Monday, January 7, 2013

How U.S. Biofuel Policy Is Destroying Guatemala's Food Supply

A new report in The New York Times highlights how biofuel policy in the United States and Europe has produced a rolling food catastrophe in Guatemala.

The country once enjoyed a nearly self-sufficient level of corn production, but domestic producers were undercut by American corn exports subsidized by U.S. agricultural policy. Guatemala's domestic corn supplies dropped nearly 30 percent per capita between 1995 and 2005.

In 2007, the United States established its expanded biofuel standards, and began relying on corn to meet them. That drove up demand, and the flow of cheap corn into Guatemala dried up. Meanwhile, larger farms and industrial producers took up much of Guatemala's available cropland and water supplies to produce sugar cane, vegetable oil, and other crops to meet increased global demand for biofuel, due to European as well as U.S. policies.

The result left subsistence farmers with less and less land to work, and the average Guatemalan - whose diet is heavily corn-based - with no where else to turn for affordable food:

In a country where most families must spend about two thirds of their income on food, "the average Guatemalan is now hungrier because of biofuel development," said Katja Winkler, a researcher at Idear, a Guatemalan nonprofit organization that studies rural issues. Roughly 50 percent of the nation's children are chronically malnourished, the fourth-highest rate in the world, according to the United Nations. [...]

But many worry that Guatemala's poor are already suffering from the diversion of food to fuel. "There are pros and cons to biofuel, but not here," said Misael Gonz√°les of C.U.C., a labor union for Guatemala's farmers. "These people don't have enough to eat. They need food. They need land. They can't eat biofuel, and they don't drive cars."

In 2011, corn prices would have been 17 percent lower if the United States did not subsidize and give incentives for biofuel production with its renewable fuel policies, according to an analysis by Bruce A. Babcock, an agricultural economist at Iowa State University. The World Bank has suggested that biofuel mandates in the developed world should be adjusted when food is short or prices are inordinately high. [...]

In part because [the United Nations World Food Program in Guatemala's] primary food supplement is a mix of corn and soy, it cannot afford to help all of the Guatemalan children in need, Mr. Gauvreau said; it is agency policy to buy corn locally, but there is no extra corn grown here anymore. And Guatemalans cannot go back to the land because so much of it is being devoted to growing crops for biofuel. (Almost no biofuel is used domestically.)

In short, Guatemala is a microcosm for the damage Western food-based biofuels are doing to food supplies for the global poor. The United States is currently on track to devote nearly 40 percent of its own corn crop, and 15 percent of the world's corn supplies, to biofuels. By 2020, European standards will mandate that transportation fuels contain 10 percent biofuels. (Although the European Commission "recently proposed amending its policy so that only half of its 2020 target could be met by using biofuels made from food crops or those grown on land previously devoted to food crops," according to the New York Times.)

Most assessments of the 2008 food crisis found that biofuels played a role. Agricultural production is able to keep up with the world's growing demand for food; however, the growing demand for biofuels make it more difficult to match that demand in years when weather is poor. As global warming continues to raise the odds of extreme weather, less reliable rain, and less reliable growing seasons, the potential to meet that demand diminishes.

At the same time, most studies have determined that because of the carbon emissions involved in biofuels' agricultural production, their net effect on greenhouse gases is either negligible or negative. More advanced biofuels, such as the ones based on microalgae, could provide a solution, but they have not been fully commercialized. For the moment, we're causing severe damage to the world's food supply with no real benefit to the global warming problem.


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