Our rush to biofuels prices food staples out of reach in Africa

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Each year, the effort to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels with alternative energy sources, such as biofuels, leads to an increase in the diversion of staple crops from the bellies of starving nations due to resultant price hikes, The New York Times reports. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization announced earlier this year that its index of food prices, which has already increased 15 percent between October 2010 and January 2011, was the highest since the group’s establishment 20 years ago. While many factors — such as adverse weather conditions and crop-decimating pest infestations — can influence food prices, the devotion of more farmland toward biofuel development takes away vital acreage from harvesting these crops for food consumption. This translates to increased food costs — prices that needy countries simply cannot afford. The United States, for example, saw its corn prices rise 73 percent in just the second half of 2010 alone, which ultimately led to a 19 percent increase in the price for corn in Rwanda. “For Americans, it may mean a few extra cents for a box of cereal,” Marie Brill, senior policy analyst at ActionAid, an international development group, told The Times, “but that kind of increase puts corn out the range of impoverished people.”

To offset this problem, food experts such as Hans Timmer, director of the Development Prospects Group of the World Bank, suggest that countries need to adjust their policies regarding crop expenditures toward biofuel production. “The policy really has to be food first,” says Mr. Timmer.

ACSH’s Dr. Gilbert Ross couldn’t agree more. “This is environmental colonialism similar to the issue of DDT for fighting malaria — though not as dramatic — wherein folks in the West and Europe are concerned about climate change and Arab oil, while impoverished, malnourished Africans have to worry about eating and living. Once again, our needs seem to come first — in this case, with our fuel. If everyone around the globe used GM crops to increase crop yields, we might one day be able to allay the shortages of grains and other food crops resulting from allocating these staple crop harvests toward biofuel production.”

To ACSH’s Jody Manley, this story is a classic example of the unintended consequences of a government mandate. “We deal with the overuse of energy in a politically correct manner, and then what happens? We inadvertently cause people in the third world to starve.”