Just as oil is hitting $100 a barrel, come warnings of an impending global food shortage. In an article based on a study by Goldman Sachs, the UK’s Telegraph Feb. 9 argues that “peak oil” is morphing into “peak food” as more farmlands are turned over to so-called “biofuels.” Food is rapidly becoming less affordable from West Africa to South Asia, where Pakistan has introduced ration cards allowing lower-income citizens to buy flour at subsidized prices.
The UK’s Independent reports Feb. 16 that African scientists and activists are calling for a moratorium on new biofuel projects because they’re taking over millions of acres of the continent’s best farmland. “We need to protect food security, forests, water, land rights, farmers and indigenous peoples from the aggressive march of agrofuel developments,” reads the call issued by the African Biodiversity Network at a meeting in South Africa.
The Independent finds: “The reality [of agrofuels] is the forced removal of small farmers, rising food costs and scant benefits for local populations.” Nigerian environmentalist Nnimmo Bassey describes private companies’ accumulation of large areas of agricultural land as “a flashback to colonial plantations.” Goldman Sachs predicts that the amount of land given over to “biofuels” is likely to rise from around 50 million hectares in 2007 to close to 120 million by 2015. In a briefing issued this month, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) said that around 12% of the world’s maize is being used to produce “biofuels” (mainly ethanol). Due to soaring international cereal prices and freight rates, it warned that the cereal import bill for poor countries is expected to rise by 35% for the second consecutive year, with an even higher increase anticipated for Africa. (Reuters, Feb. 18)
High grain prices are partially due to a drought in Australia. The Reserve Bank of Australia warned Feb. 21 that a global food shortage may sustain inflationary pressures at home, even if the drought breaks. In a research paper on the farm sector, the central bank said local food prices “may remain higher than seen over recent decades for some time.” (Live News, Australia, Feb. 21) In New York, rising wheat prices have sent the price of a bagel jumping 10% over the last five months. (Newsday, Feb. 20)
The FAO warned in 2006 that 40 countries were facing food emergencies and required external assistance, with the crisis in the Darfur region of Sudan the most pressing. (FAO, Oct. 9)
Criticisms of agrofuels were also raised at the World Conference on Food Sovereignty in Mali last year, and October’s massive landless peasants march on New Delhi. Other recent studies have linked agrofuels to global ecological collapse.