The mad rush for alternative fuel sources is leading us to yet another lemming leap as biofuel production increases deaths from hunger. Rising food prices as well as food shortages are causing a sharp rise in starvation rates around the world. While biofuel production is not the only factor in this alarming escalation, it is a significant one. For example, since 2006, a significant amount of land formerly used to grow food crops in the United States is now used to grow corn for biofuels and the percentage of corn going to ethanol production continues to rise, reaching 25% in 2007 (Kingsbury 2007).
Funny how engineers of this new fuel plan didn’t consider the consequences of burning corn, one of the world’s top staple foods. And as the United States loses two acres of farmland to development every minute or about one million acres each year (American Farmland Trust), isn’t it strange that no one of influence considered the consequences of shifting the use of our precious remaining farm land from food to fuel production.
A few brave souls are standing up against this mad rush because its predictable results of increasing food costs and subsequent increase of hunger around the world are already playing out. In April 2008 at the Thirtieth Regional Conference of the Food and Agriculture Organization, Jean Ziegler, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, called biofuels a “crime against humanity.”
One, perhaps oversimplified, but memorable image is captured in this quote:
“Speculation and so-called Bio-fuels are leading us to a shortening of raw food sources world-wide. The consequence: Poor people go even hungrier, so that the rich can drive their cars in a supposedly environmentally friendly way. This shows the duality of the term bio-fuels. “Bio” means life. In this case, it is the life of those, who must give them up for our gas station fill-ups.
Perhaps we should, as cynical as it sounds, indicate the usage of a car in terms of hungering people per one hundred kilometers. An SUV uses the equivalent of one year of a person’s food needs for every full tank of bio-fuel. Depending on your driving style, every hundred kilometers you are using 0.2 to 0.3 people! I would rather stick to my bicycle.”
-Marco Walter, Constance, Germany, 2008
Mr. Walter hits an important note here. Reducing fuel consumption is a far more ethical, long-term solution to the fuel crisis. In fact, the core principle of biofuels and other potentially harmful “solutions” is based on continuing our outrageous dependence on motorized travel. Replacing just a fraction of the over 60% of trips that are less than five miles with bicycling and walking which burn no fuel at all, would significantly reduce fuel consumption and save households up to 20% of their expenses each year (learn more by visiting the “Shift to Bike” link below). Plus these active means of travel provide an easy way to weave healthy exercise into daily lives. And in dense cities where congestion is high and car parking rare, walking and biking are often faster than driving.
Such a shift would also reduce congestion, thus reducing the need to build more roads – an often overlooked siphon of petroleum. Of course, streets will have to be completed with safe and inviting provisions for bicyclists and pedestrians in order for such a shift to occur. Add a comprehensive system of public transit, including light rail, buses and free shuttles, all allowing bicycles onboard, and this shift from motorized travel could reach levels well over 50% as many cities are now enjoying around the world, including Manhattan, Copenhagen and Amsterdam. First we must open our eyes to the harm our fuel consumption is causing and then commit to reducing this consumption through more sustainable modes of travel.