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. UN food supremo warns against 'knee-jerk' response to biofuels

by Staff Writers
Geneva (AFP) April 30, 2008
A senior UN official who will lead a top international task force on the global food price crisis warned Wednesday against a hasty response to the growing use of biofuels.

"I think we should avoid a knee-jerk response," UN under-secretary general for humanitarian affairs John Holmes told reporters.

Holmes was tasked by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon to head a new task force to counter soaring food prices, which have sparked fears of malnutrition and political unrest in developing countries.

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.

"Biofuels were developed in response to a very serious problem, which is the effects of climate change, the need to mitigate the effects of climate change and reduce emissions," Holmes said.

"They weren't invented just for fun."

However, "clearly this is something that needs a new look in present circumstances," he added, calling for a "careful, sophisticated and differentiated" approach.

The UN independent expert on the right to food, Jean Ziegler, has called biofuels a "crime against humanity" and urged a moratorium on their production.

But Holmes' views were echoed by Lennart Baage, president of the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), one of the 27 bodies present at this week's meeting that set up the task force and a key provider of support to developing countries.

"It is important not to go to extremes," Baage told AFP.

"We should not say all of a sudden that all biofuels are bad," he said, noting that many biofuels are based on residues rather than crops and do not compete with food.

In recent months, rising food costs have sparked violent protests in Cameroon, Egypt, Ethiopia, Haiti, Indonesia, Ivory Coast, Madagascar, Mauritania, the Philippines and other countries.

In Pakistan and Thailand, army troops have been deployed to avoid the seizure of food from fields and warehouses, while price increases fueled a general strike in Burkina Faso.

In response, many governments have adopted protectionist measures such as export bans for staple crops like grain and rice.

Baage said this "rushed" response "may be understandable, but it means there will be even less food on the world market."

Instead, he said it is crucial that both developed and developing countries work together with international organisations to invest in more productive, resilient and sustainable agriculture.

"It's not rocket science or miracles, we know what farmers need," he said.

IFAD is playing its part in this by supporting farmers in developing countries such as Haiti with their "input" costs such as fuel and fertilisers.

Prices of these commodities have also soared in recent months leaving many poor farmers unable to take advantage of the booming food market.

"There is actually a risk that farmers will be planting less rather than more," Baage warned.

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