An agricultural crime against humanity
Published in the Guardian, November 6th, 2007 by George Monbiot, www.monbiot.com
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.
This is one of many examples of a trade described last month by Jean Ziegler, the UN’s special rapporteur, as “a crime against humanity”.
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.”
The cost of rice has risen by 20% over the past year, maize by 50%, wheat by 100%.
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
Supporting Economic Growth in a Low Carbon World. http://www.dft.gov.uk/about/strategy/transportstrategy/pdfsustaintranssy…
In principle, burning biofuels merely releases the carbon they accumulated when they were 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
A recent study by the Nobel laureate Paul Crutzen shows that the official estimates have ignored the contribution of nitrogen fertilisers. They generate a greenhouse gas – nitrous oxide – which is 296 times as powerful as CO2. These emissions alone ensure that ethanol from maize causes between 0.9 and 1.5 times as much warming as petrol, while rapeseed oil (the source of over 80% of the world’s biodiesel) generates 1-1.7 times the impact of diesel.
A paper published in Science three months ago suggests that protecting uncultivated land saves, over 30 years, between two and nine times the carbon emissions you might avoid by ploughing it and planting biofuels.
The British government says it will strive to ensure that “only the most sustainable biofuels” will be used in the UK.
At this point the biofuels industry starts shouting “jatropha!” It is not yet a swear word, but it soon will be. Jatropha is a tough weed with oily seeds that grows in the tropics. This summer Bob Geldof, who never misses an opportunity to promote simplistic solutions to complex problems, arrived in Swaziland in the role of “special adviser” to a biofuels firm. Because it can grow on marginal land, jatropha, he claimed, is a “life-changing” plant, which will offer jobs, cash crops and economic power to African smallholders.
Yes, it can grow on poor land and be cultivated by smallholders. But it can also grow on fertile land and be cultivated by largeholders. If there is one blindingly obvious fact about biofuel it’s that it is not a smallholder crop. It is an internationally-traded commodity which travels well and can be stored indefinitely, with no premium for local or organic produce. Already the Indian government is planning 14m hectares of jatropha plantations.
If the governments promoting biofuels do not reverse their policies, the humanitarian impact will be greater than that of the Iraq war. Millions will be displaced, hundreds of millions more could go hungry. This crime against humanity is a complex one, but that neither lessens nor excuses it. If people starve because of biofuels, Ruth Kelly and her peers will have killed them. Like all such crimes it is perpetrated by cowards, attacking the weak to avoid confronting the strong.