What the biofuel goldrush means for food security

Published: Monday 30 April 2007

recently the Cuban leader, Fidel Castro, denounced us president George Bush's new-found fondness for biofuels. Food stocks for millions would be threatened, Castro warned.

The octogenarian Communist speaking on ecology doesn't get much press. Castro's fulminations were duly consigned to back pages of newspapers, where they had more to do with speculations about the ailing leader's return to public life. The Cuban leader's criticism of Bush, however, has an import far more significant than paper skirmishes between two old adversaries.

On March 26, the news agency Associated Press (ap) reported that Bush has asked for a commitment from leaders of the us's domestic auto industry to double production of vehicles run on biofuel. This could help motorists shift away from gasoline and reduce the nation's reliance on imported oil.

"That's a major technological breakthrough for the country," ap reported the us president as saying after meeting honchos of General Motors, Ford and DaimlerChrysler. As oil resources run low, and climate change enters mainstream political discourse--at least in the West--it's no surprise that governments and oil companies are looking for alternative fuel sources. Kyoto-blocker Bush is no exception. Fans of biofuels, like him, would have us believe that we will soon be running cars on maize and getting power from palm oil.

If these recent converts to biofuels have their way, the food security of the poor--already imperilled--might well be sacrificed for the energy security of the rich. Already, corn prices are being linked to those of biofuel. In January, this year, for example, thousands of Mexicans took to the streets protesting against high prices of tortillas. Experts linked the rise in prices of the Mexican staple to increased demand for corn to produce ethanol. If newspaper reports are to be believed, in the agricultural state of Iowa, farmers say they are already giving up rotating corn and soya crops to focus on corn alone.

One shudders to think what might happen if economic boomers, China and India go the biofuel way--whole hog. The resultant gold rush could prolong the Indian middle and rich class's love affair with cars--and energy-intensive ways of life--but at the cost of food security. It's another matter that this love affair is at the root of the energy and climate crisis of our times.

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