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Biofuels - Crime Against Humanity?

Posted by Kara Laney on November 6th, 2007

Recently, Jean Ziegler, the United Nation’s Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, described the conversion of food crops into biofuels as “a crime against humanity” and recommended a five-year moratorium on biofuel production. He said the increase in agricultural commodity prices due to the strong demand for biofuel feedstocks represents a “catastrophe” for the purchasing power of the poor.

Mr. Ziegler’s words are intentionally alarmist. While biofuels have created an additional output market for commodities, his comments ignore the fact that prices are being driven up by a number of supply and demand issues. Drought in Australia, for example, has reduced the global production of grain this year, while greater food consumption in the developing world has significantly increased demand. Countries’ domestic policies that influence production and agricultural exports and imports are also part of the equation. Biofuels are just one element contributing to price increases.

However, Mr. Ziegler does draw needed attention to the fact that investment in biofuels has been somewhat helter-skelter. For example, ethanol production in the U.S. has expanded faster than blending capacity, causing the price for a gallon of ethanol to drop by a $1 in the last year. Meanwhile, the EU plans to set a mandate for 10 percent biofuel blends in conventional fuel by 2020 – which would require 52 percent of EU-15 land planted in cereals, oilseeds, and sugar beets to be devoted to biofuels. This enthusiasm certainly contributes to shifts in production and volatility in market prices.  

To address Mr. Ziegler’s concern about food versus fuel, a larger challenge facing agriculture must be tackled – the issue of sustainability. For agriculture to provide food, feed, and fuel to the world’s population without harming the environment and impinging on people’s economic sustainability, three steps need to be taken. First, more investment must be made in research and development. For biofuels, this entails developing affordable second-generation fuels that are more energy-efficient and will not conflict with the food supply, as Mr. Ziegler advocates. Second, developed countries need to devote more resources to transferring technologies that will improve agricultural production and efficiency to developing countries. Third, the development and adoption of harmonized sustainability standards for biofuels are needed to reduce pressure on the environment, but these standards must incorporate the interests and concerns of developing countries. Developing countries may need assistance to comply with these requirements – and developed countries should provide them with it so that developing countries can participate in expanding market opportunities. If these steps are taken, farmers in developing countries, who make up a large percentage of the poor, should be able profit from higher commodity prices, rather than be the victims of fluctuating food prices.

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