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April 15, 2008

For agro-productivity increases, apply developed world techniques to developing world

by Rob Lyons*

‘Producing biofuels today is a crime against humanity.’ So said the United Nations special rapporteur for the right to food, Jean Ziegler, on a German radio show this week. His comments have been widely echoed in recent days.

Growing crops to produce fuel does indeed look like a bad idea at present, especially when prices of basic food commodities have shot up in recent months. Yet narrowly focusing on one aspect of agriculture misses the point about the wider problems within global development. Biofuels have become a scapegoat for those who cannot face having a serious debate about development, agriculture and progress today.

The idea behind ‘biofuel’ is that by growing crops that absorb carbon and then burning them to produce energy, the net effect will be to cycle carbon in and out of the atmosphere rather than releasing carbon that is currently locked up in the ground as oil, coal or gas. However, the business of producing biofuel itself - growing and harvesting food, transporting it, processing it and delivering the final fuel product - also uses up energy. Thus, biofuels are not as carbon-neutral as they first appear.

Moreover, if the expansion of agricultural land to produce such fuels requires the flattening of forest land, the carbon-capturing effect of the trees will be lost and considerable greenhouse gases will be produced as the timber is used or as it rots. (There are other ways of producing biofuel, like purifying waste vegetable oil, but these are only available in much smaller quantities.)

Therefore, with the current level of technology, biofuels make little sense for their main stated purpose: reducing carbon emissions. This is even more true of the kinds of crops being subsidised for this purpose in the USA. Corn, the main crop used to generate ethanol for fuel purposes in America, is far less efficient for biofuel than the sugar cane produced in other countries, most notably Brazil. It is clear that the Bush administration, which has been at the forefront of promoting biofuels since 2005, has been more concerned with finding a justification for agricultural subsidies and addressing the problem of energy security than with a rational use of crops. That matters because the US is the world’s dominant exporter of corn, providing considerably more than the rest of the world put together.

However, governments in Europe are just as culpable as the Bush administration. They have promoted biofuels as an important plank of their climate change policies, in particular the target to produce 20 per cent of energy from ‘renewable sources’ by 2020. In the UK from today, the Renewable Transport Fuel Obligation will require that petrol and diesel must contain 2.5 per cent biofuel. The aim is to increase this proportion over time to 10 per cent. However, this target is now being called into question by the latest food price rises.

Robert Bailey, a policy adviser for the development charity Oxfam, told Bloomberg News: ‘The sorts of problems that biofuels are causing are irreversible. If rainforest gets chopped down, it’s gone forever. If somebody loses access to food, they become malnourished, their physical and mental development is impaired and they may die.’ This is not the fluffy, warm glow of ethical approval that governments were hoping for when they invested in biofuels.

However, if biofuels take the blame for the current crisis, the most important factors will go unaddressed. Perversely, food shortages are going hand-in-hand with record harvests. Food production continues to increase. How can we have a food crisis when there is so much food being produced?

Environmentalists would argue that there are too many people, eating too much meat. World population in 2007 was estimated to be 6.6billion and to be growing at a rate of 1.17 per cent per annum. However, world grain production - vital both directly as food and as feed for animals - has stuttered in recent years, although 2007 saw record output. As a result, cereal production per capita has been gradually declining:

This is where the meat issue comes into play. One kilogramme of meat requires seven kilos of animal feed (where the animals do not live off pasture). As meat consumption has risen in the developing world, so demand for grain has risen. This seems like a no-brainer. Because we’re all eating meat, we are effectively stealing grain from the mouths of the poorest people and using it to fatten animals for our consumption. We clearly need to curb the rise in population and stop eating so much meat, or millions of people will starve, right?

Wrong. The decline in grain production per person has coincided with a vast retirement of land from agricultural production. From 1981 to 2000, the area of land devoted to grain fell from 732million hectares to 656million hectares. This was mainly due to oversupply, alongside environmental policies. For example, farmers in Europe and America are increasingly paid not to grow food but to ‘steward’ the land instead - in other words, to provide a wildlife sanctuary and keep pastures green - in keeping with a romantic view of the countryside.

If production in the developed world has been too efficient in comparison to food prices, the developing world still suffers from low productivity. As a professor of agriculture noted in a letter to The Economist this week: ‘In Africa, South Asia and Central America most small farmers consume more food than they produce. A majority are net food-buyers who make ends meet by working off-farm, and they suffer along with the urban poor and landless rural folk when food prices rise… The root challenge is to improve the low productivity of 1.5 billion small farmers in the developing world.’

Or to put the debate about food prices another way: how did the rest of the world get so dependent on American exports that a policy change in Washington, like that over biofuel, could have such a big effect? As a report for the Worldwatch Institute notes, ‘output per person varies dramatically by region. For instance, it stands at roughly 1,230 kilograms per year in the United States, most of which is fed to livestock, compared with 325 kilograms in China and just 90 kilograms in Zimbabwe.’ How can we raise productivity globally to match that in the US?

The solution is to apply the best techniques from the developed world to the developing world: mechanisation, farm specialisation, chemical inputs like fertilisers and pesticides, selecting better varieties of crop - including genetically modified (GM) crops - and so on.

Unfortunately, these are just the kind of things which development organisations and environmental campaigners have been arguing against. Instead, we are assured that the developing world should get by on ‘appropriate technology’ like treadle pumps and simple ploughs. Poor farmers really do ‘live the dream’ of organic farming by default - they can’t afford to do anything else. The result is low output, endless poverty, and financial insecurity.

Thus, rising food prices tell us a lot more about the perversity of environmental and agricultural policy than about our alleged incapacity to produce enough food. Yet instead of addressing these real barriers to the global development of food for all, officials and commentators obsess over the terrible ‘crime’ of biofuels, and, even worse, use the opportunity of the food price crisis to bang their personal prejudicial drum - whether by calling for a return to more labour intensive, local, organic farming in the developing world or for a reduction in population growth so that there aren’t so many ‘mouths to feed’. Well, that is one quickfire way to solve the ‘food crisis’: rein in demand by reducing the number of hungry black babies being born. In place of a serious debate about the food price crisis, we have apocalyptic porn about overpopulation, future war and mass starvation.

There have always been food shortages around the world. Crop failures have occurred because of wars, bad weather and blight. Yet only occasionally do these make much of an impact on the public imagination in the West. The development of a world market for food has at least allowed for greater security so that reasonably cheap food has been available even when local food production has been down. In fact, it is the relatively small size of this market which means that comparatively minor changes - like the diversion of food to fuel - can have a disproportionate impact on prices. So what we need, in the short term at least, is to develop the world market further - and that will require greater development and wider access to richer markets more generally for countries that are currently poor.

Yet such an outlook, which emphasises the capacity to adapt and develop and calls for the world to work together to resolve its problems, is absent in much of the discussion of the food price crisis. Instead, we are inundated with dire warnings about human greed (that is, people desiring to have to a Western standard of living) destroying the planet, and about food and water insecurity leading to disruption and conflict. Or we are offered apocalyptic visions of a world in which there are too many gobs to fill with food, with the threat of a terrible natural ‘correction’ to come if we don’t clamp down on reproduction now. If we pursue environmentalist ideas - that is, if we put a frantic concern about producing carbon over and above the aim of producing calories - we may be in danger of fulfilling these prophecies.

In essence, both biofuels and the current food price crisis are a product of the inhumane politics of environmentalism. Biofuels spring not only from the Bush administration’s cynical attempt to justify agriculture subsidies, or from European ministers’ desperate desire to switch in part from fossil fuel useage to renewable fuel sources; more fundamentally, biofuels are built on the mainstream, widely-consensual idea that curbing carbon emissions should be the driving force of human endeavour today. Likewise, one of the contributing factors to the food price crisis is the retirement of farming land for environmentalist purposes, as well as, of course, the biofuels debacle. This is what happens when we put cutting carbon over meeting people’s needs and desires, when we literally put the ‘earth first’ instead of the people who inhabit it. Human welfare should be at the centre of all political and international decision-making - and the greatest barrier to giving human welfare its proper place today is the rise and rise of apocalyptic green thinking.

*Rob Lyons is deputy editor of spiked.

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