Brazilian President Lula daSilva claimed that ignoring the potential of bio-fuels would be “a crime against humanity.” And President Bush has been vilified for suggesting that world food prices are rising because of increasing prosperity in India. But both have a point: the real crime is the creation of food insecurity by government fiat and neglect.
Consider the bizarre policy decisions taken by the Indian government over the years: agriculture was continuously de-prioritized. Dazzled by Soviet-style “progress,” Nehru and his central planners promoted heavy industry. In a largely agrarian economy endowed with some of the best land in the world, surely someone must have heard of Ricardo’s theory of comparative advantage: India could well be the food superpower of the world, and trade food for other products.
54 percent of India’s land is arable if irrigated (compared to 15 percent in the United States or in China and Tibet); there is a wide range of climates; and there is a treasure-trove of genetic diversity. If agricultural policies were pursued imaginatively, India could have been a founding member of the all-powerful OFEC (Organization of Food-Exporting Countries). After all, food is a more primal need than oil.
Instead, the very worst possible policies were instituted. In Kerala, a fertile rice-growing area, excessively high labor rates, mandated to prop up farm wages, delivered precisely the opposite effect. It no longer made economic sense to plant rice. Result: production has plummeted, and agricultural laborers have lost their livelihood. Fields lie fallow or are paved over, and Kerala is dependent on imported rice. This, in a microcosm, is what happened all over India: agricultural suicide by the State.
India is the biggest producer of fruits and vegetables in the world, but half of it rots in fields or warehouses or is infested with pests. If only this were processed and value-added! There has been zero investment by the State in agro-infrastructure, other than misguided subsidies for fertilizer and power, which leads to degraded land and lowered water tables.
Supply limitations have been exacerbated by the high cost of petroleum, increasingly used in mechanized production and transport. The humble plowman and his bullock are extinct. Instead of local produce, increasingly prosperous Indian consumers want more global products; in effect, you end up consuming a cup of oil with your bowl of cereal shipped from far away (not to mention 8 pounds of grain per pound of meat).
Add to this crop failures caused by events such as the persistent Australian drought, and food stocks have shrunk, encouraging speculators to create artificial shortages and push up prices. There are many villains; the diversion of corn to ethanol is only a minor villain in this game of life-and-death.
Rajeev Srinivasan wrote this opinion from Trivandrum, Kerala.
Yes, biofuels are ravaging cropland the world over
While examining the factors that are causing today’s high food prices, we have heard a lot about biofuels. Biofuels are fuel produced from plant sources, either through sugar and starch conversion to ethanol (as from sugarcane, sugar beet, and corn), or directly as oils from oil crops such as oil palm, soybean, or jatropha. Cellulosic ethanol can be produced from wood chips, but this process is still being developed. Biofuels cause very low emissions of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide, and biofuel crops recycle those gases during photosynthesis. So, not only do they reduce dependence on foreign oil, but biofuels also fight climate change.
A win-win situation? Actually, no.
Last year, more than 30 percent of the United States’s corn crop was converted to fuel, at the rate of 400 pounds of corn to 25 gallons of ethanol. This means that the corn that fills one tank of gas in an SUV could feed a man for a year. Elsewhere, Brazil and China used more than 50 million acres to produce fuel. And in Myanmar, the ruling junta forced its population to plow rice and vegetable fields and plant oil-producing jatropha. Who can deny that we would have more food available if not for biofuels? They may not have caused food shortages, but they exacerbate the problem.
In Malaysia and Brazil, rainforests are being cleared for growing fuel, which cause the release of longer-term carbon emissions, termed “carbon debt.” For each square meter of Brazilian rainforest cleared, 70 kgs. of carbon dioxide is released. This “debt” takes hundreds of years to pay off. So biofuels are not exactly “green,” either.
Also, the biofuel industry is driven by giant oil, grain, auto, and genetic engineering corporations. As it grows bigger, it will grow more centralized, squeezing small farmers out of their land. In a country like India, where the majority of farmers have small acreages, this will create disaster.
Jatropha is being promoted heavily as India’s biofuel. Supposedly, it grows even in wastelands, and incentives and loans, as well as the promise of product buy-up, are being showered on farmers. There are several problems. First, if it doesn’t work out in the long run, India will have a massive weed problem. Next, in marginal lands, the jatropha yield will be marginal, too; to have good yield, you need fertile land. With all the incentives, farmers won’t want to take risks on crop plants with fluctuating prices compared to a “sure sale.” Also, land that could be reclaimed using organic material or reforested will be lost forever. Finally, with fuel and food crops competing for land and water, prices will soar out of reach of the poor.
As a former scientist, I say let us not throw out the baby with the bathwater, i.e. discard biofuels entirely. But we must study their long-term effects carefully and transition slowly to the use of biofuels, without jumping in with both feet.
Lakshmi Palecanda is a former biology research technician in Montana.