Propelling new commodities into the profit-focused system of production that caused the climate crisis in the first place is like seeking the cure by doubling the disease. The gadarene rush to bio-fuels is perhaps the most destructive of this self-defeating approach to global warming. There are now two competing types of buyers in the agricultural commodity markets – those interested in food and those interested in fuel. From 2000 to 2005, world production of ethanol and bio-diesel tripled. One of the consequences has been higher food prices. Earlier this year, tens of thousands of poor people marched in Mexico City to protest against a 400% increase in the cost of tortilla flour, resulting from increased demand for corn to make ethanol. In Europe, farmers are planting oilseed in preference to barley, because subsidies are higher for rape which can be made into bio-diesel. The price of beer and beef will rise as a result. Cuban leader Fidel Castro has called the shift to bio-fuels a form of genocide. He was joined by Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez in warning that rich countries will buy up the food crops of poor nations to meet their energy needs, threatening millions with starvation. Both were critical of the deal struck recently between the presidents of Brazil and the United States to increase the output of ethanol as an alternative to fossil fuels. George Bush has pledged to cut America's petrol use by 20% by 2017 by switching to ethanol and the EU states plan to switch at least 10% of transport fuel by 2020.
Giving land over to producing fuel has other dire consequences too. For example, this week Professor Bill McKelvey, head of the Scottish Agricultural College, told a conference that only more intensive farming could prevent soaring food prices, and even shortages in the UK. Demand for bio-fuels and increasing market competition for food from countries like China, where meat consumption doubled in the last decade, will lead to higher prices, or perhaps even shortages, of imported food, he remarked. And, he argued, with thousands of acres of agricultural land turned to desert in southern Europe, due to climate change, more intensive use of remaining land is inevitable. In other words to resolve the crisis driven by a system of profit-focused, intensive farming and industrialised food production we need - more of the same. Madness! More of the same illnesses too, as scientists are warning that cars run on ethanol could be as damaging to humans as petrol-driven vehicles. Professor Mark Jacobson, at Stanford University, used a computer model to compare the effects and found an increase in ozone that can inflame the lungs and impair the body's immune system, whilst still producing cancer-causing compounds. Governments and the transnational corporations they serve are using human society as a vast laboratory to test these new commodities. Producing them will speed up the destruction of forests, the exhaustion of agricultural land, pollution and destruction of water supplies and add to global hunger. There is now an urgent need to remove the power to take decisions affecting the future of people and the planet away from the transnationals and their client governments. As Running a Temperature, an action plan for the eco-crisis published by A World to Win, concludes: "…It is time to move from a globalised world capitalist system to a concept of local stewardship in the interests of global society. To achieve this we will need to challenge the political and moral support for capitalism as the organising premise of society."
Penny Cole, co-author Running A Temperature