Oil Sands Truth: Shut Down the Tar Sands

The coming food catastrophe

Georgia Straight April 3, 2008

The coming food catastrophe

By Gwynne Dyer

This is the new face of hunger, said Josette Sheeran, executive
director of the UNs World Food Programme, launching an appeal for an
extra $500 million so it could continue supplying food aid to 73 million
hungry people this year. People are simply being priced out of food
marketsWe have never before had a situation where aggressive rises in
food prices keep pricing our operations out of our reach.

The WFP decided on a public appeal several weeks ago because the price
of the food it buys to feed some of the worlds poorest people had
risen by 55 percent since last June. By the time it actually launched
the appeal on March 20, prices had risen a further 20 percent, so now
it needs $700 million to bridge the gap between last years budget and
this years prices.

In Thailand, farmers are sleeping in their fields after reports that
thieves are stealing the rice, now worth $600 a tonne, straight out of
the fields. Four people have died in Egypt in clashes over subsidized
flour that was being sold for profit on the black market. There have
been food riots in Morocco, Senegal, and Cameroon.

Last year, it became clear that the era of cheap food was over: food
costs worldwide rose by 23 percent between 2006 and 2007. This year,
what is becoming clear is the impact of this change on ordinary
peoples lives.

For consumers in Japan, France, or the United States, the relentless
price rises for food are an unwelcome extra pressure on an already
stretched household budget. For less fortunate people in other places,
they can mean less protein in the diet or choosing between feeding the
kids breakfast and paying their school fees, or even, in the poorest
communities, starvation. And the crisis is only getting started.

It is the perfect storm: everything is going wrong at once. To begin
with, the worlds population has continued to grow while its food
production has not. For the 50 years between 1945 and 1995, as the
worlds population more than doubled, grain production kept pacebut
then it stalled. In six of the past seven years, the human race
consumed more grain than it grew. World grain reserves last year were
only 57 days, down from 180 days a decade ago.

To make matters worse, demand for food is growing faster than
population. As incomes rise in China, India, and other countries with
fast-growing economies, consumers include more and more meat in their
diet: the average Chinese citizen now eats 50 kilograms of meat a
year, up from 20 kilos in the mid-1980s. Producing meat consumes
enormous quantities of grain.

Then there is global warming, which is probably already cutting into
food production. Many people in Australia, formerly the worlds
second-largest wheat exporter, suspect that climate change is the real
reason for the prolonged drought that is destroying the countrys
ability to export food.

But the worst damage is being done by the rage for biofuels that
supposedly reduce carbon-dioxide emissions and fight climate change.
(But they dont, reallyat least, not in their present form.) Thirty
percent of this years U.S. grain harvest will go straight to an
ethanol distillery, and the European Union is aiming to provide 10
percent of the fuel used for transport from biofuels by 2010. A huge
amount of the worlds farmland is being diverted to feed cars, not

Worse yet, rain forest is being cleared, especially in Brazil and
Indonesia, to grow more biofuels. A recent study in the U.S. journal
Science calculated that destroying natural ecosystems to grow corn or
sugar cane for ethanol, or oil palms or soybeans for biodiesel,
releases between 17 times and 420 times more carbon dioxide than is
saved annually by burning the biofuel grown on that land instead of
fossil fuel. Its all justified in the name of fighting climate change,
but the numbers just dont add up.

This is the one element in the perfect storm that is completely under
human control. Governments can simply stop creating artificial demand
for the current generation of biofuels (and often directly subsidizing
them). That land goes back to growing food instead, and prices fall.
Climate change is a real threat, but we dont have to have this crisis

Ifmore and more land [is] diverted for industrial biofuels to keep
cars running, we have two years before a food catastrophe breaks out
worldwide, said Vandana Shiva, director of the Indian-based Research
Foundation for Science, Technology, and Natural Resource Policy, in an
interview recently. Itll be 20 years before climate catastrophe breaks
out, but the false solutions to climate change are creating
catastrophes that will be much more rapid than the climate change

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