A couple of years ago, I wrote a post with the above title, about the way that biofuel and meat production in the US was pushing up world food prices. I observed, as has been documented in any number of studies, that when the world’s poorest people and the world’s richest people’s vehicles (or their pets, to their appetite for grain fed meat) compete for food, the cars, pets and rich folk always eat first – the rich come to the table once for their share of staple grains, then three of or four more times for more grains in the form of meat. We then come to the table again for a share for meat for our pets, and now two or three more times for a share for grain for our cars. Only after we have sated ourselves on meat, our pets have done the same and our cars have sated themselves on biofuels do the world’s poor get to come and eat a little grain. Or if the grain is gone, or its price risen out of reach, they fill their bellies with what they can find – the dirt in the title refers to “cookies” made out of clay that Haitian people were eating to quiet their misery because they could not afford enough food to live.
In 2008, as Aaron Newton and I document in _A Nation of Farmers_ prices for grain rose precipitiously around the world. In the US, the price of rise rose by 30%. In places like Haiti, where the majority of the population already spends more than 60% of their income on food, the price rises amounted to 300%. Even the price of the dirt for the cookies rose, out of the reach of some of the most desperately poor.
The news has been quieter about biofuels in the last few years, and grain prices have descended some since their meteoric rise in 2008, on the heels of the depression. The speculative bubble and high energy prices that fueled the price increases have declined somewhat. It would be easy to think that the problem had disappeared. But this is not true. The USDA’s 2009 data reveals that fully 1/4 of all the grain produced in the US went into our cars, while more people (in excess of 1 billion) went hungry than ever before in human history.
This is tragic for a whole host of reasons. Biofuels are antithetical to our attempts to stabilize the climate – ovewhelmingly they are produced from corn, a heavy feeder that produces more emissions than it saves. At best, the Energy return over energy invested for corn-based ethanol is extremely small – you use one barrel of oil to get 1.35 barrels of ethanol. And most importantly, the transformation of food into fuel pushes up food prices for both the 1 in 9 Americans who now requires food stamps and for the 1 billion world hungry.
According to Brown, the growing demand for US ethanol derived from grains helped to push world grain prices to record highs between late 2006 and 2008. In 2008, the Guardian revealed a secret World Bank report that concluded that the drive for biofuels by American and European governments had pushed up food prices by 75%, in stark contrast to US claims that prices had risen only 2-3% as a result.
Since then, the number of hungry people in the world has increased to over 1 billion people, according to the UN’s World Food programme.
“Continuing to divert more food to fuel, as is now mandated by the US federal government in its renewable fuel standard, will likely only reinforce the disturbing rise in world hunger. By subsidising the production of ethanol to the tune of some $6bn each year, US taxpayers are in effect subsidising rising food bills at home and around the world,” said Brown.
“The worst economic crisis since the great depression has recently brought food prices down from their peak, but they still remain well above their long-term average levels.”
Back just two years ago, I was quoting this, which bears consideration again, I think, as world eyes are fixed on Haiti. It is noble and good to respond to Haiti’s immediate crisis. But it is immoral to respond to one disaster, while enabling another, more permanent one. So consider the story of those who come to the table after the cars have eaten.
Consider this story, about Haitian people who cannot afford even the most basic staple foods are literally eating dirt:
“When my mother does not cook anything, I have to eat them three times a day,” Charlene said. Her baby, named Woodson, lay still across her lap, looking even thinner than the slim 6 pounds 3 ounces he weighed at birth.”
“I’m hoping one day I’ll have enough food to eat, so I can stop eating these,” she said. “I know it’s not good for me.”