Hundreds of thousands of acres of land, whether in the UK or elsewhere on the planet, will be needed to feed a giant bio-ethanol plant to be opened near Hull by a joint company set up by BP and Associated British Foods. The company claims fuel production is separate from food production and "the impact on food prices is likely to be negligible". But production of bio-ethanol and biodiesel, from vegetable oils such as soya or palm, is already having an impact on the cost of food and on the environment. There have been demonstrations in Mexico, where the maize crop is being sold off for ethanol, pushing up the price of flour. And in China the cost of pork, the main protein source for ordinary people, is rising because feed is being used for bio-fuel. In Indonesia, Columbia, Costa Rica, Cambodia, Malaysia, Uganda and many other places, crucial CO2 absorbing rain forest is being cut down to make room for palm oil plantations. One fifth of the US corn crop is now used to make ethanol and a study by Goldman Sachs has found that the price of a unit of energy from biofuels has risen to that of petrol.
Roger Higman, campaign co-ordinator for Friends of the Earth, said he would like to see mandatory requirements on companies involved in biofuels to ensure that their crop production was sustainable, whether in the developing world or in the UK: "We are neutral (!) on this kind of proposal [from BP and ABF] because we support green fuels, but you have to be careful because you could destroy the British countryside and the habitat for wildlife with the intensive growing of wheat." Being “neutral” on this proposal just about sums up the problem facing the mainstream green movement. They have hitched their wagon to the capitalist star, believing – in the face of all the evidence to the contrary – that sooner or later governments will regulate the corporations, and the corporations will deliver a profitable approach to tackling climate change. But starting with Kyoto and right up until the recent G8 summit, what governments have done is wash their hands of the problem and hand it over to the market. And the market is, of course, the place where global corporations like BP go to make profit, not to make the world a better, or more sustainable, place.
Meanwhile, people in south Yorkshire are digging their belongings out of the mud and of course, the poorest of them have no insurance. And this is nothing compared to the impact of recent floods in India and Pakistan. And in Greece, Italy and Romania, heatwaves are killing people and animals and destroying harvests. We are running out of time, and on tomorrow’s climate change demonstration members of A World to Win will be arguing that we must get far beyond asking the government to improve its Climate Change Bill – particularly since ministers have already made clear to the Commons environmental audit committee that they have no intention of changing it at all. Grain, the sustainable farming group, in a report out today, has denounced what it calls agrofuels for causing “anti-life devastation”, adding: “It is abundantly clear that we can only halt climate change by challenging the absurdity and the waste of the globalised food system as organised by the transnational corporations.” That is why AWTW advocates the development of a mass movement to transform the political state, the system of land ownership, and the economic drivers for production. Only a not-for-profit democracy can tackle climate change and develop into a holistic system for stewardship of the planet and its eco-system.
Penny Cole, environment editor