Allison Kilkenny: Unreported

In Other News: People Are Starving To Death

Posted in environment by allisonkilkenny on April 19, 2008

The Neo-Cons are quick to point out that the demand for ethanol has resulted in poor people receiving less food, which is true. However, there are other factors at play here, including the uneven distribution of trade and products under such U.S. imperialist programs like NAFTA and the WTO.

From Dailykos

When the candidates aren’t fending off questions of vital importance to the survival of the planet like why they don’t wear a flag pin on their lapel, they’ve occasionally discussed huge issues such as energy and global warming. What hasn’t been discussed much is a related and often neglected question: agriculture policy. In fact, because of the importance of Iowa, candidates have to pledge their fealty to our policy of subsidizing the production of ethanol produced with corn. Our ethanol policies are having unintended consequences, contributing to the kinds of problems that led to the “tortilla riots” in Mexico, and the worldwide move toward biofuels is contributing to the worldwide spike in food prices. Let’s hope that when the media is done with flag pins, they try to pin down the candidates on their plans for agriculture, in the US and around the world.

It took more than 400 scientists and three years of haggling, wrangling and heated arguments to come up with the report by the International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD) as dire warnings from the World Bank, the IMF and the UN’s World Food Programme splashed the front pages of the world press in the last few weeks (the Executive summary, the Global summary and all its regional summaries are here in both pdf & HTML forms, a great trove of information for those who are interested). I have read all summaries and will endeavor to read the regional pieces as well in the next few weeks.

The 2,500 pages report concluded that while advances over the last fifty years had resulted in the world’s food production increasing at a much faster rate than its population, the present system of production and trade meant the benefits were spread unevenly, and as we know, at intolerable price paid by the small farmers, workers and rural communities and of course, the environment.

THE SKYROCKETING commodity prices that have made the Farm Belt one of the most prosperous regions of the United States have had a rather different impact on large areas of the developing world. Foodstuffs have gone up 41 percent in price since October 2007, pushing many people over the line from poverty into privation or even hunger. The Food and Agriculture Organization, a branch of the United Nations, has identified 36 “crisis” countries, 21 of which are in Africa. The World Food Program, another U.N. agency, estimates that it will need $500 million on top of what donor nations have already pledged to fill what the WFP calls a global “food gap.”

The United States must do its part. Even before the spike in commodity prices, the fiscal 2008 food aid budget of $1.2 billion was proving inadequate. President Bush asked for a $350 million supplemental appropriation in October, to cover help for Darfur and other critically needy areas. But Congress has not yet approved that request. Meanwhile, the U.S. Agency for International Development, which administers U.S. food aid, has accumulated a $120 million food budget deficit, which could grow to $200 million by the end of the fiscal year. Congress should swiftly approve the president’s supplemental request, adding as much money as possible to offset recent price increases — as Sen. Robert P. Casey Jr. (Pa.) and six other Democratic senators, including Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Joseph R. Biden Jr. (Del.), have proposed. The alternative is selective cutbacks in aid to hungry regions, a kind of nutritional triage unworthy of the richest agricultural nation in human history.

But increasing current spending is only a short-term solution. Higher food prices appear to be here to stay, and U.S. policy must adjust accordingly. Congress must dramatically improve the efficiency of existing programs. An April 2007 report by the Government Accountability Office showed that transportation and other overhead costs now consume 65 percent of U.S. food aid dollars. This is partly attributable to higher fuel prices and U.S. laws requiring that most grain shipments go out on relatively expensive U.S.-flagged cargo vessels. And why does so much food have to travel the high seas in the first place? Because U.S. law requires that the government buy all food donations from U.S. producers.

One cost-cutting measure, supported by many economists and by relief organizations such as CARE, would be to permit the U.S. government to buy at least some of the grain it donates from farmers nearer to famine zones — to buy, say, South African or Ethiopian wheat and ship it to the hungry elsewhere in Africa. Both the European Union and Canada have recently authorized such “local and regional purchases,” with broadly successful results. President Bush has called for allowing as much as 25 percent of the U.S. food aid budget to be used this way.

Lawmakers in the House and Senate rejected his proposal, refusing to include it in their respective versions of the farm bill, which are pending before a House-Senate conference committee. The Senate Agriculture Committee did substitute a $25 million pilot program; even that tepid measure didn’t make it into the final Senate bill. With food prices and food needs on the rise, Congress cannot afford business as usual. House and Senate conferees should adopt the president’s proposal in the farm bill.

From UK’s Guardian:

The European commission is backing away from its insistence on imposing a compulsory 10% quota of biofuels in all petrol and diesel by 2020, a central plank of its programme to lead the world in combating climate change.

Amid a worsening global food crisis exacerbated, say experts and critics, by the race to divert food or feed crops into biomass for the manufacture of vehicle fuel, and inundated by a flood of expert advice criticising the shift to renewable fuel, the commission appears to be getting cold feet about its biofuels target.

Under the proposals, to be turned into law within a year, biofuels are to supply a tenth of all road vehicle fuel by 2020 as part of the drive to slash greenhouse gas emissions by 20% by the same deadline.

The 10% target is “binding” under the proposed legislation. But pressed by its scientific advisers, UN authorities, leaders in Europe, non-government organisations and environmental lobbies, the commission is engaged in a rethink.

“The target is now secondary,” said a commission official, adding that high standards of “sustainability” being drafted for biofuels sourcing and manufacture would make it impossible for the target to be met.

Britain has set its own biofuels targets, which saw 2.5% mixed into all petrol and diesel fuel sold on forecourts in the UK this week. The government wants to increase that to 5% within two years, but has admitted that the environmental concerns could force them to rethink. Ruth Kelly, transport secretary, has ordered a review, which is due to report next month.

A commission source indicated that the EU executive would not object if European governments ordered a U-turn.

“This is all very sensitive and fast-moving,” said a third commission official. “There is now a lot of new evidence on biofuels and the commission has become a prisoner of this process.”

The target is being strongly criticised by the commission’s own scientific experts and environmental advisers to the EU.

“The policy may have negative impacts on soil, water, and biodiversity,” said Professor Laszlo Somlyody, who led a team of climate scientists analysing the policy for the Copenhagen-based European Environment Agency, which advises the EU. “This can lead to serious problems,” he told the Guardian.

His report, published last week, calls on Brussels to freeze its biofuels policy because of the potential risks to the environment. “The over-ambitious 10% biofuel target is an experiment whose unintended effects are difficult to predict and difficult to control,” the scientists found.

In March last year, European leaders sought to seize the global moral high ground by backing the commission’s climate change package aimed at making Europe the world’s first low-carbon economy. In January, the commission fleshed out the details of the measures, based on a carbon trading scheme which is to supply the bulk of the cuts in greenhouse gases.

But since then there has been a torrent of expert reports citing biofuels as part of the climate change problem.

This week, Jean Ziegler, the UN’s rapporteur on the right to food, dubbed biofuels “a crime against humanity” because they allegedly divert food from the poor to provide fuel for the rich.

“The diversion of crops to fuel can raise food prices and reduce our ability to alleviate hunger,” warned a 2,500-page analysis of global food trends from UN agricultural scientists.

While Germany recently announced a retreat from its biofuel policies, Alistair Darling, the chancellor, asked the world’s wealthiest countries to assess the impact of biofuel development on the food crisis for a G7 summit this summer.

An ad hoc group of EU experts will meet next month to wrangle over the sustainability criteria to be entered into the legislation. The commission is proposing that the overall impact of biofuels – produced from biomass from rapeseed, corn, sugar cane or palm oil – results in carbon dioxide cuts of 35% compared to fossil fuel equivalents.

3 Responses

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  1. Anonymous said, on April 20, 2008 at 3:38 am

    There are other issues as increased pollution in the Gulf of Mexico from water run-off full of fertilizers and the amount of fuel it takes to produce bio-fuels, but they can be made from the unused part of the product rather than the product itself. Perhaps big oil would prefer we not have alternatives.

  2. Shonda Little said, on April 22, 2008 at 4:53 am

    The $6 billion we have subsidized for the past couple of years just for ethanol development has added an interesting twist to an already complex farm bill. Big Oil has always had something to gain or lose with this legislation, but never quite like this. Before, Big Oil had a little to gain from corn and wheat subsidies because, well, ploughing fields, sewing a crop and then harvesting it eats up tons (literally) of oil. But, that was child’s play in comparison to know. Just who do you think is getting a lot of these ethanol subsidies? With unprecendented subsidies of their own and much more lax environmental safety regulations (which lowers margin costs of drilling and production), Big Oil had no incentive to basically gamble on alternative fuel development when they had this sure thing already going. We have had several companies that are either Big Oil or being invested in by Big Oil (i.e. Conoco, BP, Chevron) contact us in hopes of putting part of a wind farm on land we own. The money they are using for that is government subsidized, just like with ethanol. So, Big Oil has more at stake than ever before in the Farm Bill, which I must speculate is at least contributing to this hold up.
    My husband, the farmer, calls ethanol a tax on the poor. But, what goes even further is how far out on a limb American farmers are going in hopes of this corn and wheat boom lasting forever. Not only is it opening them up to financial vulnerabilities if the corn and wheat markets crash (and we all know there will be no Bear Stearns bail out in the Iowa corn fields), but these farmers are basically having to de-forestize the Iowa and Nebraska rolling woodlands in hopes of producing more of this high-priced corn and wheat.
    This wide-ranged de-forestization of these rural Middle America farmlands wouldn’t be neccesary, or at least completely neccesary, if we hadn’t completely inhabited the most furtile farm ground in America — the Ohio River Valley. Sure, this is a huge country with several regions perfectly able to grow a crop, but none like the Ohio River Valley. By the time I was even old enough to contemplate the environment, the Ohio River Valley was far too overdevolped for anyone to even think of it has widespread farm ground. So, honestly, I don’t know if environmentalist fought to keep this from happening or not, as most of this development happened before I was born. I don’t know if anyone realized just how important this would be.
    But, to get back to subject, these wheat and corn farmers, most of whom barely scrapped by for really most of their lives, feel a huge pressure to capitalize on these unprecendented profits. They are, therefore, going to attempt to grow more wheat and corn. They will burn up more diesel doing so and they will cut down more trees that would’ve eaten that carbon. Honestly, I don’t think it can be stopped. And, I don’t fault the farmers. Outside of the corporate farms, these are people who work their back-breaking, long hours with poor pay because they get fulfillment from it. If the cost to humanity was not so great, I would be happy for them.

  3. Shonda Little said, on April 22, 2008 at 5:07 am

    Oh, one more thing, I think it is really cool that you give that little weasel GWB some props here. Even though we both know he hasn’t been what we would call, let’s say, ideal in a prez, I think it goes a long way to show just how interested you are in telling the truth and doing the right thing that you would recognize that.

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