Commenting on the rush to blame biofuels for the global food crisis, the UN’s Under-Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs, John Holmes has warned against “throwing the baby out with the bathwater.” His ideas were echoed by Lennart Baage of the International Fund for Agricultural Development, who said, “It is important not to go to extremes.”
In fact, there are a number of experts trying to dispel the myth that biofuels are the sole or primary force behind the unfolding global food crisis. As I have discussed previously on UN Dispatch, the processes that have caused the spike in food prices are numerous and complex (including increased demand, rising oil prices, the weak dollar, commodity speculation, trade distortions), and policymakers should avoid making a scapegoat out of biofuels simply because it is politically expedient.
The truth is that sound policy toward biofuels can be extremely beneficial for the developing world. Nobody has said that the shift to biofuels from fossil fuels has been perfectly executed, but you would be hard pressed to find an energy expert who says that the situation presented by fossil fuel reliance is a sustainable path. The initial move toward biofuels offers developing countries an opportunity to develop natural resources and infrastructure that will help lead away from oil addiction, with the significant environmental, economic and security benefits that implies. Policymakers have already learned many lessons about the “smart” and “dumb” ways to manage the production and sale of plant-based fuel, and with this experience leaders will be all the more prepared to deploy the next generation of biofuels (made from non-food plants and agricultural waste products), which will be even further dissociated with the limitations of the current generation.
John Holmes and Lennart Baage are right, managing food and energy requires a longer-term perspective and casting blame is counterproductive. The food crisis should be approached as a whole and responses must be measured. Thankfully, the UN is prepared to take a cautious approach, so at least on the international level, it seems unlikely that the world will throw the biofuels out with the bathwater.
Current UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has initiated immediate and sweeping responses to prevent dire impacts from rapidly escalating food prices. And former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan is stressing the importance of long-term investment in agriculture, as part of a drive toward a second “green revolution” in Africa. He estimates that food production on the continent could be doubled or tripled through such a change. Unfortunately, this is made difficult as a result of such factors as drought and lack of property rights for farmers in many African countries. If these problems can be overcome, however, the African continent could quickly move simultaneously toward growing its own food and securing its economic, energy and environmental future.