. . . Re­quires changes in pol­icy

The Washington Times Weekly - - Commentary -

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 Cen­tralSouth­ern 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 wood- lands 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 na- tions 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 en­er­gy­poor 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.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.