UNITED NATIONS - A long-held basic human right, the right to adequate food for the world's 854 million hungry people, is being threatened once again -- this time by the conversion of wheat, sugar, palm oil and maize into agricultural fuel.
"It is a crime against humanity to convert agricultural productive soil into soil which produces food stuff that will be burned into biofuel," says Jean Ziegler, the UN special rapporteur on the "Right to Food."
"I am gravely concerned that biofuels will bring hunger in their wake," he told delegates last week. Ziegler said the "sudden, ill-conceived dash to convert food" into fuels "is a recipe for disaster."
In a 23-page report to the current session of the UN General Assembly, Ziegler calls on the 192 member states to establish a five-year moratorium on all initiatives to develop biofuels through conversion of food.
"This should provide time for an assessment of the potential impact on the right to food, as well as on other social, environmental and human rights, and should ensure that biofuels do not produce hunger," Ziegler said.
At the same time, he argues, member states should ensure that biofuels are produced from non-food plants, agricultural wastes and crop residues, rather than food crops, in order to avert massive rises in the prices of food, water and land.
According to UN figures, the number of people suffering from hunger has been rising every year since 1996, and is now 854 million.
"Virtually no progress has been made on reducing hunger, despite the commitment made by governments in 1996 at the first World Food Summit, and again at the Millennium Summit in New York in 2000," says the report.
"This is unacceptable. All human beings have the right to live in dignity, free from hunger. The right to adequate food is a human right," it adds.
The Rome-based Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) says that 34 countries around the world are facing food crises, the majority of them in sub-Saharan Africa.
In the 14 poorest countries, more than 35 percent of the population goes hungry every day, even during normal times when there is no drought or famine.
The problem is worse in countries suffering military conflicts such as Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Liberia, and Sierra Leone.
The close links between hunger and conflict become especially clear when food and famine are used as weapons of war.
FAO Director-General Jacques Diouf says that food security is being threatened by several factors, including demands of bio-energy, climate change, low productivity, and lack of market access.
As food prices spiral in world markets, he warns, some countries may be forced to impose price controls to avoid political and social unrest.
Ahead of the parliamentary elections in December, Russia has introduced price controls on several basic food items, including bread, cheese, milk, eggs, and vegetable oil, primarily to prevent political fallout from surging agricultural prices.
Diouf is quoted as saying: "if prices continue to rise, I would not be surprised if we began to see food riots" -- as in Mexico, Yemen, and Burkina Faso.
Anuradha Mittal, executive director of the San Francisco-based Oakland Institute, says the use of harvests to feed cars, not people, inflates demand, which spurs price hikes along the production chain and across borders.
The 2006 tortilla protests in Mexico showed clearly that price volatility for basic commodities such as corn creates high stakes for people that rely on them as staple foods, she notes.
"Those that spend more than half their income on food, which includes a significant proportion of the population in most food insecure regions, will find the amount of food they can buy with their limited income constantly shrinking," Mittal told IPS.
Not surprisingly then, she pointed out, social movements prefer the word "agrofuels" to "biofuels" to challenge the siphoning off of valuable resources like water and land to feed corporate coffers and so-called "American" lifestyles.
However, with billions of dollars of subsidies for biofuel production already in place and probably more promised in the next U.S. Farm Bill, she said, biofuels are likely to remain a significant competitor for agricultural land and productive resources in the United States.
"Since Washington donates the majority of its food aid in-kind (direct transfers of food commodities), increased biofuel production on American farmland will invariably affect levels of U.S. food aid contributions," Mittal added.
Already, the amount of corn contributed as food aid has been steadily sinking and as more farmland is devoted to biofuels, U.S. food aid contributions are predicted to drop further, she warned.
FAO's Diouf told reporters last week the right to food is an integral part of many treaties and is now a legal right. "But it has been difficult to translate it into action," he added.
At a press conference to launch the "International Year of the Potato" last month, he said 350 million tonnes of potatoes are now consumed worldwide each year, making them the fourth largest food source.
He said the special designation was meant to convey a message about the importance of potatoes, particularly for poor people.
In developing countries, he said, production of potatoes, which originated in the Andes or Peru, has doubled in the past 15 years. And for the first time, over half of the potato crop was grown in the developing world, he added.
© 2007 Inter Press Service