Western Appetite For Biofuels Is Causing Starvation In The Poor World
By George Monbiot
07 November, 2007
doesn’t get madder than this. Swaziland is in the grip of a famine
and receiving emergency food aid. Forty per cent of its people are facing
acute food shortages. So what has the government decided to export?
Biofuel made from one of its staple crops, cassava. The government has
allocated several thousand hectares of farmland to ethanol production
in the district of Lavumisa, which happens to be the place worst hit
by drought. It would surely be quicker and more humane to refine the
Swazi people and put them in our tanks. Doubtless a team of development
consultants is already doing the sums.
This is one of many examples
of a trade that was described last month by Jean Ziegler, the UN’s
special rapporteur, as “a crime against humanity”. Ziegler
took up the call first made by this column for a five-year moratorium
on all government targets and incentives for biofuel: the trade should
be frozen until second-generation fuels - made from wood or straw or
waste - become commercially available. Otherwise, the superior purchasing
power of drivers in the rich world means that they will snatch food
from people’s mouths. Run your car on virgin biofuel, and other
people will starve.
Even the International Monetary
Fund, always ready to immolate the poor on the altar of business, now
warns that using food to produce biofuels “might further strain
already tight supplies of arable land and water all over the world,
thereby pushing food prices up even further”. This week, the UN
Food and Agriculture Organisation will announce the lowest global food
reserves in 25 years, threatening what it calls “a very serious
crisis”. Even when the price of food was low, 850 million people
went hungry because they could not afford to buy it. With every increment
in the price of flour or grain, several million more are pushed below
The cost of rice has risen
by 20% over the past year, maize by 50%, wheat by 100%. Biofuels aren’t
entirely to blame - by taking land out of food production they exacerbate
the effects of bad harvests and rising demand - but almost all the major
agencies are now warning against expansion. And almost all the major
governments are ignoring them.
They turn away because biofuels
offer a means of avoiding hard political choices. They create the impression
that governments can cut carbon emissions and - as Ruth Kelly, the British
transport secretary, announced last week - keep expanding the transport
networks. New figures show that British drivers puttered past the 500bn
kilometre mark for the first time last year. But it doesn’t matter:
we just have to change the fuel we use. No one has to be confronted.
The demands of the motoring lobby and the business groups clamouring
for new infrastructure can be met. The people being pushed off their
land remain unheard.
In principle, burning biofuels
merely releases the carbon the crops accumulated when growing. Even
when you take into account the energy costs of harvesting, refining
and transporting the fuel, they produce less net carbon than petroleum
products. The law the British government passed a fortnight ago - by
2010, 5% of our road transport fuel must come from crops - will, it
claims, save between 700,000 and 800,000 tonnes of carbon a year. It
derives this figure by framing the question carefully. If you count
only the immediate carbon costs of planting and processing biofuels,
they appear to reduce greenhouse gases. When you look at the total impacts,
you find they cause more warming than petroleum.
A recent study by the Nobel
laureate Paul Crutzen shows that the official estimates have ignored
the contribution of nitrogen fertilisers. They generate a greenhouse
gas - nitrous oxide - that is 296 times as powerful as CO2. These emissions
alone ensure that ethanol from maize causes between 0.9 and 1.5 times
as much warming as petrol, while rapeseed oil (the source of more than
80% of the world’s biodiesel) generates 1-1.7 times the impact
of diesel. This is before you account for the changes in land use.
A paper published in the
journal Science three months ago suggests that protecting uncultivated
land saves, over 30 years, between two and nine times the carbon emissions
you might avoid by ploughing it and planting biofuels. Last year the
research group LMC International estimated that if the British and European
target of a 5% contribution from biofuels were to be adopted by the
rest of the world, the global acreage of cultivated land would expand
by 15%. That means the end of most tropical forests. It might also cause
runaway climate change.
The British government says
it will strive to ensure that “only the most sustainable biofuels”
will be used in the UK. It has no means of enforcing this aim - it admits
that if it tried to impose a binding standard it would break world trade
rules. But even if “sustainability” could be enforced, what
exactly does it mean? You could, for example, ban palm oil from new
plantations. This is the most destructive kind of biofuel, driving deforestation
in Malaysia and Indonesia. But the ban would change nothing. As Carl
Bek-Nielsen, vice chairman of Malaysia’s United Plantations Berhad,
remarked: “Even if it is another oil that goes into biodiesel,
that other oil then needs to be replaced. Either way, there’s
going to be a vacuum and palm oil can fill that vacuum.” The knock-on
effects cause the destruction you are trying to avoid. The only sustainable
biofuel is recycled waste oil, but the available volumes are tiny.
At this point, the biofuels
industry starts shouting “jatropha”. It is not yet a swear
word, but it soon will be. Jatropha is a tough weed with oily seeds
that grows in the tropics. This summer Bob Geldof, who never misses
an opportunity to promote simplistic solutions to complex problems,
arrived in Swaziland in the role of “special adviser” to
a biofuels firm. Because it can grow on marginal land, jatropha, he
claimed, is a “life-changing” plant that will offer jobs,
cash crops and economic power to African smallholders.
Yes, it can grow on poor
land and be cultivated by smallholders. But it can also grow on fertile
land and be cultivated by largeholders. If there is one blindingly obvious
fact about biofuel, it’s that it is not a smallholder crop. It
is an internationally traded commodity that travels well and can be
stored indefinitely, with no premium for local or organic produce. Already
the Indian government is planning 14m hectares of jatropha plantations.
In August, the first riots took place among the peasant farmers being
driven off the land to make way for them.
If the governments promoting
biofuels do not reverse their policies, the humanitarian impact will
be greater than that of the Iraq war. Millions will be displaced, hundreds
of millions more could go hungry. This crime against humanity is a complex
one, but that neither lessens nor excuses it. If people starve because
of biofuels, Ruth Kelly and her peers will have killed them. Like all
such crimes, it is perpetrated by cowards, attacking the weak to avoid
confronting the strong.
George Monbiot is
the author of the best selling books The Age of Consent: a manifesto
for a new world order and Captive State: the corporate takeover of Britain.
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