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Biofuels forcing world to ration food aid 

By Dennis T. Avery and Alex A. Avery
web posted March 17, 2008

The World Food Program is preparing to ration food aid for the world's hungriest poor.  Why?  Primarily because we're burning food in our automobiles.  The rich-country mandates for biofuels have doubled and tripled world food prices in less than three years. 

The World Food Program's costs are rising by millions of dollars per week and the donations aren't, warns WFP executive director Josette Sheeran.  The WFP is trying to feed more than 70 million people in 78 countries with voluntary contributions—but now can't afford to keep its agreed-upon commitments. 

World corn prices are above $5 a bushel, up from $1.86 three years ago. Prices for wheat, soybeans, rice and even cotton are rising as they're crowded out of field space by biofuel crops.  Pakistan says it will reimpose food rationing for the first time since the 1980s.  China's food inflation rate is 18.2 percent, and the Chinese have blocked further expansion of their fledgling biofuel program. 

Oxfam points out that the poor in the Third World must often spend 60-80 percent of their incomes for food, so the price increases are a drastic threat to their well-being.

In Yemen, the prices of mostly-imported bread and other staples have nearly doubled in recent months, with at least a dozen people killed in food riots. 

The underweight proportion of the world's children under five had dropped by 20 percent since 1990—but that vital progress may now be reversed by the biofuel subsidies.  Meanwhile, while U.S. and European officials stubbornly insist that burning millions of tons of corn, sugar and palm oil in our gas tanks has nothing to do with the soaring prices of farm commodities. 

"The fundamental cause is high income growth, " claims Joachim von Braun, the head of the International Food Policy Research Institute.  He blames increased meat consumption in such high-growth nations as China and India.  But both those big countries have largely supplied their own grain and meat increases over the past 15 years.

The commodity-savvy Financial Times is more realistic.  "Biofuels will not feed the hungry," it warned in a recent editorial. ". . . the biggest structural change [in food pricing] is biofuels.  In the space of a few years, the U.S. has diverted about 40 million tonnes of maize to produce bioethanol—about 4 percent of global production of coarse grains.  That rapid growth is largely the result of subsidies—which must halt.  The environmental benefits of maize biofuel are ambiguous at best and it should not be favored over growing maize for food." 

The same should be said, of course, about the EU's new commitment to provide 10 percent of its transport fuel from land-hungry biofuels, grown both in the EU countries and imported from such species-rich environments as Indonesia and Thailand.  One of the great apes, the orangutan, is directly threatened by palm oil plantations because the apes love to eat the palm seedlings.  Thousands of orangutans have been captured and killed because the palm oil plantations are an "attractive biofuel nuisance."

U.S. corn farmers raised a record amount of grain last summer—but one-third of it is going into ethanol plants to "cure our addiction to foreign oil."  That corn will produce perhaps 10 billion gallons of ethanol—but nets out to just 50 gallons worth of gasoline per acre.  That's after subtracting the nitrogen fertilizer, the diesel fuel, the process heat for the ethanol plants—and ethanol's 35 percent fewer Btu's of energy per gallon. 

Match 50 gallons worth of gasoline per acre against America's annual demand for 135 billion gallons of gasoline!  If we doubled corn yields, we'd still not achieve much "energy independence."  Nor would we feed the hungry. ESR

Dennis T. Av ery is a senior fellow for Hudson Institute in Washington, D.C. and is the Director for Center for Global Food Issues (www.cgfi.org).  He was formerly a senior analyst for the Department of State.  Alex A. Avery is the Director of Research at the Hudson Institute's Center for Global Food Issues.  Readers may write them at Post Office Box 202, Churchville, VA 24421.

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