Crop switch worsens global food price crisis|
John Vidal, environment editor
The Guardian, Saturday April 5 2008
Workers pack rice in Manila. Photograph: John
Two years ago the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation expected biofuels to
help eradicate hunger and poverty for up to two billion people. Yesterday the UN
secretary general, Ban Ki-moon raised real doubt over that policy amid signs
that the world was facing its worst food crisis in a generation.
Since the FAO's report in April 2006 tens of thousands of farmers have
switched from food to fuel production to reduce US dependence on foreign oil.
Spurred by generous subsidies and an EU commitment to increase the use of
biofuels to counter climate change, at least 8m hectares (20m acres) of maize,
wheat, soya and other crops which once provided animal feed and food have been
taken out of production in the US.
In addition, large areas of Brazil, Argentina, Canada and eastern Europe are
diverting sugar cane, palm oil and soybean crops to biofuels. The result,
exacerbated by energy price rises, speculation and shortages because of severe
weather, has been big increases of all global food commodity prices.
Lester Brown, director of the Earth Policy Institute in Washington, said
yesterday that land turned to biofuels in the US alone in the last two years
would have fed nearly 250 million people with average grain needs. "This year
18% of all US grain production will go to biofuels. In the last two years the US
has diverted 60m tonnes of food to fuel. On the heels of seven years of
consumption of world grains exceeding supply, this has put a great strain on the
world's grain supplies," he said.
Robert Zoellick, president of the World Bank, said this week that prices of
all staple food had risen 80% in three years, and that 33 countries faced unrest
because of the price rises. Zoellick urged rich countries to give the UN's World
Food programme $500m for emergency aid. The bank plans to increase lending for
agricultural production in Africa from $420m to $850m a year in 2009.
As the bank predicted rice price rises of 55% in 2008, violent protests
against the cost of living hit Ivory Coast this week. On Thursday President
Laurent Gbagbo cancelled custom duties on imported staple foods and cut taxes on
rice, sugar, milk, fish, flour and oils.
In Bangladesh, where families spend up to 70% of income on food, more than
50,000 households are getting emergency food after rice price rises. A
government source said: "One reason is that the overall drop in food production
because of biofuels has prevented food being exported."
Many countries that switched from traditional crops to rice diets as
urbanisation increased face serious shortages and have defied the IMF by
increasing wages, lowering prices and banning exports. China has put price
controls on cooking oil, grain, meat, milk and eggs.
There have been protests in Guinea, Egypt, Morocco, Uzbekistan, Yemen,
Burkina Faso, Mauritania, Niger, Uzbekistan, Senegal, Haiti, Bolivia and
Indonesia. In the last two months Vietnam, Cambodia, Egypt, India, the
Philippines and Thailand have stopped crop exports or raised prices to more than
$1,200 a tonne to discourage exports.
Yesterday Philippine leaders warned that people hoarding rice could face
economic sabotage charges. A moratorium is being considered on converting
agricultural land for building housing or golf courses. Fast-food outlets are
being pressed to offer half-portions of rice.
Robert Zeigler, director-general of the International Rice Research
Institute, said it could be months before the market got a clear sense of how
high prices could go. "The whole market could become paralysed. Who's going to
sell rice at $750 a tonne when they think it's going to hit $1,000?"
Josette Sheeran, director of the World Food Programme, said in Ethiopia this
week: "The cost of our food has doubled in just the last nine months. We are
seeing more urban hunger than ever before. Often we are seeing food on the
shelves but people being unable to afford it."
Urbanisation and world trade rules have encouraged the dumping of rice and
other food on African countries, which now import up to 40% of food.
Last month the UK's chief scientist and food expert, Professor John
Beddington, said the prospect of food shortages over the next 20 years was so
acute that politicians, scientists and farmers must tackle it immediately.
"Climate change is a real issue and is rightly being dealt with by major global
investment. However, I am concerned there is another major issue along a similar
time-scale, an elephant in the room - that of food and energy security."
At a glance:
Cameroon At least 24 people killed and 1,600 people arrested
in February. Taxes slashed on food imports and public sector wages increased by
Indonesia 10,000 demonstrated outside the presidential
palace in Jakarta after soya bean prices rose more than 50% in a month and more
than 125% over the past year.
Egypt Seven people have died in fights or of exhaustion
queuing for subsidised bread. Dairy products are up 20%, oil 40%.
Burkina Faso Riots in three towns after the government
promised to control the price of food but failed.
Guinea Five anti-government riots over cost of living in
past 18 months.
Pakistan Thousands of troops have been deployed to guard
trucks carrying wheat and flour.
Original article: Guardian
Fair Use Notice