Farming for food or energy?

  • May 2, 2008

{mosimage}At last, the food crisis now afflicting millions of the Earth’s poorest people has caught the attention of the well-off nations of Europe and North America. One has to wonder whether we would have ever woken up had not riots and protests broken out earlier this year in a dozen countries across Africa, Asia, the Caribbean and Latin America.

While we fretted about the rising price of gasoline and groceries — a legitimate worry for millions of Canadians, to be sure — we suddenly discovered that much more terrible things were befalling vast populations in the underdeveloped world.

But now that we know, what can Christians and other people of good will do about this serious situation, which calls for all the compassion we can muster?

One thing is to urge the federal government to stop giving financial incentives to Canadian farmers to grow crops for conversion into ethanol.

I realize that this proposal would be controversial in many quarters. For several years, numerous environmentalists and media pundits — and, more recently, U.S. President George W. Bush — have been singing the praises of ethanol as a weapon in the fight against global warming. Ottawa has been urging fuel-crop development for some time. And last year, the federal government took its campaign one large step forward, by setting up a biofuel capital fund of $200 million designed to provide loans to farmers involved in biomass fuel projects.

I suppose all this makes for rousing stump speeches by Conservative MPs in Saskatchewan, but such moves do nothing to solve the shortage and high prices of basic foodstuffs here and abroad.

In fact, the dream of ethanol may be a serious diversion from more pressing and more difficult topics, such as cutting industrial emissions and restraining our North American impulse to eat and burn and otherwise consume too much of everything. Time magazine gruffly calls the promotion of ethanol a “scam.” That may be too harsh, but it’s a welcome dash of cold water on the exaggerated belief that ethanol will save us from our own excesses. In a recent column in the New York Times, the distinguished economist Paul Krugman writes that “even on optimistic estimates, producing a gallon of ethanol from corn uses most of the energy the gallon contains. But it turns out that even seemingly ‘good’ biofuel policies, like Brazil’s use of ethanol from sugar cane, accelerate the pace of climate change by promoting deforestation.”

The most pressing problem posed by ethanol is its consumption of the foodstuffs people would otherwise be eating, and its consumption of land that could be committed to growing food. By one estimate, providing enough ethanol to replace 85 per cent of Canada’s gasoline usage would require 94 per cent of the country’s farmland. While I believe the “green” trend in energy use is a potentially great boon to the environment and humankind, I also think that the cost of converting farms to biomass fuel production must now be weighed against imminent starvation and drastic shortages in the underdeveloped world.

Taking grain from the dinner table and putting it into fuel production is an important factor in rising food prices. The upward pressure on food prices is perhaps the most important factor in the current crisis, and anything that pushes it harder should be resisted. The market for biomass is responsible for between 25 per cent and 33 per cent of the increase in food prices since the beginning of the decade, according to the Washington-based International Food Policy Research Institute. In a report by the Catholic News Service, Fr. Varghese Mattamana, executive director of Caritas India, the Catholic Church’s aid organization, warns that “any diversion of land from food or feed production to production of energy biomass will influence food prices, as both compete for the same input.”

Like global warming, the causes of the world food shortage are complex, and cannot be written down entirely to human greed or defective public policy. Droughts have surely played a part in this catastrophe, for example. But Canadians should do what we can to curb the human activity at work, and one way to do so is to advance the utilization of every arable hectare in the country to provide food for ourselves and for the world.

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