NY Times: crocodile tears re/world hunger


Richard Moore


March 3, 2008
Priced Out of the Market

The world¹s food situation is bleak, and shortsighted policies in the United 
States and other wealthy countries ‹ which are diverting crops to 
environmentally dubious biofuels ‹ bear much of the blame.

According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, the price of 
wheat is more than 80 percent higher than a year ago, and corn prices are up by 
a quarter. Global cereal stocks have fallen to their lowest level since 1982.

As usual, the brunt is falling disproportionately on the poor. The F.A.O. 
estimates that the cereal import bill of the neediest countries will increase by
a third for the second year in a row. Prices have gone so high that the World 
Food Program, which aims to feed 73 million people this year, said it might have
to reduce rations or the number of people it will help.

The world has faced periodic bouts when it looked as if population growth would 
outstrip the food supply. Each time, food production has grown to meet demand. 
This time it might not be so easy.

Population growth and economic progress are part of the problem. Consumption of 
meat and other high-quality foods ‹mainly in China and India‹ has boosted demand
for grain for animal feed. Poor harvests due to bad weather in this country and 
elsewhere have contributed. High energy prices are adding to the pressures.

Yet the most important reason for the price shock is the rich world¹s subsidized
appetite for biofuels. In the United States, 14 percent of the corn crop was 
used to produce ethanol in 2006 ‹ a share expected to reach 30 percent by 2010. 
This is also cutting into production of staples like soybeans, as farmers take 
advantage of generous subsidies and switch crops to corn for fuel.

The benefits of this strategy are dubious. A study by the Organization for 
Economic Cooperation and Development suggested that ‹ absent new technologies ‹ 
the United States, Canada and the European Union would require between 30 
percent and 70 percent of their current crop area if they were to replace 10 
percent of their transport fuel consumption with biofuels. And two recent 
studies suggested that a large-scale effort across the world to grow crops for 
biofuels would add carbon dioxide to the atmosphere rather than reduce it.

The human costs of this diversion of food into energy are all too evident.

As a first step, the United States and other wealthy countries that are driving 
this problem must ensure that the United Nations and other relief agencies get 
the support they need to feed the most vulnerable people. But aid is not a 

Congress must take a hard look at the effect of corn ethanol on food supplies in
the same way the new energy bill requires it to review the environmental 
effects. It must move toward ending subsidies that will become even more 
difficult to justify as oil prices rise and the costs of producing corn ethanol 
decline. And it must press other wealthy countries to do the same before hunger 
turns to mass starvation.

Copyright 2008 The New York Times Company

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