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Dr Gideon Polya
Dr Gideon Polya

World food price crisis and global famine from biofuel perversion, climate change and globalization

The World is facing a global food price crisis and looming mass starvation in the Developing World. The price of rice has doubled in 3 months and the price of wheat has doubled in one year. The huge increases in the price of staples such as wheat and rice is being driven by US, UK and EU diversion of food for biofuel; climate change and decreased agricultural productivity due to both inundation and drought; and globalization which means that 4 billion impoverished and under-fed people compete in the market place for those with the money to buy food to drive their cars or for grain-fed meat.

According to the 2007 IPCC Fourth Assessment Report Synthesis Report, unaddressed CO2 pollution and global warming will have a devastating effect on global malnutrition and poverty (see: http://www.ipcc.ch and see http://green-blog.org). According the Professor David Pimentel (2004) of Cornell University, New York, global malnutrition and poverty will be an “unimaginable†problem by 2054 (see: http://www.news.cornell.edu/releases/Feb04/AAAS.pimentel.hrs.html ), already pollution of the soil, water and air kills about 40% of the world’s population and 57% of the world’s population of 6.5 billion is already malnourished (see: http://news.cornell.edu/.../moreDiseases.sl.html).

Already 16 million people due avoidably each year (9.6 million being under-5 year old infants) from deprivation and deprivation-exacerbated disease on a Spaceship Earth dominated by a profligate and unresponsive First World (see "Body Count. Global avoidable mortality since 1950", G.M. Polya, Melbourne, 2007) – and this is increasingly being impacted by climate change through mega-delta inundation by storm surges, drought and increased temperature.

The worst offenders are the US, Canada and Australia as can be seen from this comparison of "annual per capita fossil fuel-derived carbon dioxide (CO2) pollution" (2004 data from the US Energy Information Administration) in tonnes CO2/person which is 19.2 (for Australia; 40 if you include Australia’s coal exports), 19.7 (the US), 18.4 (Canada), 9.9 (Japan), 4.2 (the World), 3.6 (China), 1.0 ( India) and 0.25 (for Bangladesh) (see "Climate Emergency, Sustainability Emergency").

According to Sir Nicholas Stern as quoted by the Guardian (2007): "[annual average CO2] emissions a head are more than 20 tonnes each year, with European citizens producing 10-15 tonnes each. In China it is about five tonnes, in India about one, and in Africa less than one tonne each" (see: http://guardian.co.uk/.../climatechange.carbonemissions).

However the problems of Third World countries are now being impacted by “peak oil†and the biofuel perversion of using food to drive cars and trucks in a starving world. Indeed in the ultimate obscenity Richard Branson’s Virgin airline has recently used biofuel to partly fuel a flight from London to Amsterdam, an act that drew critical condemnation from environmentalists (see: http://abc.net.au/.../stories/2008/02/25/2171511.htm). In short, diversion of agricultural land for biofuel has three major problems. Biofuel (A) drives up the world price of food in a global marketplace; (B) can be associated with a huge “carbon debt†from release of soil carbon, whether from ploughed savannah or from deforested land; and © is currently associated with huge ecosystem damage. Let us consider these 3 problems in succession .

(A). Biofuel perversion is driving up global food prices

The United States is currently using about 9% of its wheat, 25% of its corn and about 15% of its grain in general to produce biofuel. The United Kingdom (UK) has committed to large increases in the use of biofuels over coming decades, has recently announced subsidies for biofuel and supports the European Commission (EU) target requiring 10 per cent of petrol station fuel to be plant-derived biofuel within 12 years. However the huge and intrinsically genocidal US diversion of 15% of its grain crop to biofuel production has had a huge impact already on soaring global food prices – the world is already facing a global food crisis with alarm being expressed by UN, FAO and other scientific experts. Simple Google searches for “global food crisisâ€, â€world food price crisis†and related phrases reveals massive current concerns.

The UK Chief Scientific Adviser, Professor John Beddington CMG, FRS (Professor of Applied Population Biology at Imperial College, London.) has described the devastating potential of food shortages as an "elephant in the room" problem commensurate with that from climate change and warns that biofuel diversion (e.g. for canola oil- or palm oil-derived biodiesel and grain- or sugar-derived ethanol) is threatening world food production and the lives of “billions†(see: http://theaustralian.news.com.au/....html).

Recently Finance Indian Finance Minister P. Chidambaram has said that it is "outrageous" that developed countries are turning food crops into biofuels while billions of people in the developing countries are living on the edge and trying to cope with escalating food prices (see: BBC News).

Numerous Mainstream media reports are describing how we now have a global food crisis with the spectre of widespread famine due to escalating grain and food prices – in a harsh, globalized market place those that cannot afford to buy food will simply starve unless rescued. Yet the UN and FAO are finding it acutely difficult to rescue such people. These food price rises in turn are because of the huge US and indeed Western biofuel diversion, complicated by climate change (impacting on drought in Australia and Canada), weather (e.g. too much rain the US), hedging speculation and diversion for livestock production.

The New York Times has recently reported that “rising prices and a growing fear of scarcity have prompted some of the world’s largest rice producers to announce drastic limits on the amount of rice they export. The price of rice, a staple in the diets of nearly half the world’s population, has almost DOUBLED on international markets in the last three months. That has pinched the budgets of millions of poor Asians and raised fears of civil unrest†(New York Times, March 29, 2008 “High rice cost raising fears of Asia unrestâ€).

There have been food riots over food prices recently in Guinea, Mauritania, Mexico, Morocco, Senegal, Uzbekistan and Yemen. Rice export bans by rice-exporting nations (Philippines, Vietnam, Cambodia, Egypt and India) have raised world rice prices even more (see: http://nytimes.com/.../29rice.html).

The price of a wheat flour-based “roti†in Pakistan has doubled in the last year and food scarcity is of major concern to the UN and UN Agencies such as FAO (see “2008 – the Year of Global Food Crisisâ€) .

For an ALARMING graph of world food and wheat prices in recent years see the following report by Australian economists showing that the price of wheat in US dollars has DOUBLED in the last year: http://efic.gov.au. Part of this is due to the falling value of the US dollar but the alarming message is clear.

These food price rises are fuelled by the huge US and indeed Western (UK, EU) biofuel diversion PLUS Greenhouse Gas (GHG) pollution-driven climate change (impacting on drought e.g. in Australia and Canada), weather (e.g. too much rain in the US), hedging investor speculation and diversion of food for livestock production for “rich†people who can afford it (not just in the West but also in the burgeoning Asian economies of China and India).

(B). Biofuel production is currently associated with huge CO2 pollution

We live in a World in which “money buys truth†and public discussion is dominated by lies, spin and slies (spin-based untruth). A devastating “slie†is that biofuels are supposedly “green†because the CO2 deriving from biofuel combustion is cancelled out by the CO2 sequestered by solar energy-driven photosynthesis. However this facile analysis ignores the release of carbon from the soil due to ploughing; loss of CO2 sequestration as a result of de-forestation; and other CO2-pollution inputs into biofuel production such as fertilizer manufacture, transport and mechanical agriculture.

Two major studies by US scientists and published in the prestigious US scientific journal Science have revealed the huge “carbon debt†associated with mainstream agricultural production of biofuels.

Timothy Searchinger and colleagues (“Use of U.S. Croplands for Biofuels Increases Greenhouse Gases Through Emissions from Land-Use Changeâ€, Science 29 February 2008, Vol. 319. no. 5867, pp. 1238 – 1240) have found the following:

“Most prior studies have found that substituting biofuels for gasoline will reduce greenhouse gases because biofuels sequester carbon through the growth of the feedstock. These analyses have failed to count the carbon emissions that occur as farmers worldwide respond to higher prices and convert forest and grassland to new cropland to replace the grain (or cropland) diverted to biofuels. By using a worldwide agricultural model to estimate emissions from land-use change, we found that corn-based ethanol, instead of producing a 20% savings, nearly doubles greenhouse emissions over 30 years and increases greenhouse gases for 167 years. Biofuels from switchgrass, if grown on U.S. corn lands, increase emissions by 50%. This result raises concerns about large biofuel mandates and highlights the value of using waste products.â€

Joseph Fargione and colleagues (“Land Clearing and the Biofuel Carbon Debtâ€, Science 29 February 2008, Vol. 319. no. 5867, pp. 1235 – 1238) have made even more dramatic findings:

“Increasing energy use, climate change, and carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from fossil fuels make switching to low-carbon fuels a high priority. Biofuels are a potential low-carbon energy source, but whether biofuels offer carbon savings depends on how they are produced. Converting rainforests, peatlands, savannas, or grasslands to produce food crop–based biofuels in Brazil, Southeast Asia, and the United States creates a "biofuel carbon debt" by releasing 17 to 420 times more CO2 than the annual greenhouse gas (GHG) reductions that these biofuels would provide by displacing fossil fuels. In contrast, biofuels made from waste biomass or from biomass grown on degraded and abandoned agricultural lands planted with perennials incur little or no carbon debt and can offer immediate and sustained GHG advantages.â€

Biofuels can be renewable if derived from biomass from waste land e.g. through gasification of biomass to carbon monoxide (CO ) and hydrogen (H2) (see: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gasification) and then subsequent Fischer-Tropsch catalytic conversion to hydrocarbons (see: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fischer-Tropsch_synthesis) or from oils from growth of prokaryotic organisms (cyanobacteria or blue-green algae) or eukaryotic organisms (green and red algae) (see: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Algae_fuel).

However in the context of horrendous global poverty, a major decline in grain production, huge increases in grain price and increasing diversion of grain for biofuel generation (see: http://www.fas.usda.gov/grain/circular/2006/05-06/graintoc.htm), current means of biofuel production from human foods (sugar- and grain-derived ethanol, palm oil-, canola- and other oil-derived biodiesel) is a perversion and a crime against humanity, the more so when alternative cheap, efficient renewable energy options are technically already available (e.g. solar energy-based hydrogen-driven transport).

(C ). Biofuel production is devastating the biosphere

As outlined in (B) above, biofuel production is increasing CO2 pollution. The US Energy Information Administration gives a year-by-year summary of fossil fuel-derived CO2 pollution for every country in the world (see: http://www.eia.doe.gov/emeu/iea/carbon.html ). However greenhouse gas pollution (methane, CH4, nitrous oxide, N2O, and carbon dioxide, CO2) comes not just from burning hydrocarbons and coal but also from land use – specifically, agriculture, vegetative decomposition and animal husbandry. A 2000 list of countries by greenhouse gas emissions per capita provides data with and without this land use component (see: Wikipedia). Land use contributes about 20% of global anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions. Thus out of 185 countries my own country Australia ranked 9th worst (with land use change) and 5th (without land use change). The tonnes of “CO2 equivalent†per person per year were 25.9 (with) and 25.6 (without land use change) for Australia, indicating the preponderant importance of fossil fuel burning to Australia’s “scoreâ€. However the land use component is very large for de-foresting countries such as Brazil, Indonesia and Malaysia.

Deforestation contributes about 15-20% of annual CO2 pollution in the world. Yet according to Sir Nicholas Stern: "For $10-15bn (£4.8-7.2bn) per year, a programme could be constructed that could stop up to half the deforestation†(see: http://guardian.co.uk/.../).

In addition to playing a vital role in global temperature homeostasis, forest ecosystems are sources for invaluable pharmaceutical resources (see my recent huge reference book: Gideon Polya, “Biochemical Targets of Plant Bioactive Compounds. A pharmacological reference guide to sites of action and biological effectsâ€, CRC Press, Taylor & Francis, New York & London, 2003).

At an even more fundamental level, Balmford et al in the prestigious scientific journal Science (see “Economic reasons for preserving wild natureâ€) have estimated that for a variety of “biomes†(ecological systems) the total economic value (TEV) is about 50% greater when the resource is used sustainably as opposed to destructive conversion. Further, these scientists have found that the economic benefit from preserving what is left of wild nature is OVER 100 TIMES greater than the cost of preservation.

However over-riding these economic concerns is the fundamental concern over species extinction – the rate of mammal extinction is already one thousand times greater than for the fossil record (see: http://greenfacts.org/.../figure1-8-species-extinctions.htm). We have no right to destroy the irreplaceable biodiversity that is the common property of the world and indeed of the universe.


The world is already seeing the commencement of a re-run - on a possibly 100-fold greater scale - of the man-made World War 2 Bengali Holocaust in which 6-7 million people perished in Bengal and in the adjoining provinces of Assam, Bihar and Orissa under the merciless British “scorched earth policy†when the price of rice doubled and finally doubled again (see: http://open2.net/.../bengalfamine_programme.html). Ten years ago I published a book entitled “Jane Austen and the Black Hole of British History†(see: http://janeaustenand.blogspot.com) in which I described horrendous man-made, market-forces famines in British-ruled India from the 1769-1770 Great Bengal Famine (10 million deaths or one third of the Bengali population) to the World War 2 Bengal Famine (6-7 million deaths in the Bengal region).

These catastrophes have been deliberately erased from British history and from general public perception – leading to the acute danger of History ignored yielding History repeated. My pleas for action to prevent further such catastrophes have fallen on deaf ears. Bengal is now acutely threatened not only from biofuel-driven global food price rises but also from inundation from global-warming-driven sea level rises. I am revising my book for a 2008 second edition that in itself will be a further testament to “History ignored yields History repeatedâ€.

In January 2008 I took part in a BBC radio broadcast about the “forgotten†World War 2 Bengal Famine (WW2 Bengali Holocaust) that also involved 1998 Economics Nobel Laureate Professor Amartya Sen (Harvard, formerly Cambridge University, UK), Dr Sanjoy Bhattacharya (medical historian, Wellcome Institute, University College London) and other scholars.

I made the following general methodological point at the end of the program: “This isn’t simply an argument about rubbing out history. Scientists can help society through what is called rational risk management. It successively involves A, getting the accurate data. B, doing a scientific analysis. And then C, recognising this, taking action, changing the system, whether it’s a national system or a global system, to avoid a repetition.â€

However Professor Amartya Sen concluded the program with the following profound point: “I think the fact that famines happen when they’re so extraordinarily easy to prevent – nothing in the world is easier to prevent – affects me. Being a Bengali I can’t say that it adds especially to that because this seems to me to be a basic human sympathy at seeing suffering all across the world which are completely needless.â€

All decent people around the world must speak out to prevent this mounting, NEEDLESS global famine tragedy that is unfolding before our eyes.

Dr Gideon Polya published some 130 works in a 4 decade scientific career, most recently a huge pharmacological reference text "Biochemical Targets of Plant Bioactive Compounds" (CRC Press/Taylor & Francis, New York & London, 2003). He has just published “Body Count. Global avoidable mortality since 1950†(G.M. Polya, Melbourne, 2007: http://mwcnews.net/content/view/1375/247/ and http://globalbodycount.blogspot.com); see also his contribution “Australian complicity in Iraq mass mortality†in “Lies, Deep Fries & Statistics†(edited by Robyn Williams, ABC Books, Sydney, 2007). He is currently preparing a revised and updated version of his 1998 book “Jane Austen and the Black Hole of British History†as biofuel-, globalization- and climate-driven global food price increases threaten a possibly 100-fold greater famine catastrophe (see: http://www.countercurrents.org/polya310308.htm) than the man-made famine in British-ruled India that killed 6-7 million Indians in the “forgotten†World War 2 Bengal Famine (see recent BBC broadcast involving me, Economics Nobel Laureate Professor Amartya Sen and others).

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Hi there, I hope you will excuse this small intrusion but I'm trying to encourage people to sign this petition that is lodged with parliament, asking that public companies use post-consumer recycled paper instead of paper from trees It can be found here: http://petitions.pm.gov.uk/post-consumer/ hope this interests you, the full text is as follows: Adopting a policy whereby all paper used by public companies is post-consumer recycled paper from British sources would: 1) Create an untold number of jobs domestically in the recycling industry. 2) At little inconvenience make a huge leap towards the enironmental sustainability of our county. 3) Be a milestone that made headlines, paving the way for other nations to follow. 4) Set a good example for children in schools, public sector employees, private corporations and other nations. 5) Protect our fragile environment and wildlife, as well as yielding many other benefits. The current system of take/make/throw away is doing the world little good, destroying the life of humans and animals alike. Cutting down trees to make paper when there are better alternatives results in a reduction in the quality of our air. Sustainable forrests dry the land, robbing it of resources and preventing it from sustaining life therefore they are not an apt solution, neither are many of the recycling processes which use bleach or chlorine, and so it is post-consumer recycled paper (preferably from British sources) which is prescribed to deal with this problem. thanks very much for your time, best wishes, Antony of the Campaign for Integrated Sustainability

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The World's Growing Food-Price Crisis – A Crime Against Humanity. We are seeing a new demonic face of hunger in which people are being priced out of the food market. Sharp food price hikes are hurting the poor and sparking violent protest all over the world. This is happening against a global campaign against the production of Biofuels with the United Nations having declared it a Crime Against Humanity. Since 2004 world food prices have doubled and agricultural prices have risen at alarming rates. This is devastating for the two billion poor people worldwide who live on less than R14.40 a day. In November last year the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation warned that poor developing countries will be forced to cut food consumption and risk an increase in malnutrition. Sub¬-Saharan countries are most at risk and high food prices means it is increasingly difficult to meet the United Nations goals of hunger reduction. The re-balancing of food prices in relation to the price of energy is likely to cause severe social distress. People across the world are becoming frustrated at the escalating food prices and are more and more are choosing to vent their anger at their governments. Countries and cities that were rocked with mass protest, in the recent past, include Milan, Afghanistan, Egypt, El Salvador, Mexico City, Russia, Bucharest, Bukina Faso, Scotland, China, Croatia, Cameroon and India. Most of these protest actions turned violent leaving a number of protesters dead and scores arrested & imprisoned. Retail stores were looted, buildings damaged and production disrupted. Climate change is also playing a role and appears to be increasingly destructive as massive droughts and storms, such as a cyclone last year, destroyed R4 320 million worth of rice in Bangladesh. Harvests have been seriously disrupted by freak weather, including prolonged droughts in Australia and the Southern African region with floods in West Africa. The past winter's deep frost in China and record-breaking warmth in Northern Europe have all contributed to the food crisis. The rising cost of oil is the major contributor to the food crisis, affecting the cost of production, transport and fertilisers. This is driving the switch to biofuel production as an alternative to hydrocarbons and the race among western countries to produce Biofuels is responsible, in significant part, for the escalating food costs. The logic is simple: When countries put corn aside for energy, the amount available for food is in greater demand, and prices rise. If demand is already high, the effect is amplified. Generous government subsidies for ethanol in the U.S. have lured thousands of farmers away from growing crops for food. George Bush recently signed an energy bill that will require the U.S. to double annual ethanol production by 2022. Bush also used his 2007 State of the Union address to propose a mandatory target for the replacement of about a fifth of oil-based transport fuels with 35 billion gallons of biofuels by 2017. Nearly a third of the corn output in the U.S this year will be used to make an estimated 9.3 billion gallons of ethanol. South Africa has broken ranks with the South African Development Community by approving Genetically Modified Cultivars even though South Africa is party to the Convention on Biological Diversity and the Cartagena Protocol, There is enough food in the world for everyone but it is the pursuit of profit that stops people from having enough to eat. The working class and poor across the world are being forced to pay for this capitalist crisis. The world-wide displeasure and anger is now spreading to South Africa as more and more citizens feel the pinch. COSATU, the biggest trade union federation, started embarking on protest action and have called on civil society to join in the campaign against escalating food prices. The Competition Commission in South Africa announced the formation of a crack team to investigate price fixing in the food industry. The price increases are a disaster for workers, the unemployed and poverty stricken communities around the world. Capitalist governments and the imperialist powers who are complete servants of multinationals will not raise an eyebrow if not pushed by mass protest. These giant corporations are prospering and profiteering at an alarming rate in an environment of neo-liberal policies. There is no long-term solution under capitalism, because the overriding interest of food manufacturers and distributors is profit. Corruption, governments’ collusion with profit-hungry traders, food manufactures and multinationals coupled with drought & bad weather, high oil prices stocking transport costs, spiking bio-fuel demand and low reserves are the contributors to this malaise. There is no guarantee that governments will positively respond, but public attention can often illuminate otherwise ignored problems. In Pakistan and Afghanistan, as well as in Latin America and West Africa, millions are growing dissatisfied with their governments. The South African populace needs to be vigilant as our cabinet has approved the development of an Industrial Biofuels Strategy in late 2005 and released its draft strategy in late 2006. Biofuel developments are seen primarily as being in support of the Accelerated Shared Growth Initiative (AsgiSA), which aims to increase growth to 6 percent and perform a capitalist miracle to merge the First and Second economies. AsgiSA puzzlingly suggests that job creation through the biofuels sector will achieve this and alarmingly claims that 55,000 new jobs will be created in rural areas. It is estimated that the very poor in South Africa spend over 62 percent of their income on food if they live in the rural areas and over 51 percent if they live in the towns. Even the middle income group spends a lot on food with 53 percent in the rural areas, 44 percent in the towns. Our government has a constitutional obligation, as expressed in the Bill of Rights, to ensure socio-economic rights for all it citizens, especially the poor. These rights include access to sufficient food, water and social security including social assistance for the poor if they are unable to support themselves and their dependants. The constitution prohibits the state from adopting or maintaining retrogressive measures such as depriving the people of access to food, water and social assistance. The government, through people driven campaigns, must be compelled to adopt laws, policies and programmes to fulfill these socio-economic rights of the people. The demand must be made for the government to swiftly implement policy measures that include (1) price controls on most staple food items, (2) the establishment a State-owned Commodity Marketing Board that must be the sole buyer of particular commodities and/or operate a guaranteed price/purchase scheme for others, (3) the sale and transfer agricultural inputs & technologies to farmers, at subsidized prices, that lower input cost but contributes to higher yields and increased productivity and (4) a state entity for the production of some basic commodities. These policies and programmes must allow for (1) market interventions to alter the food prices directly, (2) support to improve competitiveness of the agricultural sector and above all safety net interventions in support of poor households. The cry for the Basic Income Grant must grow louder and louder. Governments around the world must come under pressure from protest movements to fix food prices and even nationalise some food production. The organs of state, including parastatals, must implement and prioritise programmes to alleviate the plight of the poor and improve the quality of life of the people. It remains that people driven global campaigns must be embarked upon by organised formations of the people to force governments to act swift, ensure food security for all and attain the Millennium Development Goals. Let us all join hands and fight against this crime against humanity. Wilfred Alcock Pretoria www.live.blat.co.za

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