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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 catastrophic.

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 year.

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 forest.

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 and dikes.

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 energy.

“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 market.

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.