It doesn’t get madder than this. Swaziland is in the grip of a famine and receiving emergency food aid. Forty percent of its people are facing acute food shortages. So what has the government decided to export? Biofuel made from one of its staple crops, cassava. (1) The government has allocated several thousand hectares of farmland to ethanol production in the county of Lavumisa, which happens to be the place worst hit by drought.
This is one of many examples of a trade described last October by Jean Ziegler, the United Nations’ Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, as “a crime against humanity.” Ziegler calls for a five-year moratorium on all government targets and incentives for biofuel: the trade should be frozen until second-generation fuels—made from wood or straw or waste—become commercially available. Otherwise the superior purchasing power of drivers in the rich world means that they will snatch food from people’s mouths. Run your car on virgin biofuel and other people will starve.
Even the International Monetary Fund now warns that using food to produce biofuels “might further strain already tight supplies of arable land and water all over the world, thereby pushing food prices up even further.” (2) In November 2007, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization announced the lowest global food reserves in 25 years, threatening what it calls “a very serious crisis.” (3) Even when the price of food was low, 850 million people went hungry because they could not afford to buy it. With every increment in the price of flour or grain, several million more are pushed below the breadline.
The cost of rice has risen by 20 percent over the past year, maize by 50 percent, wheat by 100 percent. (3) Biofuels aren’t entirely to blame, but by taking land out of food production, they exacerbate the effects of bad harvests and rising demand.
At this point, the biofuels industry starts shouting, “Jatropha!” Jatropha is a tough weed with oily seeds that grows in the tropics. Because it can grow on marginal land, jatropha is claimed to be a “life-changing” plant, which will offer jobs, cash crops, and economic power to African smallholders.
Yes, it can grow on poor land and be cultivated by smallholders. But it can also grow on fertile land and be cultivated by largeholders. If there is one blindingly obvious fact about biofuel, it’s that it is not a smallholder crop. It is an internationally traded commodity which travels well and can be stored indefinitely, with no premium for local or organic produce. Already the Indian government is planning 14 million hectares of jatropha plantations. (3) In August, the first riots took place among the peasant farmers being driven off the land to make way for them. (4)
If the governments promoting biofuels do not reverse their policies, the humanitarian impact will be greater than that of the Iraq War. Millions will be displaced, hundreds of millions more could go hungry.
Copyright Guardian News & Media Ltd 2007
1. UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Swaziland: Food or biofuel seems to be the question. 25 October 2007. http://www.irinnews.org/Report.aspx?ReportId=74987
2. V. Mercer-Blackman, Samiei, H.,and Cheng K. Biofuel Demand Pushes Up Food Prices. 17 October 2007. International Monetary Fund Survey Magazine http://www.imf.org/external/pubs/ft/survey/so/2007/RES1017A.htm
3. Vidal, J. Global food crisis looms as climate change and fuel shortages bite. The Guardian. 3 November 2007.
4. Olden, M. Growing concern: Observations on biofuels. 25 October 2007. New Statesman.