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Biofuels and world hunger
Published Oct 12, 2007 11:41 PM
While obesity is a major health problem in the United States, and a growing
problem in other developed countries, 854 million people throughout the world
are hungry, according to the United Nation’s Food and Agricultural
Organization. The FAO defines hunger as a person not getting enough food every
day to sustain themselves.
Ten million children under the age of 5 die each year from hunger, according to
an article in the Lancet, a major medical journal. Three billion people out of
the 6 billion in the world face premature death due to lack of nutrition or
potable water, according to the FAO; 2.4 billion people have to cook with wood
or other biological products and 1.6 billion have no access to electricity.
In the past year, the problem of hunger—especially in the least developed
areas of the world like sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia—has grown
sharper because the price of corn has shot up, more than doubling in the past
12 months and the price of wheat has reached a ten-year high. The world has
less than 60 days of corn stockpiled, the lowest level in decades, and the
stock of wheat is at a 25-year low.
The reason for this increase is the policy recently adopted by the Bush
administration to produce a major amount of ethanol from corn. Ethanol can be
used as a substitute for fuels produced from petroleum.
In the developed countries, not much corn is consumed directly. Instead, it is
used as feed to produce milk and dairy products, eggs, meat (beef, chicken,
pork), cereals, peanut butter, soft drinks and snacks.
But in countries like Mexico and South Africa, with a significant level of
economic development—certainly not at the level of the U.S. or Western
Europe, but nonetheless substantial—corn meal is a staple.
Mexico came close to food rebellions earlier this year, when the price of corn
meal rose by 400 percent. Thousands of angry workers came out in the streets
all over the country, waving corncobs. These workers were used to spending up
to a third of their income on corn meal to make tortillas and were even used to
fluctuations in corn prices—but a 400 percent increase was
Mexico is the fourth-largest producer of corn in the world and under NAFTA it
can import supposedly cheap corn from the U.S. Mexico’s President Felipe
Calderón cobbled together a “voluntary” price control plan,
enforced by angry consumers.
Prices of white corn meal in South Africa have risen by 186 percent in the last
two years, due to poor harvests throughout much of southern Africa and the
demand-driven world price, which has been pushed higher by the demand for
ethanol produced by corn in the U.S. The number of people the U.N. calls
“food insecure,” particularly in Zimbabwe, Swaziland, Lesotho and
southern Mozambique, has gone from 3.1 million in 2006 to 6.1 million this
Imperialists use corn as weapon
In an article entitled “Foodstuff as Imperial Weapon: Bio-fuels and
Global Hunger,” Cuban President Fidel Castro pointed out, “The
sinister idea of turning foodstuffs into fuel was definitely established as the
economic strategy of the U.S. foreign policy on Monday, March 26th last.”
Fidel Castro quoted an Associated Press dispatch about George Bush’s
meeting with car company executives in which the U.S. president called on the
industry to modify engines to run on ethanol in order to reduce “reliance
on imported oil.”
In this dispatch, Bush said he was going to call on Congress to mandate the
production of 35 billion gallons of ethanol by 2017, which Fidel Castro points
out is a phenomenal amount that “will happen after a great number of
investments, which could only be afforded by the most powerful companies whose
operations are based on the consumption of electricity and fuel.”
Bush has claimed that the shift to ethanol might help clean up the environment.
Analysts argue, however, that the carbon released into the atmosphere by the
energy required to produce this amount of ethanol and the huge amount of
fertilizers needed to grow the corn would most likely be higher than the carbon
released by using oil.
The costs involved in substituting ethanol for oil will be very high, but there
also might be vast profits, something that drives capitalists ever onward.
Politically, the U.S. ruling class would very much like to reduce its and the
world’s dependence on oil from countries like Venezuela and Iran.
Brazil is one of the world’s major producers of ethanol. It uses the
waste from sugar production, a substance called bagasse, to create ethanol.
About 30 percent of the automotive fuel in Brazil is ethanol. Brazil’s
ethanol producers just announced that they intend to invest $9 billion to
increase production. Environmental activists in Brazil point out that this
investment will require clearing a major amount of Brazil’s Amazon rain
A number of African countries—including Benin, Mali, Nigeria and Senegal,
led by Ghana—have been testing producing biofuel from jatropha, a weed
that is widely used to protect fields from livestock, which don’t like
its taste or feel. The seeds of jatropha contain oil, which has been used for a
long time to produce soap. But researchers have found that it is much cheaper
to produce biodiesel from jatropha than from corn or soy beans. And burning
jatropha-derived biodiesel produces one-fifth the carbon of burning
petroleum-derived diesel. The residue left after oil production can even be
used as fertilizer and to produce soap.
Since it is a perennial weed, jatropha grows well in very poor, arid conditions
without fertilizer or irrigation. Its roots, lying close to the surface,
stabilize the soil and for this reason it currently is planted on earthen dams
Mali, an extremely poor, landlocked African country, hopes to eventually power
all of the country’s 12,000 villages with affordable, renewable energy
sources derived from jatropha, which is widely used as a hedge by Malian
farmers. Aboubacar Samake, head of the jatropha program at the
government-funded National Centre for Solar and Renewable Energy, told Reuters,
“As things stand, a snake can bite someone in a village and they have to
go to [the capital] Bamako to get a vaccine.” With power, local clinics
can keep vaccines refrigerated.
India gave the Economic Community of Western African States $250 million to
investigate exporting biodiesel. Mali, however, is not going to start producing
jatropha for export until it has met the needs of its own people for
“They came to explain the project to us and said that if we grow jatropha
it can produce oil to make the machine work,” Daouda Doumbia, an elder in
the Malian village of Simiji told Reuters. Simiji was recently outfitted with a
biodiesel generator. “I grow groundnuts, and this activity can go
alongside it as a partner crop,” he explained.
Ghana, which is trying to develop jatropha cultivation, has found that
producing the oil is profitable for local farmers if they can get it to
The real problem Africa and technologically underdeveloped regions of the world
have is poverty. They don’t have the money to develop, feed and educate
and care for their populations. And the whole thrust of the energy policies of
the U.S. and Western Europe is to force the countries which they have kept
impoverished to solve the world’s economic and ecological problems, to
the detriment of the oppressed.
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