Saturday, April 19, 2008

Biofuel starvation wasn't "unforeseen consequences"

Jack Ohman, Oregonian political cartoonist, has joined the rising chorus of those pointing out the brutal effects of biofuels on the world's poor. He published a cartoon this week with a speaker at a biofuels podium surrounded by a rising tide of skulls.

I have noted Paul Krugman's devastating critique:

And meanwhile, land used to grow biofuel feedstock is land not available to grow food, so subsidies to biofuels are a major factor in the food crisis. You might put it this way: people are starving in Africa so that American politicians can court votes in farm states.

David Sarasohn of the Oregonian printed his own mild rebuke yesterday. Mild because, though noting that in the last year wheat prices have tripled, corn prices doubled and rice prices nearly doubled, he calls this the result of “unforeseen consequences.”

And increasingly, corn in particular is going into biofuel. Last year Congress required that biofuel use increase five times, and some observers are talking about the law of unforeseen consequences.

But there were real warnings about possible starvation as a consequence of the law Sarasohn refers to (the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007).

The possible consequences were clearly communicated in a Senate briefing a week before initial passage of the Senate bill and 6 months before final approval of the final House-Senate bill.

Here's a bit from a June 13, 2007 Senate briefing given by Lester Brown from the Earth Policy Institute:

The U.S. corn crop, accounting for 40 percent of the global harvest and supplying nearly 70 percent of the world's corn imports, looms large in the world food economy. Annual U.S. corn exports of some 55 million tons account for nearly one fourth of world grain exports. The corn harvest of Iowa alone exceeds the entire grain harvest of Canada. Substantially reducing this export flow would send shock waves throughout the world economy.

In six of the last seven years, total world grain production has fallen short of use. As a result, world carryover stocks of grain have been drawn down to 57 days of consumption, the lowest level in 34 years. (See data.) The last time they were this low wheat and rice prices doubled.

[emphasis mine]

When prices double the poor starve.

Unforseen consequences? No. There were clear warnings. But, Congress and the President ignored the awful impact on the world's poor.

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