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Commentary Last Updated: Mar 13th, 2008 - 00:06:26

Rising food prices? Let them eat biofuel
By Linda S. Heard
Online Journal Contributing Writer

Mar 13, 2008, 01:03

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Who would have believed that in this day and age people would be rioting over food prices?

With rice, wheat, maize and feedstock up between 30 and 50 percent this year, ordinary people around the world are struggling to afford a simple life-sustaining diet. Indeed, since 2005, the prices of essential commodities have risen by an average of 75 percent.

People in Egypt would be in dire straits if it wasn�t for the government�s quick action to broaden food subsidies, no doubt with memories of the bloody 1977 bread riots in mind that threatened to bring down the government.

Pakistan has had to act, too, to alleviate public outrage at flour being sold at a record high. It has given ration cards to the underprivileged enabling them to benefit from subsidies.

In Yemen, over a dozen people were recently killed while rioting over food prices that have doubled over past months. And last month, 34 rioters were imprisoned in Morocco, while protests and strikes in Jordan forced the government to raise public sector wages.

There�s been recent rioting in Burkina Faso, Mauritania and Senegal, countries dependent on imports of rice and wheat; rioting by tortilla-consuming Mexicans and by Indonesians complaining they could no longer afford to buy soybeans.

Drought, high oil prices, population increases and the use of arable land to feed the biofuel industry have combined to produce a global food crisis.

Who could have predicted that 21st century cutting-edge technology designed to improve lives would, instead, contribute to starvation. According to the United Nations World Food Program (WFP), �the increasing scarcity of food is the biggest crisis looming in the world�; yet more and more agricultural land is being turned over to the production of crops used to manufacture biofuels, such as ethanol.

The search for renewable and environmentally friendly energy resources by developed nations seeking independency from dwindling petroleum reserves is understandable. But it comes at a cost that may be too great to bear for the world�s poorest, who are suffering from a scarcity of affordable staples.

At the forefront of the biofuel drive is the United States, which, last year, used 25 percent of its maize and wheat crops to produce ethanol, and, thus, had to reduce exports to established buyers. Western Europe is going in a similar direction, which will result in a scarcity of edible produce and much higher prices. The Economist�s Intelligence Unit�s Senior Commodities Editor Kona Haque confirms that countries are earmarking increasing acreages to make biofuels, a trend that will not only increase inflationary pressure on grain prices but also on meat and poultry as livestock feed gets more expensive. High oil prices are also a contributory factor as they have led to a phenomenal rise in the cost of essential fertilizers.

Britain�s Conservative Party leader David Cameron isn�t convinced that ethanol is the way forward. �You could feed a person for a whole year from the grain that produces just one tank of fuel for a sports utility vehicle,� he recently told a gathering of British farmers. �They are not a panacea,� he said. �Unless they are sustainable, they may well harm the environment more than protect it.�

The ethics of pursuing biofuel in a world that is threatened by massive flooding caused by climate change -- if we are to believe the doom and gloom merchants -- are questionable, and presents a dilemma to government strategists. The chasm between the haves and have-nots is broadening, so can it be right for developed nations to deny those less fortunate a right to life itself just so their fat-cat citizens can fill their gas-guzzling tanks?

Setting aside the moral issue, there is also a political argument. Hungry people, who feel they have little to lose, will topple governments and turn to more extremist leaderships that would be incompatible with the West as allies. We�ve heard about water wars. We may also be looking at food wars.

Finally, how�s this for a glaring obscenity? According to Susie Mesure, writing in the Independent, �Britons throw away half of the food produced each year . . . enough to meet half of Africa�s food import needs.� Consumers, supermarkets and restaurants are all major culprits in the chucking out of a ��20bn food mountain while at the same time the WFP warns it is dangerously running out of resources."

The only way to solve these problems is for the world to come together under the auspices of the United Nations to come up with real solutions.

The UN has already begun talks with Eastern European countries in an endeavor to persuade them to free up agricultural land to grow essential crops. Investment in desalination plants that would enable some countries to become less dependent on rain is something else that should be considered.

It seems to me that biofuels are not the way forward given that death rates are dropping and the world�s population is due to explode to some 9.3 billion by 2050. If enough people are forced to choose between consuming ethanol and bread, of course, that prediction is likely to be proved wrong.

Linda S. Heard is a British specialist writer on Middle East affairs. She welcomes feedback and can be contacted by email at

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