News Release

Food Crisis and Biofuels


The Washington Post reports on its front page today: “More than 100 million people are being driven deeper into poverty by a ‘silent tsunami’ of sharply rising food prices, which have sparked riots around the world and threaten U.N.-backed feeding programs for 20 million children, the top U.N. food official said Tuesday.”

Maria Luisa Mendonça is based in São Paulo, Brazil, and is director of the Social Network for Justice and Human Rights. She co-wrote an article titled “Agrofuels: Myths and Impacts.” She said today: “In many regions of [Brazil], the increase in ethanol production has caused the expulsion of small farmers from their lands, and has generated a dependency on the so-called ‘sugarcane economy,’ where only precarious jobs exist in the sugarcane fields. Large landowners’ monopoly on land blocks other economic sectors from developing, and generates unemployment, stimulates migration, and submits workers to degrading conditions.

“This model has caused negative impacts on peasant and indigenous communities, who have their territories threatened by the constant expansion of large plantations. The lack of policies in support of food production leads peasants to substitute their crops for agrofuels, and, as a result, compromises our food sovereignty. In Brazil, small- and medium-sized farmers are responsible for 70 percent of the food production for the internal market.

“It is necessary to strengthen rural workers’ organizations to promote sustainable peasant agriculture, prioritizing diversified food production for local consumption. It is crucial to advocate for policies that guarantee subsidies for food production through peasant agriculture. We cannot keep our tanks full while stomachs go empty.”

Research biologist at the Global Justice Ecology Project, Smolker said today: “The massive diversion of crops and land to producing biofuel crops instead of food is a major factor in the very dramatic food price increases. Governments and industries have foolishly pursued biofuels in spite of this and in spite of a cascade of scientific studies and statements from all levels of society which clearly demonstrate that biofuels are not only exacerbating hunger, but also rural displacement, climate change and deforestation. Last week the UK instated its Renewable Transport Fuel Obligation for the use of biofuels even as the European Environment Agency warned that the EU-wide mandate should be reconsidered. Even the World Bank recently stated that biofuels are contributing to rising food prices and hunger.

“Incentives and mandates for the use of biofuels are being promoted by agribusiness giants like Monsanto, ADM and Cargill along with big oil, biotechnology and automobile industries — all of whom stand to profit enormously. The price is being paid right now by those who can no longer afford food or access to land. Civil society is pushing back: this week the Round Table on Responsible Soy is meeting in Buenos Aires and will be met with intense opposition as people denounce the entire concept of ‘sustainable industrial agriculture’ of the sort that has despoiled so much of Argentina, Paraguay and Brazil.

“The International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology for Development report took a strong position opposing industrial agriculture and GE [genetically engineered] crops while a major new report from University of Kansas makes it clear that GE crops have not delivered on the promise of increased yields. We need new models for food and energy production that do not leave people hungry and displaced, do not contaminate our crop biodiversity and pollute our water and soils, and do not leave food and energy production in the hands of profit-seeking multinational corporations. People are beginning to wake up to this fact.

“Meanwhile, the food crisis is pushing biofuel proponents to argue that the next generation of technologies based on cellulose will avert problems with food competition and deliver greater climate benefits. In fact they could worsen the problems: There is limited space available and we are losing land to desertification and deforestation at an alarming rate. A few weeks ago, [the journal] Science published a pair of articles showing that the greenhouse gas emissions that result from indirect land use changes far outweigh any gains from substituting fossil fuel use. Wood is considered to be one of the most promising feedstocks. But demand for wood is skyrocketing as countries attempting to meet Kyoto commitments are shifting to wood and other biomass for heat and electricity production, as well as chemicals and manufacturing processes.

“On top of that, the pulp and paper industry is undergoing a planned fivefold expansion and China has a very rapidly expanding wood products industry. The scale of demand for wood to satisfy all of these demands can only be met by further deforestation and by enormous industrial monocultures of fast-growing trees. The biotechnology industries are racing to genetically engineer both trees and microorganisms for these uses. Next month at the Convention on Biological Diversity, civil society organizations will be asking for a moratorium on the commercialization of GE trees because of the potential risks of contaminating native forests.”

For more information, contact at the Institute for Public Accuracy:
Sam Husseini, (202) 347-0020; or David Zupan, (541) 484-9167