I understand that we are on the cusp of a very important Primary election, and there just doesn't seem to be enough hours in the day to promote our favorite candidates and fire digital arrows at those who dare to oppose them. But I've had an issue hovering just inside my awareness for some time now, that's been yammering for me to write about it, so please bear with me.
It may be self-serving for me to say this, but human beings are fairly intelligent. We can make fire; we can build structures to keep us safe and dry; we've developed all sorts of conveyances to carry our lazy asses from one point to another, over land and even through the air. But we're not real good at long-range planning. We're basically just big children when it comes to that. The here and now is important, and the future is something that someone else can worry about.
So now we're in the middle of a crisis, and one that should have been dealt with thirty years ago when we had to leave our cars parked at empty gas stations. But we didn't. The oil started flowing again, and pretty soon we traded our economy cars for monstrous things whose appetite for fuel is nearly insatiable, belching carbon-riddled fumes wherever we went. And now crude oil, which was selling for $20-$30 per barrel just ten years ago, is fetching over $100 per barrel.
So another crisis is upon us, and the engineers are back to trying to figure out how to stretch more miles out of each gallon. And we're also trying to figure out how to stretch more gallons out of every gallon, and the magic word is ethanol, a sugar derivative. Unfortunately, the collision of the world's appetite for combustible fuel with the world's food-related agriculture is affecting a change that is already having a horrific impact on food security as well as the environment itself.
In a discussion here at BlueNC almost a year ago, I mentioned a few things that I wish had been merely unfounded fears:
But there are both environmental and humanitarian issues at stake here, which really is off-topic from the discussion about state funding for projects that take away precious business from private companies, but I'm going to say something anyway.
One of the reasons I spoke (on another thread) about keeping the entire process domestic, is about America's insatiable appetite for fuel, and how that can impact the rest of the world in the age of biofuels. We've talked about sugar cane vs corn, but an even bigger (and scarier) source for ethanol is palm oil. How do you get it, especially in the volume biofuels would demand? You clear rainforests. Which is a whole 'nother discussion.
And then there's the food issue. If biodiesel usage skyrockets, and if we move towards a higher concentration of bio in the mixture, it could (probably would) literally take food out of the mouths of the poor, some even in the U.S., but a lot in the third world. There is more than enough arable land in the world to feed everybody several times over, but we still lose millions of people annually due to starvation and malnutrition. Why? Because there's not enough money in their pockets to justify a concerted effort to grow the crops. But...if rich Americans need fuel for their SUVs, that's a different story.
Can you see that in your mind? Can you see rail-thin children toiling in soy or rapeseed fields in Africa, or wide swaths of rainforests in South America burning, to make way for cash crops to feed the American fuel-guzzling machine? I can, which is why I hope Biodiesel is merely a stage in the process that ends with hydrogen or some other, much better solution.
In a statement last Fall from Jean Zeigler, the United Nations independent expert on the right to food, he described the growing use of food crops to produce ethanol a "crime against humanity", because of the impact it was having on world hunger:
Last March, President Bush and Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva signed an agreement committing their countries to boosting ethanol production. They said increasing use of alternative fuels would lead to more jobs, a cleaner environment and greater independence from the whims of the oil market.
Ziegler called their motives legitimate, but said that ''the effect of transforming hundreds and hundreds of thousands of tons of maize, of wheat, of beans, of palm oil, into agricultural fuel is absolutely catastrophic for the hungry people.''
The world price of wheat doubled in one year and the price of corn quadrupled, leaving poor countries, especially in Africa, unable to pay for the imported food needed to feed their people, he said. And poor people in those countries are unable to pay the soaring prices for the food that does come in, he added.
''So it's a crime against humanity'' to devote agricultural land to biofuel production, Ziegler said a news conference. ''What has to be stopped is ... the growing catastrophe of the massacre (by) hunger in the world,'' he said.
As an example, he said, it takes 510 pounds of corn to produce 13 gallons of ethanol. That much corn could feed a child in Zambia or Mexico for a year, he said.
Many reading this are aware of the sudden surge in food prices worldwide. Biofuels production is listed as merely one of several reasons for this, including some dismal crop yields in large-producing countries like Australia, but I believe it is a driver/trigger mechanism for the (world) surge in food prices, because it represents more than just a temorary reduction in food availability.
While we may have seen the effects of this on the prices of some of our grocery items, it's mostly just a little irritating. For some, however, this surge in food prices has moved them from barely getting by to malnutrition and starvation.
Africa is not only on the verge of a food security crisis, it's perched on the edge of a wave of civil unrest that could leave many nations virtually ungoverned. Just picture Somalia repeated a few dozen times over, and you can maybe get the picture. The recent food riots in Burkina Faso and Cameroon are only a taste of what's in store. The price of cereals has risen so high, livestock are being slaughtered and sold because people can no longer afford to feed them.
And thanks to a combination of the rising cost of food and the growing ranks of those who can no longer afford to feed themselves, the U.N. World Food Programme is about 500 million short of the funds it needs to provide assistance, equating to what they describe as a "silent tsunami":
“This is the new face of hunger – the millions of people who were not in the urgent hunger category six months ago but now are,” said WFP Executive Director Josette Sheeran, who is meeting British Government officials after addressing a UK parliamentary hearing in London.
“The response calls for large-scale, high-level action by the global community, focused on emergency and longer-term solutions,” she said.
Analysis being carried out by WFP supports World Bank estimates that about 100 million people have been pushed deeper into poverty by the high food prices. WFP expects to release figures next week estimating how many new people have urgent hunger needs.
The urgency of the situation is underlined by WFP’s decision to suspend school feeding to 450,000 children beginning in May in Cambodia, unless new funding can be found in time. WFP representatives in 78 countries around the world are facing similar difficult choices.
Now, I know that many people reading this have already donated to candidates and/or organizations recently, and some of us are feeling like we've been squeezed kinda dry. ;) But considering how long it took for tsunami relief pledges to actually take the form of money, and then be delivered where they could do some good, I have little confidence member nations will respond quickly enough to keep the food flowing. If you can squeeze a few more bucks out, please do so now.
Back to the election at hand. We must send the right people to Washington. People who have the desire and fortitude to see past the needs of the now and visualise the needs of the future. And that means you don't just react to the crisis at hand, you prudently choose a sustainable course for the future.