Transnational corporations, seeking profitable solutions to a post-oil world, are driving a change of land use that will outstrip all previous agricultural revolutions. It will bring billions of acres of land into new mono-cultures, pushing the planet’s water and soil resources beyond their limit. If allowed to continue, it will further intensify social inequality, hunger and global warming and inevitably lead to wars over land and water. The plans made by the US, China, India and the EU to create 15% of their energy needs from bio-fuels, have created a gadarene rush for profits across the globe. Food crops such as maize, sugar cane, palm oil and oil seed rape, instead of feeding the world’s growing population, are being switched to ethanol production to run cars. US farmers expect to sell 20% of the maize crop for ethanol this year.
The Indian government plans 35m acres (140,000 sq km) of bio-fuel crops and Brazil as much as 300m acres (1.2m sq km). Indonesia plans to increase palm oil production from 16m acres (64,000 sq km) now to 65m acres (260,000 sq km) in 2025. Much of it will be grown on recently-deforested land. Nowhere is the transformation going to be greater than in Southern Africa where there is much greater political and financial support for bio-fuel production than there ever was for food for people to eat. As much as 1bn acres (4m sq km) of land could be converted to bio-fuels and China, Brazil, and EU nations are investing in irrigation, cultivation technologies and production.
All of these activities will intensify carbon emissions. Soil that is currently lying fallow, as scrub, bush or jungle, acts as a carbon sink. Bringing it into production means it will start emitting carbon dioxide instead. Irrigating the new crops will deplete water resources. Sugar cane in Brazil evaporates approximately 2200 litres for every litre of ethanol produced. The kinds of intensive growing planned can only be achieved by the application of nitrates, increasing the level of these in soil and water. African communities currently relying on lake fishing face starvation as stocks die off. Aerial spraying of weed killer will threaten an area’s existing subsistence agriculture. And yet, all of these reckless developments are likely to be listed under the Kyoto protocol’s clean development mechanism. This is currently being changed to speed up the approval process for industrialised countries to fund bio-fuel projects in Africa to offset their own emissions targets.
Already world food prices are rising steeply because of a combination of poor harvests resulting from climate change and the sale of food crops for bio-fuel. The UN World Food Programme says the price of food aid increased 20% in just a year. Food prices in India have risen 11% in a year, in South Africa by nearly 17%, and China was forced to halt all new planting of corn for ethanol after staple foods such as pork soared by 42% last year. In the US, where nearly 40 million people are below the official poverty line, the Department of Agriculture recently predicted a 10% rise in the price of chicken. The prices of bread, beef, eggs and milk rose 7.5 % in July, the highest monthly rise in 25 years.
Only global capitalism, with its mono-culture of profit, could create a situation where the government-sanctioned response to dealing with climate change is a series of corporate-driven measures that will actually intensify emissions and at the same time threaten millions more people with hunger. Ending the corporate control of resources worldwide has to be the priority in order to create the conditions for a sustainable future.
AWTW environment editor