Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Save the Planet; Starve the People

This ought to be an old story. It should not count as news.

When governments choose, as a matter of policy, to turn a significant part of the worldwide corn crop into biofuels, the price of corn will rise. When the price of corn rises, corn-based foods become more expensive. Then, poor people who depend on corn for much of their diet can no longer afford to eat. They suffer malnourishment and/or starvation.

But, since it’s all happening in the name of a good green cause, no one cares.

Sacrificing a few Guatemalan peasants to save the planet: sounds worthwhile.

Only the most extreme greens really believe that human beings are a planetary scourge whose impact needs to be severely circumscribed. Yet, their well-meaning fellow travelers institute policies that do just that.

A few days ago New York Times reporter Elizabeth Rosenthal filed this:

In the tiny tortillerias of this city, people complain ceaselessly about the high price of corn. Just three years ago, one quetzal — about 15 cents — bought eight tortillas; today it buys only four. And eggs have tripled in price because chickens eat corn feed.

Rosenthal clearly identifies the cause of the problem: government interference in the marketplace.

In a globalized world, the expansion of the biofuels industry has contributed to spikes in food prices and a shortage of land for food-based agriculture in poor corners of Asia, Africa and Latin America because the raw material is grown wherever it is cheapest.

Nowhere, perhaps, is that squeeze more obvious than in Guatemala, which is “getting hit from both sides of the Atlantic,” in its fields and at its markets, said Timothy Wise, a Tufts University development expert who is studying the problem globally with Actionaid, a policy group based in Washington that focuses on poverty.

With its corn-based diet and proximity to the United States, Central America has long been vulnerable to economic riptides related to the United States’ corn policy. Now that the United States is using 40 percent of its crop to make biofuel, it is not surprising that tortilla prices have doubled in Guatemala, which imports nearly half of its corn.

But, then, corn is not the most profitable biofuels crop. As long as there is an artificial demand for the raw materials for biofuels, farmers will plant crops that will yield more profits on the biofuels market. 

Rosenthal explains:

At the same time, Guatemala’s lush land, owned by a handful of families, has proved ideal for producing raw materials for biofuels. SuchitepĂ©quez Province, a major corn-producing region five years ago, is now carpeted with sugar cane and African palm. The field Mr. Alvarado used to rent for his personal corn crop now grows sugar cane for a company that exports bioethanol to Europe.


DeNihilist said...

From Matt Ridley's-mad-biomass-dash.aspx

and here is one of the fathers of green, slowly awakening

Stuart Schneiderman said...

Thank you... these are both great articles.

Anonymous said...

It certainly shows our collective predicament. A gallon of gasoline will take a car 30 miles, about as much as an average American adult drives per day, and that gallon contains 31500 kcal of energy, enough food-equivalent energy to feed 12-15 people for a day.

And that's "output energy", not counting the energy it cost to produce it, and as we know, ethanol and biodiesel have large energy inputs, sometimes exceeding the energy contained with the fuel itself.

So you can say biofuels are the problem, or you can say the world can't exist with 7-9 billion cars, and we're all living on borrowed time.

It's easy to blame government policy as having unwanted side effects, but its not like we can solve this predicament by market forces. It's not like markets naturally produce food at a price the poor can afford and do this under any conditions.

The reality for me is we need "sales resistance" against markets who claim to have our best interests at heart, whether to produce biofuels for us, or produce food for us. Markets can't be trusted to the degree those making the money are our of reach of the people who are affected by their decisions to abandon any market that no longer produces profits because they've sucked it dry.

Anonymous said...

A fun comparison, although it doesn't compare the cost of calories of food versus calories of fossil fuels.

My prediction is that in 100 years people will be moving primarily on foot and many will never travel more than 100 miles from their birth place, and marvel at the stories that their ancestors once moved so far so fast and blew 100 million years of inheritence in such a short period.

At least stories like this give me some imagination of our false entitlements.

List of Transportation Modes By Person-Miles Per Gallon (PMPG)
Transport Average PMPG
Bicycle 984
Walking 700
Freight Ship 340
Running 315
Freight Train 190.5
Plugin Hybrid 110.6
Motorcycle 71.8
Passenger Train 71.6
Airplane 42.6
Bus 38.3
Car 35.7
18-Wheeler (Truck) 32.2
Light Truck, SUV, Minivan 31.4

Anonymous said...

What really gets my goat is how Malthusians read about the high price of food crops in the Third World, and rave, 'See! These People Are Having Too Many Children!!1!'

So clinics in rural Africa are awash in cheap, rubbish condoms (which have been perished by long transport in hot conditions) and don't have enough anti-malarials and anti-diarrhetics.