Biofuels and World Hunger

Since I came to Bolivia in March 2007, the price of food has risen 25%, for some items the price has doubled. I used to be able to buy bread for 0.20 to 0.25 Bolivianos. Briefly the price spiked at 0.50B last year, but has now settled down to 0.40B. In my favorite place to eat lunch near la UMSA university, the price of a standard mean has risen from 6B to 8B. The vegetarian restaurant which caters to a more upscale clientèle has likewise upped its prices from 12B to 15B. I don’t buy staples in the market daily, so I haven’t kept track as carefully of the prices of potatoes, rice, noodles, and other essentials of the Bolivian diet, but they seem to have risen in a similar fashion.

In a country where the majority live on less than $2 and a sizable proportion on less than $1 per day, these price increases have been devastating. The average annual GDP for a Bolivian is $1137, but of course the majority live on less, since the exclusive echelon on wealthy elite pulls up the average. Unlike in North American and Western Europe, where food is tiny proportion of total expenses, food forms a sizable proportion of household expenses, often consuming 50% or more of disposable income for the poor majority.

If these price increases were merely attributable standard inflation, I wouldn’t find much cause to complain, but they aren’t. Since Evo Morales took office, Bolivia has experienced increased inflation, but economists say that most of that inflation has been caused by rising prices for imported food, especially grain, which in turn have pressured the prices of other food to rise in a chain-reaction effect.

Sadly, wages have not kept pace with these rising food prices, so Bolivians have either had to cut down on their consumption of food, or spend a larger proportion of their income on food. When many people are already living on the edge, such options can have devastating effects. Some Bolivians have the luxury of buying less durable goods—delaying the purchase of clothes and trying to walk instead of taking the bus. Others eat out less and substitute cheaper and starchy food for more expensive food, cutting down on the consumption of meat, dairy products, fruit and vegetables. The Bolivian diet is already dominated by inexpensive rice, noodles and potatoes, so there isn’t a whole lot of substituting which can be done. Sadly, many Bolivians eat less. More children go to bed hungry at night and more elderly slowly die of starvation. More children are pushed out of school and into the swarming mass of child laborers trying to earn a few more pennies to help support their families. I see them everyday in the market, desperate to sell me bubblegum or shine my shoes.

Most Bolivians suffer their hunger silently unnoticed and out of sight, but a few become desperate. More hands are jabbed in my face everyday begging for handouts. I have become hardened to the sight of the mentally ill and the alcoholics begging, but the sight of a woman with a child or an elderly man holding up their hands in entreaty is especially hard to ignore.

Of course this increased hunger would be understandable if the world had been droughts or blights, killing crops and cutting the food supply, but that simple hasn’t been the case. Some of the eastern lowlands were hit by flooding this year, cutting the beef supply, but most the staples of the Bolivian diet weren’t effected. No, most of the cause of increased food prices and therefore increased Bolivian hunger lies in plans in the EU and US calling for increased use of biofuels. Facing a growing shortage of fossil fuels, leaders of wealthy nations should have called for more fuel efficiency and made plans to reduce their consumption. Instead, they decided to continue their spendthrift consumption and turn food into fuel. This solution to the problem not only causes more environmental destruction since many types of biofuels produce more greenhouse gases than the equivalent unit of fossil fuels, but it also pushes agricultural production into previously uncultivated areas, destroying more natural habitat. The production of African Palm for biofuels in Indonesia has been an unqualified environmental disaster and many sensitive tropical areas are under similar assault by the production of African Palm, corn and soybeans which are used to produce biofuels.

Even worse than the potential damage to the environment, however, will be the damage to the diets of the world’s poor. In a competition between the rich car owners in Global North and the poor grain eaters in the Global south, the poor will inevitably loose. We can already see the effects of this uneven competition for the world’s grain. Within the last year, the price of wheat and corn in the world market has doubled. Of course, consumers in the US and EU have barely noticed the effect because the price of the grain input is only a small percentage of the final price of our heavily processed and packaged food. We barely notice having to pay paying 10 or 20 extra cents for a loaf of bread or a box of corn flakes. In poor countries like Bolivia the doubling of grain prices effectively means a doubling of the final price to the consumer. The final price is heavily determined by the cost of the raw materials because there are fewer processing, packaging, transport and advertising costs and the cost of labor is much cheaper. Sadly, the raising of the price of a staple like corn and wheat seems to raise the price of other food as well. The price of beans in El Salvador has risen by more than a third in the last year. In the short term, the demand for biofuels creates price spikes as the world market speculates in expectation future shortages of food. In the long term these shortage become reality as lands which once produced crops to feed humans are converted to feed cars in the Global North.

Biofuels were first tried on a massive scale with sugarcane diesel in Brazil, which has been widely lauded for its efforts to achieve energy independence. It is important to consider why Brazil has been considered successful and what was left out of the story. Brazil used sugarcane, which is an energy intensive plant and one of the most efficient sources of biofuels. Since there was a world-wide glut of sugar and prices were already in the doldrums, the Brazilian use of sugarcane biofuels did not dramatically raise world sugar prices because they consumption was not large enough to make a sizable dent in the market. Brazil has been producing sugar for the last 4 centuries and the land was already held in large estates designed for that purpose. Part of the reason that Brazil is the most unequal society in the world and the highest measurable gini index in the world is its large landed estates. There was little expansion of the sugarcane lands, since sugar can only be produced in limited areas with the right climate. At any rate, Brazil has plenty of land to dedicate to both edible and biofuel production of sugar, but most countries are not so blessed. Finally, Brazil’s production of biofuels was entirely domestic, so that they did not export the environmental costs to other countries.

In other words, Brazil did not experience many of the environmental and social problems which can can be expected from the EU and US experiment in biofuels. Most Brazilians don’t own personal vehicles, so the amount of sugar needed to produce biofuel for Brazil was limited. In contrast, the 300 million people in the US and the 500 million people in the EU consume a lot more fuel than can be produced domestically and their plans explicitly call for the importation of foreign biofuels. The demand for fuel in the EU and the US is tremendous and growing far faster than the world agriculture can handle. For this reason, food prices have been rising world wide in anticipation of shortages. Whereas sugar and African Palm are highly efficient sources of biofuels, they can only be grown in limited tropical areas, so most of this new demand will have to be met with less efficient crops such as corn, soybeans, rapeseed, and sugarbeets which can be grown in more diverse climates. The type of agriculture to produce these crops will have to expand into new areas, creating large massive social conflicts as land is consolidated into large estates designed for industrialized agriculture.

US studies show that the energy inputs and the subsequent greenhouse gas emissions to create a gallon of bio-gasoline from corn or soybeans is greater than a gallon of conventional gasoline from petroleum. Once the energy costs of transportation, heavy equipment, pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers is added into the equation, biofuels from corn and soybeans actually create more energy dependence on foreign sources of energy and an even larger carbon footprint. It appears that the Bush administration’s biofuel plans aren’t really designed to achieve energy independence, but merely a plan to create another subsidy for the corn and soybean lobby and big agrobusiness, which carry important political clout. The EU’s focus on sugarbeets and rapeseed appears to be slightly more sound environmentally, since they are less energy intensive crops, but the EU does not have enough land to supply its current plan for 15% of its diesel and gasoline to come from biofuels. Instead the EU plans to import increasing amounts of biofuels from countries like Indonesia, where vast swathes of virgin swamp have been cleared to make way for African Palm plantations. Studies show that the draining of these swamps and the subsequent rotting of their vegetative matter generated more greenhouse gas emissions than simply using conventional petroleum-based fuels.

In the end, our demand to consume fuel prodigally in the Global North results in millions of people in the Global South going hungry or going without the other necessities of life so they can just fill their bellies. Furthermore, millions will be evicted from their lands to make way for biofuel production. Leaders such as Fidel Castro who have spoken up about this problem have been generally ignored in the media in Western Europe and the US. Sadly, few in the Global North seemed to be concerned or even seem to feel that we have any more moral responsibility for people going hungry around the globe so that we can continue driving our gas-guzzling SUVs and turning up the thermostats in our houses.

I would like to hope that policy makers in the Global North would have their conscious awakened about the problem of biofuels and the hunger which it will create potentially create in the Global South, but I have little hope in this regard. Even a cursory glance at the foreign policy of the US and Western Europe shows that their foreign policy is determined by what is defined as “self-interest”, which is mostly expressed by wealthy special interests who have lobbying power within the Global North. The so called “Washington Consensus” is largely the consensus of global corporations and their beneficiaries. Often foreign policy is wrapped up in ideological constructs, but those constructs conveniently dovetail with the economic and geopolitical interests of the wealthy and powerful. Despite the protests of environmentalists and the global justice movement in the Global North, the biofuels agenda seems to be clearly defined as the “self-interest” of the US and the EU. Conveniently, big agrobusiness benefits economically and consumer is not asked to change his/her lifestyle, no matter how profligate and unsustainable. Politicians would much rather tell their constituents that they can go on consuming energy in increasing quantities rather than ask them to undertake a difficult transformation to a low-energy, low-carbon lifestyle.

Concerned individuals in the Global North can help reduce this “self-interest” by cutting down on their consumption of energy which drives the current plans for biofuels. They can walk, bike, take public transportation, car-pool, drive more fuel-efficient cars, and stop taking plane flights except when necessary. They can setup their homes to require less energy by installing insulation, double pane windows, efficient flush toilets, and just-in-time hot water heaters. Houses can be designed using the principals of green architecture, so they require little energy to build and maintain. Neighborhoods can be designed around the needs of people rather than the demands of cars, so that roads are eliminated and stores, schools and parks are all be within walking distance of home. People can move their houses closer to their places of work so they don’t have to commute and redesign their work to allow for telecommuting. They can buy local food and organically produced food. They can even recycle (although most are deluding themselves as to its benefits, especially the recycling of any plastic other than type 1 PET plastic). Far better, they can buy products which are designed to be reused rather than recycled or thrown away. In short, they can try to base their lives around sustainability rather than consumption.

These individual efforts are laudable, but they will only happen on a large-scale if people band together politically to force them to happen. If new laws and treaties can’t be hammered out implementing carbon taxes and enforceable plans to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, there is little hope for meaningful change. It is nearly impossible to live an environmentally sustainable lifestyle in a society where all the rules of the society militate against environmental sustainability. Even when a few individuals make Herculean efforts, they take on a Sisyphean task, constantly rolling their stones up a ever growing hill of obstacles. Living in most of America without a personal automobile is only possible by making severe restrictions on one’s lifestyle and choices (as I can attest from personal experience living without a car in Colorado Springs, Austin, and Bloomington). At any rate, these individualized efforts are like the shovels of sand dished into the ocean while the waves are washing in beaches of sand.

George Monbiot writes in his book _Heat_ that Great Britain needs to reduce its greenhouse emissions by 87% and the US by 94% by the year 2030 if it wants to avoid passing the 2 degree C threshold beyond which the more devastating effects of Global Warming are predicted. If we don’t fancy the sight of millions of people around the globe dying of starvation and malnourishment, we had better start taking these predictions seriously. Millions will be searching for a new food source because the entire plankton food chain has disappeared because of rises in ocean temperatures, we had better contemplate a 90% reduction of CO2 emissions in the developed world. Studies predict that grain plants will produce 20% less yield and weeds grow faster in the climates of the future which have high concentrations of CO2 and ground-level ozone. If we continue on our present course we will have less to eat and will be forced to rely even more heavily on herbicides, increasing the toxicity of our food. Hopefully the world will learn to eat less meat, but probably the increased demand will lead to more destruction of natural habitat, as more land is converted to agricultural production.

Given the current plans to produce biofuels, there simply won’t be the available land to produce food for both the world’s population and the biofuels for cars. George Monbiot calculates that all the agricultural land in Great Britain would not be enough to produce the biofuel needed to run Great Britain’s automobiles today. Even more worrisome are the present prediction that most of Africa will turn into fragile Sahal-type deserts, prone to frequent droughts and famines. Just as worrisome are the disappearance of many of the sources of fresh water which currently irrigate the high-yield crops of the Green Revolution. Imagine how many billions of people will go hungry in Asia when the rice paddies and wheat fields feed by the Yang-tze, Me Kong, Indus, Ganges and Yellow Rivers dry up because the Himalayan glaciers have disappeared. We often speculate about the disappearance of the polar bear and the prospect of half of Bangladesh under water, but discussions of global warming rarely broach the topic of massive world-wide hunger.

Currently, the Americans and Australians are the biggest consumers of fossil fuels, generating roughly 20 tons of CO2 per person per year, which is three times the consumption of the average French per capita, 6.5 times the consumption of the average Swiss and 20 times the consumption of the average Bolivian. With biofuels, this greenhouse gas production will only increase, especially if using temperate climate crops like corn and soybeans which are extremely inefficient and rely heavily on chemical industrial agriculture which uses vast amounts of fossil fuels to create pesticides, herbicides and artificial fertilizers. Likewise, they consume inordinate amounts of fossil fuels in the fabrication and functioning of heavy equipment (like $100,000 John Deer combines) and long-distance transportation. Roughly 9 out of every 20 tons of annual American CO2 per capita comes from our inefficient and destructive agricultural system which is based upon unsustainable chemical industrialized farming and long distance shipping. The current production of corn and soybeans has turned the Mississippi drainage region in the US MidWest and South into a virtual dead zone, with phosphates from fertilizers choking the life from the rivers. Turning the Argentinian Pampa, Brazilian Pantanal and Venezuelan Llanos into corn and soybean biofuels producers will have similarly devastating effects on their environments. Their current use as cattle grazing lands is far less destructive, albeit far from benign.

Small farmers and the Mapuche in Argentina are already complaining about the increased commercial pressures from biofuel production which are expropriating their traditional lands. We can expect more people to be displaced as lands are gobbled up by agricultural corporations and large land-holders who have the resources to implement chemical industrialized agriculture. Just as in the MidWest where the transformation to this type of agriculture emptied the land of its inhabitants, we can expect similar outcomes in South America. Industrialized production of corn and soybeans requires that holdings be consolidated into large estates and that most labor be done by heavy machinery, eliminating the land and employment for the majority of rural inhabitants. With South American cities already exploding from the exodus from the countryside, the move to biofuels will only hasten the overcrowding of the cities and the further deterioration of social services and infrastructure in the burgeoning shanty towns surrounding the cities. If you read the US newspapers, rural US MidWest is thriving economically with land fetching record prices, but if you drive through the region all you see are depopulated zones and dying little towns. Most small family farmers have been driven out of business or are elderly who had little hope of passing the farm onto the next generation. Industrialized farming to produce biofuels is hardly the solution to produce a sustainable and more equitable economy in rural South America.

Ultimately people in the so called “first world” have to learn to live with the natural resources which they have available in their own countries, but they have thus far refused to accept this stark fact. “Free trade” (which is hardly “free”) is basically a license for the wealthy in the Global North to go on consuming without regard for the environmental costs, because they can be shoved onto peoples who are too powerless and economically desperate to resist.

Economists are wont to wax eloquent about the supposed benefits of free trade, but it is hard to see those benefits in the 20 Latin American countries which I have visited during my travels over the last decade. Any economist who isn’t blinded by the Freidmanite orthodoxy can easily determine that free trade has brought lower per capita growth and increased income inequality as measured by a growing gini index. In the 1950s and 60s, Latin American growth was predicated upon import substitution and increasing social services designed to foster middle classes who had to consumptive power to sustain a long-term economy. Since the 80s, growth has been based upon an export based economy designed to cater to the consumption in the Global North and the small number of upper class consumers at home. The economic data shows that Latin America’s experiments in neoliberal economics have been a dismal failures.

It is for this reason that so many Latin Americans have organized so forcefully to resist the further imposition of neoliberalism, or what Naomi Klein so aptly terms “the shock doctrine” in their countries. Brazil and Argentina have kicked the IMF out of their countries. Ecuador has declared the representative of the World Bank a persona non grata. In place of the World Bank which enforced the neoliberal orthodoxy, Venezuela is now bank-rolling many of the large development projects in Latin America. Venezuela, Cuba, Bolivia, and Nicaragua have joined the ALBA, which is a regional trading block designed to counter-act the US planned ALCA to link North and South America into a giant free trade zone. While the ALBA is more an ideological construct than an economic reality, it does represent a forceful rejection of the idea that Latin Americans should produce for the consumption of the Global North. Sadly, these political efforts are still preliminary and most of Latin American economies remain tied to the neoliberal model and will for decades to come.

Some forms of biomass energy can be more environmentally sustainable, especially when designed as a subsidiary process to eliminate the waste products of other industrial and agricultural processes. Nonetheless the current plans proposed by the US and EU to create biofuels on a massive scale using chemical industrial agriculture are patently unsustainable and designed to continue current trends of fuel consumption, while exporting the environmental and social costs to the rest of the world. In order to forestall the turn to biofuels and prevent the predicted world-wide hunger which will result, there will have to be a dual movement both in the Global South and North. People in the Global South will need to organize politically to reject the imposition of free trade and the production of biofuels for export. Meanwhile people in the Global North who care about the environment and global justice will need to make concerted political efforts to transform the rules of their societies, so there will be a massive efforts to reduce their energy consumption and turn to environmentally sustainable energy such as solar, wind, tidal and geothermal. At present, there seems far more hope for ending the free trade agenda in the Global South, than ending the demand for unsustainable fuels in the Global North.


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