We have covered the complex and controversial food for fuel debate many times before, most notably here, here and here. It is a topic that certainly doesn’t look likely to be resolved any time soon, but the more in-depth media focus there is on the real consequences of biofuels [as opposed to gushing coverage of the latest flex-fuel muscle car], the more likely we are to come up with potential solutions. We were pleased then to hear that BBC Radio 4 broadcast a documentary on their Costing the Earth series last week, entitled ‘Food versus Fuel’. Looking at the press materials, it doesn’t look like the program came to any hard-and-fast conclusions, but it does seem to have covered the basics fairly thoroughly.
After discussing recent riots in Mexico over the rising price of corn, and giving voice to aid agencies’ and environmentalists’ concerns about a ‘prefect storm’ of rising oil prices, failing crops, and increased demand for biofuels putting world food supplies at risk, the program goes on to suggest that there may be more to this picture than meets the eye, at least if the UK’s National Farmers’ Union is to be believed, though they of course have their own interests in seeing biofuels succeed:
For years, Mexican dependency on cheap American corn had ruined the Mexican maize business and millions of farmers had left the land. Now Mexicans are starting to grow maize again. It is a slow process, but it will start to reduce their dependency on the north. And this is a key part of the debate, according to the UK National Farmers Union's biofuels advisor Jonathan Scurlock. He thinks that greater demand for food and fuel could help galvanise agriculture in developing countries, which for many years have had their farming industries crushed by cheap imports.
Farmers in the West point out that their past food surpluses dumped on developing world markets never alleviated hunger. "This is all about 'trade not aid'," says Scurlock. "It would be a very good thing if developing countries could produce something that we in the West were prepared to pay a fair price for."
Friends of the Earth and others remain unimpressed, suggesting that with global corporations muscling in on the biofuels game, small farmers are unlikely to benefit whatever happens. The program also addresses the question of how much land is available for biofuel production, and the Farmers’ Union representative unsurprisingly suggests that there is ample for both food and fuel, citing the massive tobacco industry as a historic precedent for successful non-food crops.
A WWF report is also cited on the program, showing that there are massive areas of degraded land that could be brought into production, such as former rainforest land that has since been clear cut for timber, and could now be used for palm oil production. We should not, of course, forget that such activities may provide incentives for further clear cutting, as we’ve already seen with the palm oil industry in Malaysia. Whatever happens, using fuels more efficiently will reduce our need for natural resources, whether corn or fossil based, so check out our guide on How to Green Your Car Use . ::BBC::via site visit::