Living the Scientific Life (Scientist, Interrupted)

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Image: Matt Groening (The Simpson’s).

A friend sent a link to an interesting article that was published today in the Guardian. This article reveals that the increased reliance on biofuels by the US and the EU is driving a worldwide food crisis. The confidential World Bank report, researched and written by an unnamed but “internationally-respected economist,” has not been published but was instead leaked to the Guardian. Among other things, this report claims that the large-scale diversion of corn into biofuels has driven global food prices up by an astonishing 75 percent. (Interestingly, the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) estimates that “only” 30 percent of the increase in major grains prices is due to biofuels.)

Why hasn’t this report been formally published and released to the food-eating public? According to the Guardian, senior development sources believe the report, completed in April, has not been published to avoid embarrassing President George Bush, who is never hungry — ignoring the fact that Bush does an excellent job embarassing himself every day.

“What we are witnessing is not a natural disaster — a silent tsunami or a perfect storm,” wrote Robert Zoellick, the bank’s chief, in a letter obtained by The New York Times. “It is a man-made catastrophe, and as such must be fixed by people.”

Mr. Zoellick was a former deputy secretary of state and top trade envoy in the Bush administration, and has been in office at the World Bank for one year. He also, has never in his life been hungry.

Three years ago, the G8 pledged to “make poverty history,” but instead, a global food crisis has resulted that is causing poverty in historically large proportions. According to ActionAid, a coalition of groups that campaign on behalf of poor countries that are often populated by starving people, estimates that food prices have risen by a shocking 82 percent since 2006, causing the ranks of the hungry to swell to over 950 million this year. ActionAid estimates that a further 750 million people are now at risk of falling into chronic hunger while as many as 1.7 billion people, or 25 percent of the world’s population, may now lack basic food security.

Wow, scary!

Of course, we all know where this is going: because more cereal grains are being diverted into biofuels, the price of all food — not just cereals — is increasing because wheat and other grains are increasingly being fed to meat animals, instead of to people, thereby increasing the pressure on agriculture to produce more of these grains, too. Worse, the production and use of biofuels is “dirty”; adding to the world’s global warming woes.

Already, this generalized lack of food is causing increasing economic instability in countries that are already poor. This lack of food is directly linked to rapidly increasing environmental destruction as the hungry convert more land to food production. This in turn, is creating a global water crisis that is further complicated by global warming, which is rendering areas around the equator drier and less productive.

Despite all these dire predictions, NO ONE has mentioned the elephant in the living room: rampant unchecked population growth! Everyone is tiptoeing around the fact that the human population has grown to a point where it is outstripping the available resources, and unless we make a serious commitment to reversing this trend, we will literally eat ourselves out of house and home, and then we will end up eating each other. To solve this problem, the US and the EU must make a concerted effort to provide accurate sex education to everyone and to make birth control methods — pills, diaphragms, IUDs, condoms and yes, even abortions — available to everyone in the world, free of charge!

But no one — not one person! — in a position of power has the moral courage to state the obvious. This disgusts me.

Sources

The Guardian. (quotes).

The Lede (quotes).

The New York Times (quotes).

The International Food Policy Resources Research Institute’s report, Biofuels, International Food Prices, and the Poor [free PDF] (stats and links to more reports).

ActionAid (stats).

Comments

  1. #1 Jordan, FCD
    July 3, 2008

    Several years ago, before my wife and I were married, I told her that I didn’t know if I ever wanted to have kids because I didn’t think that it would be environmentally sustainable for us to have children (typical American house-hold consuming far more than the rest of the world). She didn’t think that was a good enough reason. We still haven’t had kids, for different reasons, but I still don’t think that it is a great idea for us to have kids. She also doesn’t think that me being vegetarian because I am trying to reduce my ecological footprint is a good enough reason either.

    Anyways, I agree with you about the rampant population growth as being a major component in the limited food resources and increasing costs of food worldwide. There is a need to control and reverse the growth. However, I think most people in the US would think that a suggestion to limit human reproduction sounds too much like Chinese communism and would call you (and me) un-American, un-patriotic. The sad thing is this has nothing to do with nationality. It has everything to do with the survival and success of humans as a species.

  2. #2 eddie
    July 3, 2008

    The worst thing, I thinbk is the bit about “only 30% of the price increase is due to biofuels”. The rest seems to be market speculation of the same type that has destroyed the housing market.

  3. #3 Becca
    July 3, 2008

    I could use more information here.
    I’d really like a graph of “increase in biofuel use” and “increase in % of world population that is hungry” vs. time to see how well they correlate.

  4. #4 phisrow
    July 4, 2008

    Just in from the AEI: This problem solvable by converting the poor into biofuels.

    It sounds really unethical that way; but the effect of converting part of the food supply into fuel comes out to be about the same as converting the bottom N percent of the population into fuel, albeit by different channels.

  5. #5 Carigeen
    July 4, 2008

    Sorry phisrow you have been beaten to the idea by Jonathan Swift in 1729.

    “I have been assured by a very knowing American of my acquaintance in London, that a young healthy child well nursed is at a year old a most delicious, nourishing, and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled …”

    http://art-bin.com/art/omodest.html

  6. #6 raakshas
    July 4, 2008

    What a hypocritical article! You are saying that the cause of all problems is population growth. You are so against feeding humans, yet so for feeding your cars! If all of you hypocritical high carbon footprint westerners stop feeding your cars, there will be no need to divert food into fuel and there will be enough food to feed everyone in this planet. I hope you see the elephant in the room now.

  7. #7 Chris' Wills
    July 4, 2008

    The other problem with bio-fuels is occuring in Indonesia and Malaysia. To produce these “environmentally friendly” fuels old rain forest is being destroyed and oil palms planted.

    Then the fuel produced is sold as “green”.

    So now it’s green to destroy wildlife and cause starvation!

    Strange times.

    On the population front I agree but how to get it trending downwards?

    Wealth, education and good health care seem to be the keys. Though that won’t stop some groups (certain religious sects) from over breeding.

    Idiocracy here we come.

  8. #8 Oldfart
    July 4, 2008

    No, raakshas, the elephant in the room is the absolute refusal of certain poor countries to make rational choices that would enhance their survivability whether or not we fat, lazy westerners can feed them to the extent they desire.
    I don’t know which is worse, the rich blaming the poor for being poor or the poor blaming the rich for their own misery much of which is due to decisions based on some fantasy world made by their own governments.
    It would make sense to me that the price of food has risen along with the price of oil since oil is required to harvest, transport, refine, and package food. It would also make sense that the production of biofuels has eaten into the production of food to some extent. Poor countries are not the only ones who live in fantasy worlds. Obama supports corn as a source of ethanol despite evidence that switchgrass and other non-food grasses that can be grown on marginal lands are much better.
    Even so, as someone has pointed out here, replacing one “dirty” fuel with another is not solving the AGW problem.

  9. #9 "GrrlScientist"
    July 4, 2008

    raakshas — do your homework before mouthing off.

    i, for example, do not own a car (and only have ever owned and used a car for one year of my life, and that was ONLY because i needed it to get to work). i also do not have kids, nor do i ever plan to have any kids for the reasons outlined briefly here.

    not only that, but i never once espoused not feeding the poor. my sentiments are quite the opposite in fact, but i think that no one can seriously talk about reducing hunger and poverty throughout the world without also providing EVERYONE with access to accurate sex education and freely available birth control measures.

  10. #10 raakshas
    July 4, 2008

    Do my homework? How am i supposed to know that you don’t own a car or have never had sex? You as an individual not owning a car or not wanting to have kids will not release the western countries from their responsibilities.

    I wonder why you call yourself ‘Girlscientist’ when you can’t even understand a simple report that says that the contribution of biofules in increase in food prices is 75% and not population growth. Do you have any sources which proves that it is the population growth which has driven the food prices up?

    If you have a problem with other people living in poor countries, better kill yourself!

  11. #11 "GrrlScientist"
    July 4, 2008

    once again, raakshas, you prove that your brain function has been adversely affected (by excessive illegal drugs? too much alcohol? religion?) by your stunning inability to comprehend the written word and your complete ignorance of basic biology, as well as your admirable ability to twist anything that has been written to fit an agenda that i am not arguing against. do you, perchance, volunteer for john mccain?

  12. #12 leigh
    July 4, 2008

    Both effects, high food prices and environmental degradation, were predicted in advance. I therefore infer that these effects were regarded as less important than feeding our addiction to oil.

  13. #13 Ian
    July 4, 2008

    If all of us gave up eating meat – even just those of us in the so-called civilized world, it would solve the food crisis overnight (assuming the resultant freed-up grain could reach those who need it).