Stuart Munckton & Barry Healy
19 April 2008


A food crisis, caused largely by skyrocketing prices, has hit dozens of countries across the Third World, while an April 14 report by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) argues that increasing production of “agrofuels” (the large-scale production of biofuels, using food crops to create fuels such as ethanol) further threatens the world’s poor with hunger.

An Asia-wide shortage of rice — the region’s staple food — has emerged in recent months. The Oryza rice industry website reports a World Bank estimate that around 33 countries face potential social unrest because of rising food and energy prices.

Two of the top three exporters, India and Vietnam, have stopped selling abroad in order to secure their domestic food supply. The world’s largest producer, China, needs its 123 million tonnes for its own population. Now, worrying strains are appearing in Thailand, the remaining major exporter.

Record prices

Prices on the global rice market have exploded. Thai rice was selling at US$780-$800 a ton on April 4, up from $100 not long ago. But Oryza stated that most exporters in Thailand were no longer offering supplies because they may fail to meet their commitments.

ABC Radio National reported on April 7 that the price
of the low quality subsidised rice sold to the poor in Bangladesh has risen dramatically over recent months. Low income Bangladeshi workers are spending most of their pay on rice and eating only twice a day.

On the same day, the German JungeWelt newspaper reported that
conflicting pressures are neutralising the benefits rising prices deliver to Thai farmers. For example, fertilizer prices have shot up 400%.

Also, accumulated debts from previous poor harvests eat into returns and new sowing requires loans at high interest rates.

Thai farmers now have to guard their fields against thieves. Thai news media are reporting many farmers in tears, showing their fields stripped bare in the night.

Some Thai farmers are pushing their production past sustainable limits. Instead of leaving their soil to recover after the harvest they are immediately sowing a fresh crop.

The Bangkok government has responded to the record high prices by supplying five kilogram packets of rice about 30% cheaper for the poor. However, rice mill owners are rumoured to be hoarding stocks to take advantage of future high prices.

There are all the signs of a major cost explosion in the near future, threatening massive suffering across all of Asia.

African finance ministers, meeting in Addis Ababa on April 2, have responded to the global food crisis by demanding food production for their own countries’ consumption rather than for export.

The call, which goes against orthodox neoliberal policies pushed by Western governments and financial institutions, follows recent continent-wide food revolts and dire warnings of starvation made the FAO and echoed by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank in an April 12-13 meeting.

The FAO has identified 21 of Africa’s 36 countries as suffering from a food crisis, with food riots spreading. In February, 40 people were killed in Cameroon, with 200 were arrested in Burkina Faso and 24 in Senegal. Riots have also occurred in Ethiopia and the Ivory Coast.

There have been revolts in Morocco and especially in Egypt on April 6. One of the leaflets distributed in Egypt stated: “We are dying while queuing up for bread.”

Political response

JungeWelt reported on April 16 that almost everywhere the revolts are taking on a political dimension of opposition to shameless enrichment of the rulers and corruption. In Burkina Faso, the government offered concessions after the February riots, but was answered by a general strike on April 8 and 9.

Sagado Nacanabo, a Baurkina Faso union leader, said that in 1991, 1994 and 2001 waves of exorbitant price increases had
coincided with cycles of IMF and World Bank enforced “structural adjustment programs”.

Faced with the rising discontent, IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn warned at the April 12-13 meeting that the rise in food prices is driving 100 million poor people worldwide into even deeper poverty.

The colonial and neocolonial heritage and massive imports of cheap food from the industrialised countries have strangled agriculture across Africa.

FAO Secretary General Jacques Diouf told Le Monde on April 10 that the problem was not a natural, but a political one. In Africa only 4% of agricultural land is irrigated, not due to water shortages but because of a lack of investment.

Such investments have been prevented for 30 years by World Bank and IMF policies that benefit big agro-business. The mass of small farmers have been reduced to be farm workers on starvation wages or moved into the sprawling urban slums.

Agrofuels

In particular, the FAO highlighted, at an April 14 conference on Latin America and the Caribbean held in Brazil, the role of agrofuels in making the food crisis worse, arguing that it was threatening access to food for the poor.

Biofuels are being promoted by the US government as a potential alternative to using oil. However, while biofuel supporters argue using biofuels is an environmentally friendly alternative, as the burning of biofuels is “carbon neutral”, it ignores the highly environmentally destructive process required to produce biofuels on a mass scale.

One problem is deforestation — clearing forests to gain the land required to grow the crops releases large amounts of greenhouse gases. Also, the displacement of crops threatens biodiversity. There are a range of environmental problems associated with large, single-crop plantations.

A more immediate problem in light of the growing global food crisis is the human cost associated with growing food, not to ensure that the world’s population is fed but to turn into fuel. It amounts to taking food crops, largely grown in the Third World, and using it to fuel unsustainable energy useage, mostly in the First World — taking food from the poor to fuel the economies of the rich countries.

According to an April 14 Reuters report, the FAO argued that growing agrofuel output would “compete with food crops for water, land and capital and thereby increase food prices”. The FAO report stated this would “put at risk access to food by the poorest sectors”.

Opposition

The use of food crops to create fuel has been strongly condemned in Latin America by the left-wing governments of Cuba, Venezuela, Bolivia and Nicaragua.

According to Reuters, Cuba’s representative to the conference, Juan Arsenio Quintero, argued that it is unacceptable for poor countries, which account for only 15% of the world’s cars, to produce fuels for the rich to use. He argued that, with energy efficiency measures, “We could all save hundreds of millions of dollars and not use a single hectare” of land for agrofuels.

Venezuela’s vice minister for rural development, Gerado Rojas, told the conference: “Without food safety, we can’t even think about biofuels … it could create enormous food deficits and social unrest.”

The April 15 Sydney Morning Herald reported that the FAO stated that 37 countries currently face food crises. The article reports: “Some experts … have identified the growth of biofuels as one of the main causes of higher food prices.

“The UN says 232 kilograms of corn is needed to fill a 50-litre car tank with ethanol — enough to feed a child for a year. Last week the UN predicted massacres unless the biofuel policy was halted.”

The article noted: “Several big agricultural nations, such as the US, have used subsidised crops such as soya bean, sugar cane and corn for ethanol production, reducing the amount of crops available for food.”

One country badly hit has been Haiti, with SMH reporting: “A week of hunger-provoked protests and looting has left six people dead, and aid workers say volatile protests are likely to continue because of sustained high food prices.

“Haiti imports almost all its food, and global food prices have risen 40 per cent since the middle of last year.”

According to an April 13 report by Xinhua, the Venezuelan government of socialist President Hugo Chavez has responded to the crisis by sending a fleet of planes carrying 364 tons of food for humanitarian aid to Haiti, in order to help relieve Haiti’s food crisis.

Venezuelan aid includes “tons of meat, chicken, ham, milk, vegetables, olive oil and lentils”, Xinhua reported.

Chavez has made a number of statements on the impact of increasing food prices on the world’s poor and his government, along with Cuba, is spearheading the campaign against agrofuels.

According to a March 27 Venezuelanalysis.com report, Chavez addressed an international press conference on the topic, expressing opposition to the diversion of food supplies for agrofuels.

Chavez identified the move to use agrofuels as an alternative energy source to fossil fuels as a prime cause of price inflation that will eventually lead to a “famine that produces desperation for millions of people”, Venezuelanalysis.com reported.

The FAO “is soliciting $500 million to alleviate the food crisis”, Chavez stated, “while the United States spends $500 million per day in Iraq”.

Solutions

A key aspect of the Bolivarian revolution being led by the Chavez government is the struggle to achieve food security via a massive development of Venezuelan agriculture. Currently, Venezuela imports the majority of its food, but is working to turn this situation around via significant investment in agriculture along with a land reform process that redistributes idle land owned either by the state or large landowners to the poor.

Venezuelanalysis.com reported on April 13 that three days earlier the army had occupied 32 farms that had been expropriated “as part of the government efforts to boost national food production amidst global shortages”. National Land Reform Institute President Juan Carlos Loyo, who reported that only 20% of the land that has been taken over was being used productively, called the intervention a “rescue” of idle farmland aimed at the “agricultural reactivation”.

The government provides credit and materials to the poor to establish cooperatives on redistributed land, as part of the joint struggle to overcome underdevelopment and poverty (with poverty rates halved since 2003).

According to Venezuelanalis.com, Venezuela has recently purchased 1,995 agricultural machines, which will soon be distributed to help make idle lands productive.

An agricultural ministry report from October states that 2 million hectares of idle land have been “rescued” from large estates, while by 2005, 2 million hectares of idle state land had been redistributed, according to Venezuelanalysis.com.

Of the private land taken over, 45% has been designated national forest reserves. Of the rest, 90% has become productive. The government estimates that there is 4 million hectares left to expropriate from the large estates, a quarter of which the ministry aims to expropriate in 2008.

Through this process, the government seeks to promote the organisation of the poor majority into institutions of “popular power”, such as the communal councils, in order to place as much control over the process as possible in the hands of the people — in doing so overturning the political power wielded by the powerful corporate interests in control of most countries.

It is increasingly clear that the sort of transformation currently being pushed for in Venezuela is a requirement to tackle the environmental and social consequences of climate change.

Rather than sink further into neocolonial domination via being transformed into producers of food crops for fuel for the First World, the Third World needs to re-win its sovereignty and embark on the sort of ambitious programs under way in Venezuela in order to develop the ability for poor nations to feed themselves.

The push for agrofuels is driven by the same vested interests that have pushed fossil fuel addiction — and now seek to increasingly replace fossil fuels with biofuels without altering the highly unjust and unsustainable global system that got us into this mess in the first place.

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