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Biofuel Surge Could Have Severe Downside, Warn Experts

Haider Rizvi

NEW YORK - The Bush administration's plans to increase biofuel imports could add to the suffering of millions of impoverished peasants in Brazil and other developing countries, food rights and environmental groups say."The benefits of biofuels cannot be achieved at the expense of food shortages and environmental degradation," says Celso Marcatto, an activist associated with the U.S.-based anti-poverty organization, ActionAid, in Brazil.

ActionAid, like many other groups, fears that the growing U.S. demand for ethanol fuel could force agribusiness in Brazil to indulge in unhealthy competition for profits that might end up causing monopolies over farmlands and damage to the environment.

Last month, during his visit to Brazil, U.S. President George W. Bush signed an agreement with his counterpart Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva to cooperate in the development of biofuels like ethanol.

Their talks on the subject continued as Lula made a trip to the United States last weekend.

Bush has described biofuels as a tool to reduce the United States' dependence on foreign oil, but critics warn the shift in energy strategy will divert food crops from the world's hungry and promote single-crop agriculture and the unsustainable consumption of natural resources.

Proponents of sustainable development models say they do not dispute the fact that ethanol is a viable alternative energy source, but its production also promotes single-crop agriculture, which can lead to the loss of biodiversity and create economic disparities. They are concerned as well that the surge in production of ethanol, which, in Brazil, is largely derived from sugarcane, is driving villagers off their native lands and destroying endangered rainforests, which are considered vital for the biological diversity of the planet.

"The U.S. government should be thinking through a careful approach to biofuels based on diverse production of a mix of crops, including native grasses," said ActionAid's Karen Hansen-Kuhn in the United States.

Emphasizing that local ownership and sustainable agriculture must be considered as "crucial" elements of the United States' biofuel policy, Hansen-Kuhn described Bush's approach as a "headlong rush."

Some researchers claim as well that investments in ethanol to fuel automobiles are driving price hikes in food products around the world.

U.S. investment in fuel ethanol, which in this country is largely derived from corn, has soared since late 2005, according to the Earth Policy Institute (EPI), an independent think-tank.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture projected in early 2006 that fuel ethanol distilleries will require 60 million tons of corn from the 2008 harvest. But EPI research conducted a year later -- once the ethanol boom was apparent -- shows that distilleries will need approximately 139 million tons next year.

This unprecedented diversion of the world's leading grain crop to the production of fuel will affect food prices every year, according to EPI. As the world corn price rises, so too do those of rice and wheat as consumers substitute one for the other and the crops compete for land.

The U.S. corn crop accounts for about 40 percent of the global harvest and 70 percent of the world's corn exports. On average, every year, the United States exports 55 million tons of corn, which is fully 25 percent of the world's total grain exports.

"Substantially reducing this grain export flow would send shock waves throughout the world economy," says EPI's Lester Brown in a recent article on the impact of the demand for grain to fuel automobiles.

Describing the automotive demand for fuel as "insatiable," Brown estimates that the same amount of grain needed to fill a 25-gallon tank with ethanol one time can feed one person for a whole year.

"The competition for grain between the world's 800 million motorists who want to maintain their mobility and its 2 billion poorest people who are simply trying to survive is emerging as an epic issue," he says, in reflecting that soaring food prices could lead to urban food riots in many countries.

In order to avoid such an eventuality, EPI points to the need for a moratorium on the licensing of new ethanol distilleries, with a policy goal that supports corn prices and farm incomes.

"The world desperately needs a strategy to deal with the emerging food-fuel battle," says Brown. "We need to make sure that In trying to solve one problem -- our dependence on imported oil -- we do not create a far more serious one."

Copyright © 2007

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