The BBC article that I posted earlier this morning points out that there’s no way that the developed world can expect energy to continue to be available at present levels.
The unexpected consequence of this is being felt in Swaziland. The article in the Guardian below points out the real impact in a country that has no real resources other than its minimal agricultural industry:
“It doesn’t get madder than this. Swaziland is in the grip of a famine and receiving emergency food aid. Forty per cent of its people are facing acute food shortages. So what has the government decided to export? Biofuel made from one of its staple crops, cassava. The government has allocated several thousand hectares of farmland to ethanol production in the district of Lavumisa, which happens to be the place worst hit by drought. It would surely be quicker and more humane to refine the Swazi people and put them in our tanks. Doubtless a team of development consultants is already doing the sums.
This is one of many examples of a trade that was described last month by Jean Ziegler, the UN’s special rapporteur, as ‘a crime against humanity’. Ziegler took up the call first made by this column for a five-year moratorium on all government targets and incentives for biofuel: the trade should be frozen until second-generation fuels – made from wood or straw or waste – become commercially available. Otherwise, the superior purchasing power of drivers in the rich world means that they will snatch food from people’s mouths. Run your car on virgin biofuel, and other people will starve.
Even the International Monetary Fund, always ready to immolate the poor on the altar of business, now warns that using food to produce biofuels ‘might further strain already tight supplies of arable land and water all over the world, thereby pushing food prices up even further’. This week, the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation will announce the lowest global food reserves in 25 years, threatening what it calls ‘a very serious crisis’. Even when the price of food was low, 850 million people went hungry because they could not afford to buy it. With every increment in the price of flour or grain, several million more are pushed below the breadline.
The cost of rice has risen by 20% over the past year, maize by 50%, wheat by 100%. Biofuels aren’t entirely to blame – by taking land out of food production they exacerbate the effects of bad harvests and rising demand – but almost all the major agencies are now warning against expansion. And almost all the major governments are ignoring them.
They turn away because biofuels offer a means of avoiding hard political choices. They create the impression that governments can cut carbon emissions and – as Ruth Kelly, the British transport secretary, announced last week – keep expanding the transport networks. New figures show that British drivers puttered past the 500bn kilometre mark for the first time last year. But it doesn’t matter: we just have to change the fuel we use. No one has to be confronted. The demands of the motoring lobby and the business groups clamouring for new infrastructure can be met. The people being pushed off their land remain unheard.
In principle, burning biofuels merely releases the carbon the crops accumulated when growing. Even when you take into account the energy costs of harvesting, refining and transporting the fuel, they produce less net carbon than petroleum products. The law the British government passed a fortnight ago – by 2010, 5% of our road transport fuel must come from crops – will, it claims, save between 700,000 and 800,000 tonnes of carbon a year. It derives this figure by framing the question carefully. If you count only the immediate carbon costs of planting and processing biofuels, they appear to reduce greenhouse gases. When you look at the total impacts, you find they cause more warming than petroleum.”
Similar food price increases are expected here in the US as growers start to sell their harvest for biofuel processing, and thus reduce the food surplus that have kept prices low.