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'Biofuels frenzy' fuels global food crisis: experts

by Staff Writers
Washington (AFP) April 29, 2008
A "biofuels frenzy" and other misguided policies have led to the global food crisis in which prices have soared and rice consumption has outpaced production, threatening a billion people with malnutrition, experts said Tuesday.

International agriculture researchers warned that farmers will need to double global food production by 2030 to meet rising demand, and said countries should impose a moratorium on grain-based ethanol and biodiesel to rein in skyrocketing prices for corn, rice, soybeans and wheat.

"For the first time, it's been clear that we are consuming more rice than we are producing globally," said Robert Zeigler, head of the Philippines-based International Rice Research Institute, blaming population and economic growth.

"That is eventually unsustainable," he told reporters.

Joachim von Braun, director of the US-based International Food Policy Research Institute, cited "major policy failures" at the core of the crisis, in which recent price spikes have led to food riots, threats of starvation, and United Nation calls to lift export bans.

A key blunder was the ill-conceived response to high energy prices by promoting biofuels, experts said.

"We're all familiar with the biofuels frenzy that has distorted grain markets," said Zeigler.

He and von Braun both said they support a moratorium on grain-based biofuels but not on sugar cane-based fuels.

"If a moratorium on biofuels would be issued in 2008, we could expect a price decline of maize by about 20 percent and for wheat by about 10 percent in 2009 and 2010," von Braun said.

Billions of dollars have been poured into developing ethanol and biodiesel to help wean rich economies from their addiction to carbon-belching fossil fuels, the overwhelming source of man-made global warming.

Heading the rush are the United States, Brazil and Canada, which are eagerly transforming corn, soy beans and sugar cane into cleaner-burning fuel.

Some lawmakers have soured on the policies, with US Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison urging Congress to "reform its 'food-to-fuel' policies."

"Nearly all our (US) domestic corn and grain supply is needed to meet this mandate, robbing the world of one of its most important sources of food," said Hutchison, a Republican from Texas, in a statement on her website.

But Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva on Tuesday dismissed as an "absurd distortion" suggestions that the global food crisis has been caused by the boom in crops dedicated to ethanol production.

His remarks came as Brazilian officials forecast record sugar cane crops and ethanol production for 2008.

Experts meanwhile said another policy failure has been the imposition of export bans.

"More and more countries have closed their borders and thereby narrowed the international markets," von Braun said, citing as an example number-two rice exporter Vietnam, which has stopped new rice export contracts until late June despite a bumper harvest.

Zeigler said the crisis could cause 100 million people to slip back into poverty, while von Braun warned that high prices could force many more to limit food consumption, leading to drastic malnutrition particularly among children.

"The nutrition situation of the bottom billion of the world population is at risk when they are not shielded from these price rises," von Braun said.

Carlos Sere, who heads the International Livestock Research Institute, said a dramatic production boost is necessary to avoid a deeper crisis.

"We need to produce twice the volume of food by 2030, plus meet the challenge of fuel," Sere said, adding that new funding in research and development of resistant, higher-yield crop strains is critical.

Experts said current average annual yield increases of one to two percent are far below the three to five percent needed over the next 15 to 20 years.

"People felt the global food crisis was solved," Zeigler recalled, referring to technology breakthroughs that boosted yields in the 1970s and 1980s, "and it really fell off the agenda of funding agencies."

"Obviously it was an extremely short-sighted view of the world."

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