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The Ottawa Citizen (Canada)

Wealthy Nations Fuelling Unrest

Susan Walsh and Wilhelmina Pelegrina

A UN official accuses a government of a "crime against humanity." The government representative shoots back angrily that the policy will not change.

The issue erupting so intensely is not ethnic cleansing, torture, or even terrorism. It is the production of biofuels.

The UN official was Special Rapporteur for the Right to Food Jean Ziegler, who told German radio last Monday production of biofuels for ethanol drives up food prices. Government subsidies and environmental regulations induce farmers to switch from growing crops for food to biofuels instead.

As food shortages lead to riots and widespread panic across the globe, leaving millions at risk, the politics of food is crowding out the war on terrorism as the No. 1 security concern. Granted, biofuels are not the only cause of rising prices, but along with soaring energy costs, increased demand in emerging economies, subsidies, and crop failure from climate change, biofuels are only making matters worse.

Food riots and unrest are spreading around the world, as is heightened use of security forces to combat them. The World Bank has forecast that 33 nations, from Mexico to Yemen, face social unrest, and has criticized biofuels as an important cause in the rise of food prices.

In the Philippines, troops armed with M-16 rifles have started to supervise the sale of subsidized rice, and the police are busy enforcing a presidential decree against the hoarding of food. Pakistan has sent troops to guard flour mills. Protests have erupted in Mexico, Jordan, Egypt, Haiti, Mozambique and elsewhere.

Human rights concerns are once again rising in Latin America. Since the boom of biofuels in 2007, prices for soybeans have increased and so has the cost of the land to grow them. In Paraguay, the demand for land and the corporate impunity of large agribusiness firms are resulting in human rights violations. Peasants and indigenous people are being pushed off their farms and can no longer afford to buy food.

"Farmers in our countries pay with their blood so that people in rich countries can feed their cars," said Javiera Rulli, a biologist turned human rights defender in Paraguay. "The grain used to fill one SUV tank with ethanol could feed a person for a year."

The accusations and recriminations will only get worse, as desperate people in the developing world feel that again, they are suffering to meet the demands of wealthy nations. Children are especially vulnerable, as price increases put food out of reach for hundreds of millions of undernourished children.

Under pressure as the crisis deepens, governments are pointing accusing fingers at one another. EU Environment Commissioner Stavros Dimas stood by the EU's environmental policies that support the use of biofuels, saying through a spokesperson: "There is no question for now of suspending the target fixed for (use of) biofuels." Public pressure might force the EU to revisit the issue.


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Brazilian President Lula da Silva made an impassioned defence of biofuels, while criticizing developed countries for subsidizing industrial output.

"Biofuels aren't the villain that threatens food security," he told a meeting of the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization. "The real crimes against humanity are discarding biofuels. ..." Brazil is the world's largest exporter of ethanol made from sugar cane.

Other Latin American leaders are taking a different stance. Leaders from Cuba, Bolivia, Nicaragua and Venezuela pointed to the failings of global industrial agriculture, and created a $100-million fund to help the region's poor to buy food.

So far, Canadians have been largely observers of the crisis. Globalization has made countries dependent on each other for food, while favouring the wealthy nations. But Canada imports most of its fruit and vegetables, so Canada's wealth will not protect us from troubles in other countries.

Some countries have imposed limits on food exports. For instance, India has halted the export of non-basmati rice, peas and beans. Malawi plans to restrict corn exports. Kazakhstan, the world's sixth-largest wheat exporter, has banned wheat exports.

Canada's dependence on the global economy means we will not be exempt from the food pressure if this trend continues. Furthermore, like the EU and the United States, Canada's promotion of biofuels could be contributing to the problem.

The solution to the crisis is complex, but the reliance upon biofuels to combat climate change appears unworkable. This is no surprise to climate-change experts. A worldwide survey of 1,000 scientists last year found low faith in the current generation of biofuels. The most-favoured low-carbon technology was solar power.

While focusing on other climate change solutions, Canada could redirect a fraction of the subsidies for biofuels to help small-scale farmers around the world provide the food security that is so clearly missing for millions of people. We might find that promoting the food security of others helps our own food security as well.

Susan Walsh is executive director of USC Canada. Wilhelmina 'Ditdit' Pelegrina is the executive director of SEARICE, a farmers' organization based in the Philippines.

© The Ottawa Citizen 2008

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