, grants, and government loans included in energy legislation passed in 2005 and in a pending farm bill designed to support ethanol producers. The federal government already grants ethanol blenders a tax allowance of 51 cents per gallon of ethanol they make, and many states pay out additional subsidies.

Consumption of ethanol in the United States was expected to reach over 6 billion gallons in 2006. (Consumption of biodiesel was expected to be about 250 million gallons.) In 2005, the U.S. government mandated the use of 7.5 billion gallons of biofuels per year by 2012; in early 2007, 37 governors proposed raising that figure to 12 billion gallons by 2010; and last January, President Bush raised it further, to 35 billion gallons by 2017. Six billion gallons of ethanol are needed every year to replace the fuel additive known as MTBE, which is being phased out due to its polluting effects on ground water.

The European Commission is using legislative measures and directives to promote biodiesel, produced mainly in Europe, made from rapeseeds and sunflower seeds. In 2005, the European Union produced 890 million gallons of biodiesel, over 80 percent of the world's total. The EU's Common Agricultural Policy also promotes the production of ethanol from a combination of sugar beets and wheat with direct and indirect subsidies. Brussels aims to have 5.75 percent of motor fuel consumed in the European Union come from biofuels by 2010 and 10 percent by 2020.

Brazil, which currently produces approximately the same amount of ethanol as the United States, derives almost all of it from sugar cane. Like the United States, Brazil began its quest for alternative energy in the mid-1970s. The government has offered incentives, set technical standards, and invested in supporting technologies and market promotion. It has mandated that all diesel contain two percent biodiesel by 2008 and five percent biodiesel by 2013. It has also required that the auto industry produce engines that can use biofuels and has developed wide-ranging industrial and land-use strategies to promote them. Other countries are also jumping on the biofuel bandwagon. In Southeast Asia, vast areas of tropical forest are being cleared and burned to plant oil palms destined for conversion to biodiesel.

This trend has strong momentum. Despite a recent decline, many experts expect the price of crude oil to remain high in the long term. Demand for petroleum continues to increase faster than supplies, and new sources of oil are often expensive to exploit or located in politically risky areas. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration'striesst projections, global energy consumption will rise by 71 percent between 2003 and 2030, with demand from developing countries, notably China and India, surpassing that from members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development by 2015. The result will be sustained upward pressure on oil prices, which will allow ethanol and biodiesel producers to pay much higher premiums for corn and oilseeds than was conceivable just a few years ago. The higher oil prices go, the higher ethanol prices can go while remaining competitive -- and the more ethanol producers can pay for corn. If oil reaches $80 per barrel, ethanol producers could afford to pay well over $5 per bushel for corn.

With the price of raw materials at such highs, the biofuel craze would place significant stress on other parts of the agricultural sector. In fact, it already does. In the United States, the growth of the biofuel industry has triggered increases not only in the prices of corn, oilseeds, and other grains but also in the prices of seemingly unrelated crops and products. The use of land to grow corn to feed the ethanol maw is reducing the acreage devoted to other crops. Food processors who use crops such as peas and sweet corn have been forced to pay higher prices to keep their supplies secure -- costs that will eventually be passed on to consumers. Rising feed prices are also hitting the livestock and poultry industries. According to Vernon Eidman, a professor emeritus of agribusiness management at the University of Minnesota, higher feed costs have caused returns to fall sharply, especially in the poultry and swine sectors. If returns continue to drop, production will decline, and the prices for chicken, turkey, pork, milk, and eggs will rise. A number of Iowa's pork producers could go out of business in the next few years as they are forced to compete with ethanol plants for corn supplies.

Proponents of corn-based ethanol argue that acreage and yields can be increased to satisfy the rising demand for ethanol. But U.S. corn yields have been rising by a little less than two percent annually over the last ten years, and even a doubling of those gains could not meet current demand. As more acres are planted with corn, land will have to be pulled from other crops or environmentally fragile areas, such as those protected by the Department of Agriculture's Conservation Reserve Program.

In addition to these fundamental forces, speculative pressures have created what might be called a "biofuel mania": prices are rising because many buyers think they will. Hedge funds are making huge bets on corn and the bull market unleashed by ethanol. The biofuel mania is commandeering grain stocks with a disregard for the obvious consequences. It seems to unite powerful forces, including motorists' enthusiasm for large, fuel-inefficient vehicles and guilt over the ecological consequences of petroleum-based fuels. But even as ethanol has created opportunities for huge profits for agribusiness, speculators, and some farmers, it has upset the traditional flows of commodities and the patterns of trade and consumption both inside and outside of the agricultural sector.

This craze will create a different problem if oil prices decline because of, say, a slowdown in the global economy. With oil at $30 a barrel, producing ethanol would no longer be profitable unless corn sold for less than $2 a bushel, and that would spell a return to the bad old days of low prices for U.S. farmers. Undercapitalized ethanol plants would be at risk, and farmer-owned cooperatives would be especially vulnerable. Calls for subsidies, mandates, and tax breaks would become even more shrill than they are now: there would be clamoring for a massive bailout of an overinvested industry. At that point, the major investments that have been made in biofuels would start to look like a failed gamble. On the other hand, if oil prices hover around $55-$60, ethanol producers could pay from $3.65 to $4.54 for a bushel of corn and manage to make a normal 12 percent profit.

Whatever happens in the oil market, the drive for energy independence, which has been the basic justification for huge investments in and subsidies for ethanol production, has already made the industry dependent on high oil prices.

CORNUCOPIA
One root of the problem is that the biofuel industry has long been dominated not by market forces but by politics and the interests of a few large companies. Corn has become the prime raw material even though biofuels could be made efficiently from a variety of other sources, such as grasses and wood chips, if the government funded the necessary research and development. But in the United States, at least, corn and soybeans have been used as primary inputs for many years thanks in large part to the lobbying efforts of corn and soybean growers and Archer Daniels Midland Company (ADM), the biggest ethanol producer in the U.S. market.

Since the late 1960s, ADM positioned itself as the "supermarket to the world" and aimed to create value from bulk commodities by transforming them into processed products that command heftier prices. In the 1970s, ADM started making ethanol and other products resulting from the wet-milling of corn, such as high fructose corn syrup. It quickly grew from a minor player in the feed market to a global powerhouse. By 1980, ADM's ethanol production had reached 175 million gallons per year, and high fructose corn syrup had become a ubiquitous sweetening agent in processed foods. In 2006, ADM was the largest producer of ethanol in the United States: it made more than 1.07 billion gallons, over four times more than its nearest rival, VeraSun Energy. In early 2006, it announced plans to increase its capital investment in ethanol from $700 million to $1.2 billion in 2008 and increase production by 47 percent, or close to 500 million gallons, by 2009.

ADM owes much of its growth to political connections, especially to key legislators who can earmark special subsidies for its products. Vice President Hubert Humphrey advanced many such measures when he served as a senator from Minnesota. Senator Bob Dole (R-Kans.) advocated tirelessly for the company during his long career. As the conservative critic James Bovard noted over a decade ago, nearly half of ADM's profits have come from products that the U.S. government has either subsidized or protected.

Partly as a result of such government support, ethanol (and to a lesser extent biodiesel) is now a major fixture of the United States' agricultural and energy sectors. In addition to the federal government's 51-cents-per-gallon tax credit for ethanol, smaller producers get a 10-cents-per-gallon tax reduction on the first 15 million gallons they produce. There is also the "renewable fuel standard," a mandatory level of nonfossil fuel to be used in motor vehicles, which has set off a political bidding war. Despite already high government subsidies, Congress is considering lavishing more money on biofuels. Legislation related to the 2007 farm bill introduced by Representative Ron Kind (D-Wis.) calls for raising loan guarantees for ethanol producers from $200 million to $2 billion. Advocates of corn-based ethanol have rationalized subsidies by pointing out that greater ethanol demand pushes up corn prices and brings down subsidies to corn growers.

The ethanol industry has also become a theater of protectionism in U.S. trade policy. Unlike oil imports, which come into the country duty-free, most ethanol currently imported into the United States carries a 54-cents-per-gallon tariff, partly because cheaper ethanol from countries such as Brazil threatens U.S. producers. (Brazilian sugar cane can be converted to ethanol more efficiently than can U.S. corn.) The Caribbean Basin Initiative could undermine this protection: Brazilian ethanol can already be shipped duty-free to CBI countries, such as Costa Rica, El Salvador, or Jamaica, and the agreement allows it to go duty-free from there to the United States. But ethanol supporters in Congress are pushing for additional legislation to limit those imports. Such government measures shield the industry from competition despite the damaging repercussions for consumers.

STARVING THE HUNGRY
Biofuels may have even more devastating effects in the rest of the world, especially on the prices of basic foods. If oil prices remain high -- which is likely -- the people most vulnerable to the price hikes brought on by the biofuel boom will be those in countries that both suffer food deficits and import petroleum. The risk extends to a large part of the developing world: in 2005, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, most of the 82 low-income countries with food deficits were also net oil importers.

Even major oil exporters that use their petrodollars to purchase food imports, such as Mexico, cannot escape the consequences of the hikes in food prices. In late 2006, the price of tortilla flour in Mexico, which gets 80 percent of its corn imports from the United States, doubled thanks partly to a rise in U.S. corn prices from $2.80 to $4.20 a bushel over the previous several months. (Prices rose even though tortillas are made mainly from Mexican-grown white corn because industrial users of the imported yellow corn, which is used for animal feed and processed foods, started buying the cheaper white variety.) The price surge was exacerbated by speculation and hoarding. With about half of Mexico's 107 million people living in poverty and relying on tortillas as a main source of calories, the public outcry was fierce. In January 2007, Mexico's new president, Felipe Calderón, was forced to cap the prices of corn products.

The International Food Policy Research Institute, in Washington, D.C., has produced sobering estimates of the potential global impact of the rising demand for biofuels. Mark Rosegrant, an IFPRI division director, and his colleagues project that given continued high oil prices, the rapid increase in global biofuel production will push global corn prices up by 20 percent by 2010 and 41 percent by 2020. The prices of oilseeds, including soybeans, rapeseeds, and sunflower seeds, are projected to rise by 26 percent by 2010 and 76 percent by 2020, and wheat prices by 11 percent by 2010 and 30 percent by 2020. In the poorest parts of sub-Saharan Africa, Asia, and Latin America, where cassava is a staple, its price is expected to increase by 33 percent by 2010 and 135 percent by 2020. The projected price increases may be mitigated if crop yields increase substantially or ethanol production based on other raw materials (such as trees and grasses) becomes commercially viable. But unless biofuel policies change significantly, neither development is likely.

The production of cassava-based ethanol may pose an especially grave threat to the food security of the world's poor. Cassava, a tropical potato-like tuber also known as manioc, provides one-third of the caloric needs of the population in sub-Saharan Africa and is the primary staple for over 200 million of Africa's poorest people. In many tropical countries, it is the food people turn to when they cannot afford anything else. It also serves as an important reserve when other crops fail because it can grow in poor soils and dry conditions and can be left in the ground to be harvested as needed.

Thanks to its high-starch content, cassava is also an excellent source of ethanol. As the technology for converting it to fuel improves, many countries -- including China, Nigeria, and Thailand -- are considering using more of the crop to that end. If peasant farmers in developing countries could become suppliers for the emerging industry, they would benefit from the increased income. But the history of industrial demand for agricultural crops in these countries suggests that large producers will be the main beneficiaries. The likely result of a boom in cassava-based ethanol production is that an increasing number of poor people will struggle even more to feed themselves.

Participants in the 1996 World Food Summit set out to cut the number of chronically hungry people in the world -- people who do not eat enough calories regularly to be healthy and active -- from 823 million in 1990 to about 400 million by 2015. The Millennium Development Goals established by the United Nations in 2000 vowed to halve the proportion of the world's chronically underfed population from 16 percent in 1990 to eight percent in 2015. Realistically, however, resorting to biofuels is likely to exacerbate world hunger. Several studies by economists at the World Bank and elsewhere suggest that caloric consumption among the world's poor declines by about half of one percent whenever the average prices of all major food staples increase by one percent. When one staple becomes more expensive, people try to replace it with a cheaper one, but if the prices of nearly all staples go up, they are left with no alternative.

In a study of global food security we conducted in 2003, we projected that given the rates of economic and population growth, the number of hungry people throughout the world would decline by 23 percent, to about 625 million, by 2025, so long as agricultural productivity improved enough to keep the relative price of food constant. But if, all other things being equal, the prices of staple foods increased because of demand for biofuels, as the IFPRI projections suggest they will, the number of food-insecure people in the world would rise by over 16 million for every percentage increase in the real prices of staple foods. That means that 1.2 billion people could be chronically hungry by 2025 -- 600 million more than previously predicted.


The world's poorest people already spend 50 to 80 percent of their total household income on food. For the many among them who are landless laborers or rural subsistence farmers, large increases in the prices of staple foods will mean malnutrition and hunger. Some of them will tumble over the edge of subsistence into outright starvation, and many more will die from a multitude of hunger-related diseases.

THE GRASS IS GREENER

And for what? Limited environmental benefits at best. Although it is important to think of ways to develop renewable energy, one should also carefully examine the eager claims that biofuels are "green." Ethanol and biodiesel are often viewed as environmentally friendly because they are plant-based rather than petroleum-based. In fact, even if the entire corn crop in the United States were used to make ethanol, that fuel would replace only 12 percent of current U.S. gasoline use. Thinking of ethanol as a green alternative to fossil fuels reinforces the chimera of energy independence and of decoupling the interests of the United States from an increasingly troubled Middle East.

Should corn and soybeans be used as fuel crops at all? Soybeans and especially corn are row crops that contribute to soil erosion and water pollution and require large amounts of fertilizer, pesticides, and fuel to grow, harvest, and dry. They are the major cause of nitrogen runoff -- the harmful leakage of nitrogen from fields when it rains -- of the type that has created the so-called dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico, an ocean area the size of New Jersey that has so little oxygen it can barely support life. In the United States, corn and soybeans are typically planted in rotation, because soybeans add nitrogen to the soil, which corn needs to grow. But as corn increasingly displaces soybeans as a main source of ethanol, it will be cropped continuously, which will require major increases in nitrogen fertilizer and aggravate the nitrogen runoff problem.

Nor is corn-based ethanol very fuel efficient. Debates over the "net energy balance" of biofuels and gasoline -- the ratio between the energy they produce and the energy needed to produce them -- have raged for decades. For now, corn-based ethanol appears to be favored over gasoline, and biodiesel over petroleum diesel -- but not by much. Scientists at the Argonne National Laboratory and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory have calculated that the net energy ratio of gasoline is 0.81, a result that implies an input larger than the output. Corn-based ethanol has a ratio that ranges between 1.25 and 1.35, which is better than breaking even. Petroleum diesel has an energy ratio of 0.83, compared with that of biodiesel made from soybean oil, which ranges from 1.93 to 3.21. (Biodiesel produced from other fats and oils, such as restaurant grease, may be more energy efficient.)

Similar results emerge when biofuels are compared with gasoline using other indices of environmental impact, such as greenhouse gas emissions. The full cycle of the production and use of corn-based ethanol releases less greenhouse gases than does that of gasoline, but only by 12 to 26 percent. The production and use of biodiesel emits 41 to 78 percent less such gases than do the production and use of petroleum-based diesel fuels.

Another point of comparison is greenhouse gas emissions per mile driven, which takes account of relative fuel efficiency. Using gasoline blends with 10 percent corn-based ethanol instead of pure gasoline lowers emissions by 2 percent. If the blend is 85 percent ethanol (which only flexible-fuel vehicles can run on), greenhouse gas emissions fall further: by 23 percent if the ethanol is corn-based and by 64 percent if it is cellulose-based. Likewise, diesel containing 2 percent biodiesel emits 1.6 percent less greenhouse gases than does petroleum diesel, whereas blends with 20 percent biodiesel emit 16 percent less, and pure biodiesel (also for use only in special vehicles) emits 78 percent less. On the other hand, biodiesel can increase emissions of nitrogen oxide, which contributes to air pollution. In short, the "green" virtues of ethanol and biodiesel are modest when these fuels are made from corn and soybeans, which are energy-intensive, highly polluting row crops.


The benefits of biofuels are greater when plants other than corn or oils from sources other than soybeans are used. Ethanol made entirely from cellulose (which is found in trees, grasses, and other plants) has an energy ratio between 5 and 6 and emits 82 to 85 percent less greenhouse gases than does gasoline. As corn grows scarcer and more expensive, many are betting that the ethanol industry will increasingly turn to grasses, trees, and residues from field crops, such as wheat and rice straw and cornstalks. Grasses and trees can be grown on land poorly suited to food crops or in climates hostile to corn and soybeans. Recent breakthroughs in enzyme and gasification technologies have made it easier to break down cellulose in woody plants and straw. Field experiments suggest that grassland perennials could become a promising source of biofuel in the future.

For now, however, the costs of harvesting, transporting, and converting such plant matters are high, which means that cellulose-based ethanol is not yet commercially viable when compared with the economies of scale of current corn-based production. One ethanol-plant manager in the Midwest has calculated that fueling an ethanol plant with switchgrass, a much-discussed alternative, would require delivering a semitrailer truckload of the grass every six minutes, 24 hours a day. The logistical difficulties and the costs of converting cellulose into fuel, combined with the subsidies and politics currently favoring the use of corn and soybeans, make it unrealistic to expect cellulose-based ethanol to become a solution within the next decade. Until it is, relying more on sugar cane to produce ethanol in tropical countries would be more efficient than using corn and would not involve using a staple food.

The future can be brighter if the right steps are taken now. Limiting U.S. dependence on fossil fuels requires a comprehensive energy-conservation program. Rather than promoting more mandates, tax breaks, and subsidies for biofuels, the U.S. government should make a major commitment to substantially increasing energy efficiency in vehicles, homes, and factories; promoting alternative sources of energy, such as solar and wind power; and investing in research to improve agricultural productivity and raise the efficiency of fuels derived from cellulose. Washington's fixation on corn-based ethanol has distorted the national agenda and diverted its attention from developing a broad and balanced strategy. In March, the U.S. Energy Department announced that it would invest up to $385 million in six biorefineries designed to convert cellulose into ethanol. That is a promising step in the right direction.

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