Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Biofuels: enemy of the world's poor?

Sitting in my room in Leslie Lodge in Blantrye (Malawi), I get the opportunity in the evenings to do something unusual: watch television. I don't have one at home. Besides the predictable trash, and some good football, I have been struck by the way that the current food crisis has been treated by most of the news channels. They have been milking the connections between biofuels, rising food prices, and imminent hunger for millions of persons for all they are worth. For some reason, Germans are being interviewed at gas stations that offer biofuels, apparently to show how good intentions can pave the autobahn to hell: the ethanol going into their tanks is pulling food out of the mouths of the poor. When the news channels are not probing the depths of German guilt, they produce an excellent soundbite from the UN Special Rapporteur for the Right to Food, Jean Ziegler, stating that the production of biofuels is "a crime against humanity" because of its impact on global food prices, and the effects of food insecurity on health and well-being. Add the remark of the UK Prime Minister of the food crisis as the 'new credit crunch', and stir. You get a big biofuels backlash.

Fortunately, some newspapers take a more skeptical and nuanced view, by asking the essential question: to what extent does increased biofuels production impact on food production and rises in global food prices? The answer seems to be: we don't really know yet. It may well contribute something, but it is not as if a couple years of biofuels promotion has undone an global situation which was otherwise in wonderful shape. In fact, the fingerpointing at biofuels might just be a (new) way of ignoring the weightier and longer-standing reasons for chronic food insecurity in developing countries. Might it have also to do with existing international trade policies and the subsidized-to-the-teeth agriculture industries in America and Western Europe? Lack of committment to (god forbid) family planning in developing countries? I am reminded of the story about Malawi, published in the New York Times the last time I was here: how the country went from the brink of famine to being able to export corn by ignoring the neo-liberal policies of the International Monetary Fund. Many developing countries, like Malawi, have been dealing with food insecurity for years. Biofuels production might be only delivering the coup de grace, while taking the rap for the whole ugly thing.

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