- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 27, 2008


After all the talk about the energy crisis and the financial crisis we have finally become aware of an even more dire drama that already is having repercussions on humanity: the food crisis.

Billions of people, particularly in Africa, Asia and Central-Southern America, are victims of a gradual and unsustainable rise in the prices of all farm products — wheat, soybean, rice, maize, milk and meat. Riots break out daily, and there are reports of repression.

Some governments, like that of Egypt, are forced to invest a large proportion of their resources generated by sound economic growth in subsidizing bread, while others, in the Horn of Africa, the sub-Saharan countries and Haiti are left with no alternative to starvation and the ever-increasing prospect of a looming tragic famine.

Positive causes of this increase in farm prices certainly exist, such as improved diets in China, India and many other countries. For at least 5 times more land is required to feed people on meat than on cereals.

Other situations exist where very little can be done, such as the rising prices of fuel and fertilizer needed to produce or transport food.

But a political decision is rapidly aggravating the situation and gradually taking out the land needed for food production to use it for biofuel production. On paper, this is done 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 unfortunately not working out this way.

According to the latest surveys (such as those by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development and the Royal Society), conversely, using existing biofuel production technologies, the energy balance is only marginally positive, if not negative. The exact calculation depends on the situation on the ground, but there are distinguished experts (such as those who published the analyses in National Resources Research) who maintain that 30 percent more energy is needed to produce biofuels in the United States than the energy actually produced from the biofuels.

Overall, this is a massive disaster in both energy and in environmental terms. But the more serious disaster remains that this has brought food into conflict with fuel, at a time when both are scarce. A real, tragic, conflict.

To describe it in simple and highly evocative terms, one only need realize that the amount of wheat needed to fill the fuel tank of a single Sport Utility Vehicle (SUV) with ethanol (240 kilograms of maize per 100 liters of ethanol) would feed one person for a year. Already the United States has about 20 percent of its whole arable landmass under maize for energy purposes.

An area larger than Switzerland has been abruptly taken out of food production, under pressure from the powerful agricultural lobbies and as a result of ill-informed or unthinking sections of the environmental lobbies. Meanwhile, land and fertilizer prices rise all over the world as a result, causing food prices to spiral.

This has already sparked food riots in Mexico City, Egypt, West Bengal, Senegal and Mauritania, while the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) has reported 36 countries are now in dire need of wheat and rice shipments.

This does not mean we should stop producing alternative energy altogether. There are some situations in which it does not directly compete with agriculture, where it occupies land that cannot be used alternatively for food production, or uses 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 bleed themselves dry to find the daily bread for those who are starving to death. And this objective must be immediately translated into political decisions. The first such decision is to act where the most serious dramas are being acted out.

We must therefore immediately provide the $500 million needed by the World Food Program to address this emergency and the $1.5 billion wanted by the FAO. But at the same time, it is essential to address the underlying political problem to reverse the prospects of further food price increases before the countries with food surpluses prohibit food exports (as they have already started to do) thereby transforming the current crisis into a worldwide tragedy.

The forthcoming two major international events — the FAO meeting in Rome and the Group of Eight (G8) major industrial nations meeting in Japan — must provide the setting for discussing and deciding on a new policy to halt the damage caused by current policies and to redistribute food resources where they are needed in the world.

These will not be painless decisions, but something must be done to ensure both the United States and Europe stop producing fuel in competition with food, and incentives must be earmarked to studies and research into producing new generation biofuels.

People can no longer be allowed to starve to death in Africa simply because some people in the United States or the European Union 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 lived in an energy-poor and food-rich world. But that is no longer the case.

It is therefore high time to change policies, because the remedies adopted thus far are worse than the sickness they were designed to cure. Globalization demands adoption of these sound policies, and Italy certainly cannot evade its responsibilities.

Romano Prodi is prime minister of Italy.

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