12 April 2008

Bringing home the bacon?

By Marguerite Finn

It has become a little ritual: driving home from the supermarket and putting the kettle on before unloading your purchases into the fridge. You feel in need of that cup of tea after negotiating the challenge of all the food choices on offer and traffic chaos on the roads! No sign of the 'global food crisis' we keep hearing about on the news.

Can it be real?

I open the morning papers and two opposing versions of the story leap into view. On the one hand, The Guardian contains the warning from UN's top humanitarian official, Sir John Holmes, that rising food prices could spark worldwide unrest and threaten political stability. On the other, The East Anglian Daily Times features a letter from Robert Sturdy MEP for the Eastern Region, enthusing about "creating a stable market for biofuels" and calling for the UK to "embrace biofuels, rather than stalling due to the unfounded, negative reports about biofuels which have appeared in the media recently".

Unfounded reports?

I get regular bulletins from the UN News Service. The global food supply picture changes daily, leaving politicians and decision-makers chasing their tails and sending out mixed messages, as reality on the ground overtakes official 'spin'. All MEPs and MPs might sign up to this service. It would prevent the development of a 'little Englander' outlook and show that selfish solutions make the overall problem worse.

In 2006, the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) argued that the growth of biofuels would help eradicate hunger and poverty for up to two billion people. Across the US, UK, Latin America and Asia, tens of thousands of farmers switched from food to biofuel production. The price of basic foods started to rise. UN Secretary General, Ban Ki Moon, is now calling for a review of biofuels policy. Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, who not so long ago announced subsidies for farmers growing 'energy crops', and enthusiastically welcomed the European Commission's target requiring 10 per cent of plant-derived fuel to be sold in service stations by 2010, is now looking afresh (or is it aghast?) at the issue. He has written to fellow G8 leaders acknowledging that the rush towards "environmentally questionable" biofuels may be displacing much needed food production and asking them to prepare an "international package on food security".

Why the change of heart? Because his Chief Scientific Advisor, Professor John Beddington, warned that the diversion of so much land to grow biofuels is threatening world food production and the lives of "billions". Global grain stores are today at their lowest level on record.

Professor Robert Watson, UK Government's highest ranking environmental scientist, fears that the headlong pursuit of biofuels might be accelerating climate change! This is the case with corn-to-ethanol conversion in the US - the main driver of the food-to-biofuel revolution. Agricultural Scientist David Pimentel from Cornell University, admits: "70 percent more energy is required to produce ethanol than the energy that actually is in ethanol, so every time you make a gallon of ethanol there is a net energy loss." Corn production in the US also erodes the soil twelve times faster than it can be re-formed.

On 15 April, UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), will launch a new report that agriculture must revert to more natural, local production because "modern agricultural practices have exhausted land and water resources, squelched diversity and left poor people vulnerable to high food prices, even though they are highly productive." The report recommends greater emphasis on 'agro-ecological' practices, including the use of natural fertilizers and "reducing the distance between food and the consumer". "Business as usual is no longer an option," it says, "the need for action is urgent because many poor people are now reliant on the global food market, where soybean and wheat prices have increased by 87 percent and 130 percent respectively in the last year".

The UN World Food Programme (WFP) puts the problem of relying on the 'global food market' in perspective. For the first time in its history, it has had to appeal for funds, "not because of a crisis caused by famine or war but because of market conditions." Aggressive rises in food prices are pricing their operations out of reach.

The Prime Minister realises that a significant step change is required of our society, if we are to avoid mass migrations of starving people and deadly resource wars. He proposes social safety nets for the poorest and increasing the scale of our support for humanitarian programmes. This will work in the long-term only if land is used to feed people instead of vehicles. Should I have automatically used my vehicle to feed myself?