The US came under intense criticism yesterday for its policy of promoting biofuels, which a senior UN official claimed was diverting food away from the hungry "to satisfy a thirst for fuel for vehicles".
The biofuel issue quickly emerged as the most contentious at a summit on the global food crisis being held in Rome. American claims that its subsidies for the production of corn ethanol were not playing a significant role in sharp increases in the price of food triggered an angry response during a closed-door meeting, and was contradicted by UN figures.
The issue will be debated at a round table session today, where an official of the food and agriculture organisation (FAO) predicted "sparks will fly".
Opening the summit the UN's secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, said that to meet global food demand, production would have to increase by 50% by 2030.
There was general agreement that more food aid was needed in the short run, and more investment in agriculture in the long run, especially in Africa. But it was less clear who, if anyone, would pay the estimated annual cost of $30bn (£15bn) to meet the UN's goal.
The summit, called to address the sudden rise in global food prices and the consequent political instability, also exposed deep divisions over biofuels.
The summit's host Jacques Diouf, director general of the FAO, attacked western policies, targeting the US in particular. "Nobody understands how 11 to 12 billion dollar a year subsidies in 2006 and protective tariff polices have had the effect of diverting 100m tonnes of cereals from human consumption, mostly to satisfy a thirst for fuel for vehicles," Diouf said. He was referring to the annual cost of US subsidies to produce ethanol from corn.
Ed Schafer, the US agriculture secretary, responded to Diouf's speech, saying: "I thought his examples were a little critical and could have handled in a calmer and nicer manner." Schafer said the production of biofuels contributed less than 3% to the recent rapid rises in food prices but that assertion clashed with estimates by the International Monetary Fund, that they are responsible for 20-30% of the price rises.
A FAO document distributed yesterday said: "Biofuels accounted for 59% of the increase in global use of coarse grains and wheat between 2005-2007, and 56% of the increase in vegetable oils."
A participant at the closed-door meeting said that when the US delegation repeated its figures on biofuel impact, there were "irritated" responses from the other delegates.
But Brazil's president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, defended his country's use of sugar cane based biofuels and accused the critics of hypocrisy. "It offends me to see fingers pointed at biofuels, when the fingers are coated in oil and coal," he said.
"Clearly there has been a division of opinion at the conference already here today," Douglas Alexander, Britain's secretary of state for international development, told the Guardian.
He said further study was needed before long-term decisions could be made, and pointed to a number of biofuel policy reviews in Britain and Europe.
"We need to make to ensure that decision made on biofuels are informed by fact rather than anecdote," Alexander said.
The summit has also been marked by the controversy surrounding the attendance of Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe and the Iran's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Alexander called Mugabe's appearance "obscene" accusing him of being primarily responsible for Zimbabwe's food crisis. He said he would neither be meeting Mugabe or shaking his hand. Mugabe used his time at the speaker's podium to blame Britain and its allies for undermining Zimbabwean agriculture. He said western non-governmental organisations were being used to bring about "illegal regime change".
"Funds are being channelled through non-governmental organisations to opposition political parties, which are a creation of the west," the Zimbabwean president said. "These western-funded NGOs also use food as a political weapon ... especially in the rural areas."
Ahmadinejad caused fresh controversy by predicting the demise of Israel and claiming that Washington was plotting an attack on Iran. "Now President Bush is thinking again of a military attack against Iran. He is eager for a war," the Iranian president said.
© 2008 The Guardian