In early June 2008, the UN FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations) convened an HLC -- a “High Level Conference on Food Security, Climate Change and Bioenergy” (really, biofuels). It was designed and convened with the best of intentions in mind; that is, to address global warming’s likely impacts on food production and supply. However, as the expression goes, “the road to hell is often paved with good intentions.”
FAO wanted to highlight a real global threat about the growing level of food insecurity worldwide. Food security or insecurity has been a constant concern for decades but the recent renewed surge in interest in food insecurity worldwide has seemingly been sparked by two industries on which all countries depend: agriculture and energy. Scores of heads of state and government ministers from around the globe were present for this event. The interest in the HLC was pretty high, given the growing worry about rapidly increasing food and energy prices. Food prices, however, have been rising for some time.
Now that the HLC is over, it is pretty clear that the FAO did not get what it wanted. While it wanted a conference on food security, climate change and bioenergy, the conference became an international forum on high prices for food and for energy. There was little room left for discussion of climate change. Sharp increases in energy prices in the marketplace have turned the attention of governments to the perceived value of expanding biofuel production in order to relieve pressure on domestic energy demand and price, as well as to export them to energy-deficient countries.
Everyone saw this as a win-win situation for farmers and energy-hungry consumers. Brazilians have been using sugar cane for biofuels since they began their ethanol Program (Proálcool) in 1975 and are doing so successfully. More than 20% of Brazilian cars can now run on 100% ethanol fuel using ethanol-only and flex-fuel engines. Brazil’s president said in his comments at the opening of the HLC that “ethanol from sugar cane gives off 8.3 times more energy than is needed to produce it, while for corn the ratio is 1.5 times" (www.bloomberg.com).
Other countries such as Indonesia have begun to get into the biofuel production game. There, apparently the government allowed tropical rainforests to be destroyed and replaced by palm oil plantations, with palm oil to be exported as a fuel to distant places such as Europe. The European Union has since announced that it will not allow Indonesian biofuels to be imported in the Union if that biofuel was the result of rainforest destruction. The official target for the EU is to consume 5.75% of biofuels for transportation by 2010, and most of it has to be imported from tropical countries.
Another surprising unintended consequence of biofuel production has been the 60% increase in the cost of food products around the globe since 2007, driven as much by speculators as by the rising cost of production. Corn (maize) is now being grown for use as energy and not as feed for chicken and cows, for example. As a result, the price for poultry and meat has risen sharply, along with that for eggs and milk as well.
High food prices mean that the poor will have greater difficulty accessing various foodstuffs, available in the marketplace but unaffordable to them. Food riots have already taken place to protest sharp increases in the cost of food; in Mexico and Egypt, among other places. In Mexico, as one example, where tortillas are a staple food, the sharp rapid rise in the price of tortillas has prompted protests in the country. Once again it will be the poor who are most affected, as an increasing perecentage of their income will go to food as well as to fuel.
Early interest in biofuels was based on their serving as an alternative energy source that was also environmentally friendly. By that, we mean that biofuels have been considered to emit lower levels of carbon dioxide (a greenhouse gas linked to the heating up of the Earth’s atmosphere) than traditional fossil fuels emit.
Ethanol from corn, once seen as the darling of biofuels, now appears to have become a bad thing, in that recent studies show that they are responsible for more carbon dioxide production than traditional sources of energy from fossil fuels. Bill Gates, for example, has been steadily dumping his holdings in Pacific Ethanol, a major ethanol-from-corn facility, because this source of energy is no longer considered environmentally friendly.
Recent weblines gathered by Michael Glantz regarding biofuels (June 2008)
Nevertheless, corn production, especially when it is subsidized by government, continues to shift to biofuels, which reap higher profits than food for direct or indirect consumption. Even in this era of high food prices, many leaders of developing countries are drafting strategies on how to cultivate their land with biofuel feedstocks to respond to the demands of the developed countries instead of growing food grains to meet their MDGs (Millennium Development Goals).
Back to the FAO’s High Level Conference. No declaration was issued on biofuel production, use, or value as an alternative environmentally friendly fuel source, despite demands from many humanitarian organizations such as Oxfam. More study was called for as a compromise to the factions for and against biofuels. This was not an unexpected response by governments seeking to identify cheaper sources of energy to fuel their economies, either by domestic use or by earnings from biofuel exports. After all, governments are at first nationalistic long before they become humanitarian or environmental.
On the food security issue, a farce was made of the proceedings by the presence of Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe. Mugabe has turned Zimbabwe from being a land of milk and honey (a land of plenty) into a land of hunger and poverty. To garner political support he gave away mostly white Zimbabwean commercial farms in 2000 to an army of his cronies and divided up large tracts of fertile productive farms into smaller subsistence units of production.
What we got from the HLC are platitudes about feeding the poor and meeting the MDGs. More interestingly, attendees even got a lecture by Mugabe on the need for food security; a lecture by a president who destroyed the ability of his countrymen to produce enough food for domestic consumption, let alone for regional export. Perhaps Mugabe’s major negative impact on the HLC was that he got more press coverage than he merited. He helped to dilute the focus sought after by the FAO.
Zimbabwe in the 1980s and 1990s was a major food exporter to southern Africa. It has become a food importer. In other words, Zimbabwe has moved from being a breadbasket to a basket case. Without food aid from abroad, hunger and famine would surely rule the day. Mugabe is hell-bent on staying in power, as are his generals. If he goes down, they go down. Hence they are all digging in as they prepare to steal the election runoff as they did with the general election. The world watches in awe but not in action.
[N.B.: Actually, there was a fair amount of truth in much of Mugabe's speech to the HLC. But to those who know about how his policies have destroyed the ability of his citizens to produce enough food for subsidence, let alone surplus, his speech read as if it was coming from Mugabe describing an out-of-body experience; that is, as if he were an objective observer as opposed to being the perpetrator of a failed agricultural policy for his country.]
The problems of the 21st century seem to have overwhelmed the mechanisms for dealing with them. The good intention to highlight the need for the international community to pay attention to the fragility of the global food situation (food chain, really) was undermined by competing ever-pressing national interests. Ecologist E.O. Wilson identified them as “ignorati” (those leaders who have chosen to ignore existing food problems, so they can focus on other short-term, personal gains in the political and economic realm).
We will all pay for this intransigence and the level of "ignore-ance" that currently prevails with regard to the climate-energy-food insecurity nexus. The globe is on a downward spiral in terms of food, the environment, and security. We are not sure that the way our leaders are chosen will provide much hope for reversing that spiral.
The underlying question is: Can we turn an era of “declining expectations” fostered by our governments into an era of “rising expectations” filled with hope for the future?
--Michael H. Glantz and Tsegay Wolde-Georgis