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When Green goes Commercial: the new colonization of Africa

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More than a century after the last “scramble for Africa”, when European powers fought to colonise the continent, there is a new stampede into one of the world’s biggest areas of uncultivated terrain.

Last year, by one estimate, the government of Mozambique received bids from foreign investors to buy 110,000 square kilometres of land, more than an eighth of the entire country.

In neighbouring Tanzania, a Swedish company, is bidding for 50,000 hectares on the banks of a lake in the Rufiji province. And that is just one example.

Why? A rush from European companies to grow biofuel.(Full)

It begs to think if agrable land can not be used for better purposes. Using the same two examples: Tanzania has more than 40 percent of the population in chronic food-deficit regions where irregular rainfall causes recurring food shortages. Mozambique has 660,000 vulnerable people in need food assistance, and suffers from yearly flooding displacing hundreds of thousands of people.

More about biofuel on The Road.

Source: International Aid Workers Today
Picture courtesy Robert Maas/WFP

Written by Peter

May 31st, 2008 at 2:14 pm

When Green Goes Commercial: The Waste of Biofuel Production

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biofuel slush

Biofuel is all about blue skies and clean water, a world with less pollution. An ideal like so many, which turns foul when the commercial world gets hold of it. Once the chase for profit comes primary, even the cleanest biofuel turns out to be a culprit to nature.

When the Black Warrior River in Alabama got covered with an oily, fetid substance, the source of the pollution was traced to the Alabama Biodiesel Corporation plant, the state’s biodiesel plant, a refinery turning soybean oil into earth-friendly fuel. The spills, resembling Italian salad dressing, were 450 times higher than permit levels allow and are similar to others that have come from biofuel plants in the Midwest.

According to the National Biodiesel Board, a trade group, biodiesel is nontoxic, biodegradable and suitable for sensitive environments, but scientists say that position understates its potential environmental impact: As with most organic materials, oil and glycerin deplete the oxygen content of water very quickly, and that will suffocate fish and other organisms. And for birds, a vegetable oil spill is just as deadly as a crude oil spill.

Proof of the matter: in the summer of 2006, a Cargill biodiesel plant in Iowa Falls improperly disposed of 135,000 gallons of liquid oil and grease, which ran into a stream killing hundreds of fish.

Iowa leads the US’s biofuel production, with 42 ethanol and biodiesel refineries in production and 18 more plants under construction. The US biodiesel plants doubled in numbers over the span of a year: from 90 plants in 2006 to 160 plants in 2007. (Full)

Bird in the Exxon Valdez spillTo put things into perspective:
The 1989 Exxon Valdez oil tanker disaster off the coast of Alaska spilled 10.8 million gallons of crude oil. If one biodiesel plant – like the Iowa Falls plant – is able to dispose 135,000 gallons of waste, the current US biofuel plants have a “capacity” to release 21,600,000 gallons, having potentially at least twice the impact of the Exxon Valdez disaster. On a repetitive basis…
The potential impact: The Exxon Valdez spill covered 11,000 square miles (28,000 km²) of ocean, killing an estimate of 250,000-500,000 seabirds. Almost twenty years later, 26,000 gallons of crude oil remain in the sandy soil of the contaminated Alaska shoreline, declining at a rate of less than 4% per year. (Source)

Without proper legislation regulating the pollution caused by the biofuel plants, biofuel will do more harm than good.

More posts on The Road about biofuel, pollution, global warming and the environment.

Thanks to Elizabeth for the link.
Pictures courtesy Nelson Brooke (New York Times) and

Written by Peter

April 25th, 2008 at 2:04 pm

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The Global Food Crisis: A Perfect Storm

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price of foodThe Perfect Storm.

The world is heading towards a global food crisis. A number of factors contribute to what could be described as ‘A Perfect Storm':

The price of fuel increased dramatically in the past years, thus the cost of food production and transport increased dramatically, pushing the price of food higher than ever before.

Last year, for the first time in many years, the world’s food production went into a deficit, pushing up the price of the commodities, based on a supply and demand dynamic, even higher. The US, one of the world’s largest food grower, says the grain silos are as empty as in the 70-ies when the then-USSR bought most of the reserves.

Fast growing economies like China pulls people away from rural areas, causing massive urban expansion. A double spin: a smaller agricultural work force and a loss of farm land. China lost an average of 1.23 million hectares of farmland annually in the past years and is now looking for foreign farms because the nation can’t feed its 1.3 billion people.

Child in HondurasTo make matters worse: following the market economy, if there is an expected shortage of supply, and an vastly increased demand, the commodity is speculated upon in the international financial markets with one goal: profit. The futures market is a traditional tool for farmers to sell their harvests ahead of time. In a futures contract, quantities, prices and delivery dates are fixed, sometimes even before crops have been planted. They can buy futures contracts for wheat, for example, at a low price, betting that the price will go up. If the price of the grain rises by the agreed delivery date, they profit. Some experts now believe these investors have taken over the market, buying futures at unprecedented levels and driving up short-term prices. Since last August, this mechanism has led to a doubling in the price of rice. (More)

High prices, high demand, and a shortage in supply, has driven several government to limit or ban exports in staple food, either to protect its own population, or to ride on a speculation wave. That has led to a sharp reduction of rice available for trade in the global market. For example, in 2007, India and Vietnam, two of the world’s biggest rice exporters, reduced their rice shipments. Since then, Cambodia, Egypt, and Brazil have all halted rice exports. Many observers worry that Thailand, the world’s largest rice exporter, might jump on the bandwagon. This in its turn will increase the shortage on the international market, and have the prices potentially spiral out of control (More)

In several countries the positive average wealth trend is leading consumers to eat more meat products. Meat products need more vegetable food products to get the same nutritional level as vegetable products. Thus, a shift from human vegetable products to meat, leads to a higher demand of meat production, resulting in an increased demand for vegetable products, staple food for poorer countries.

child in SomaliaThe Most Vulnerable Pay the Highest Price…

The increased food prices hit the most vulnerable countries the hardest: where people used to survive on the ‘edge': Their income is no longer sufficient to feed themselves. International wheat prices in January 2008 were 83 percent higher than a year earlier. Protests turned riots in Bangladesh, Morocco, Mozambique, Venezuela and Burkina Faso last week, will be the first in a long row, showing people simply can not cope with the price increases.

Aid agencies, traditionally able to feed the most vulnerable, are scrambling too: as the fuel prices increased, so did the cost to transport food aid. Add to that the increased price of the food commodities, for the same aid-dollar, less food is being delivered. This will have donors ask questions about the effectiveness of their aid-dollar invested in food aid. There are signs donors are easing away from food aid. Real pessimists state that due to the high inflation (guess what, caused by high fuel prices and sharp price hikes on basic commodities such as food), will decrease the global aid – and not just food aid – significantly this year.

The Outlook is Not Good Either!

Because of the increased fuel prices, and the recent worldwide rally about global warming, the price of biofuel has gone up, having many farmers move away from food production, to a more lucrative biofuel production. The U.S. is now using more corn for the production of ethanol than the entire food crop in Canada.
This takes away a lot of resources (land, assets, production and distribution capacity) from the food production, not only in the West, but even in food deficit countries in Africa and Asia. Less food being produced once again pushes the prices even higher.

On top of record-breaking rice prices and corn, a warning is circulating amongst financial investors that this is just the beginning: a wheat fungus, known as Ug99, first discovered in Uganda in 1999, is spreading across the African continent and beyond. The fungus has the potential to wipe out a large part of the global wheat crop, prices of food commodities on the futures market spiked, causing panic buying. This in itself chases prices even higher. (Full)

Women fetching water in EritreaThe global warming has shifted weather patterns, causing more natural disasters: tropical cyclones causing vast flooding hit Central America, Africa and Asia harder than ever before. Winters are harsher and longer in Central and South Asia. Dry spells bring longer periods of droughts cause crops to dry up, and cattle to die.

True, the Kyoto Protocol tries to put an end to the global warming caused by the Greenhouse Effect. But there is a nasty tail to the story: those countries which emit too much carbon, can purchase “carbon credits” to offset their “carbon emission deficit”. A country can ‘create’ carbon credits, amongst others, by planting forests. Some say “Carbon Credits” will become a precious trading commodity (example), pushing countries to plant forests. In principle this is a good thing. The fear however is that, as the price of Carbon Credits will increase, more and more fertile agriculture land will be used to plant forests, once again decreasing the food production, further driving the price and world hunger up…

Aral: an ex-seaRoughly one tenth of the earth’s land surface is used to produce crops. Two tenths is grassland of varying degrees of productivity. Another two tenths is forest. The remaining half of the land is either desert, mountains, or covered with ice. The area in desert is expanding, largely at the expense of grassland and cropland. Deserts are advancing in Africa both north and south of the Sahara and throughout the Middle East, the Central Asian republics, and western and northern China. As an example: Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country, is losing 351,000 hectares of rangeland and cropland to desertification each year. (More)

And last but not least:

The world’s population is expected reach 9 billion by 2050, a growth, of almost 50% compared to today, concentrating mostly in the less developed countries.

More demand for food, less production, higher prices. A vicious circle, felt the hardest in developing countries. How can this cycle be broken?

Update Jan 26 (one day after posting this): Worldwide wheat prices rose by 25% in one day to an all-time record high

Pictures courtesy WFP (Evelyn Hockstein, R.Chalasani, Lou Dematteis) and National Geographic. Graph courtesy The Economist

Written by Peter

February 24th, 2008 at 3:49 pm

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Oil, Biofuel, World Hunger and Crimes Against Humanity.

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The world has 800 million people suffering from hunger. About 100-150 million of those receive regular food aid. Up to now, we could say “the world is producing enough food to feed everyone, so it is just a matter of re-dividing the food!”. This might no longer be true.

Click for full resolutionIn less than 10 years, the price for a barrel of crude oil went from less than US$20 to almost US$100. Soaring fossil fuel prices, and the push for non-fossil fuel -either out of environmental concerns, or to create less dependency on foreign oil- had many governments stimulate farmers to switch from food crops to biofuel crops. As if they really had to stimulate farmers: the growing demand made biofuel a real profitable cash crop.
So, more farmers growing biofuel, means less farmers growing food crops. More land in use for biofuel, less land for food crops.
The dilemma shows even more drastically in developing countries. As an example, the government of Swaziland announced this week that it would be allocating thousands of hectares to a private company to cultivate cassava for biofuel. Swaziland is a country where about 40 percent of the country’s one million people are facing acute food and water shortages. By placing the cassava project in drought-affected Lavumisa, in southeastern Shiselweni, where agriculture has been limping along for years, government is attracting criticism that it favours exports over food security at home. (read the full post).

While we are not at a stage where we declare a full fledged worldwide food shortage, we might not be far off. According to a report, co-written by the Organisation for Economic Development (OECD), even without demand for the “green” fuel, recent falls in output – due to drought and low stocks – will keep food prices high. The study predicts prices will rise by between 20% and 50% by 2016. (Full post). Good enough to have the Executive Director from the UN World Food Programme state: “(… food) price increases bring some benefits for farmers, but for the world’s most vulnerable, food is simply being priced our of their reach. And for WFP, it means that we
can procure far less food for the same amount of funding than just a few months ago.

The possible rampage caused by biofuels had Jean Ziegler, the UN Special Rapporteur on The Right to Food, state: “It is a crime against humanity to convert agriculturally productive soil into soil which produces foodstuffs that will be burned into [as] biofuel.” He called for a five-year moratorium on biofuel production because the conversion of maize, wheat and sugar into fuels was driving up the prices of food, land and water. (Full post)

For more reading, have a look at: “An Agricultural Crime Against Humanity
For updated humanitarian news, check out The Other World News
Crop picture courtesy SuperStock UK

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Written by Peter

November 6th, 2007 at 10:22 am

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