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UN Rights Expert Calls for Five-Year Freeze on Biofuel Production

Jean Ziegler, the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to food, has called for a five-year moratorium on the production of biofuels, saying that converting crops such as maize, wheat and sugar into fuels was driving up the prices of food, land and water.

Noting that the price of wheat has doubled in one year, Mr. Ziegler warned that if the prices of food crops continued to rise, the poorest countries will not be able to import enough food for their people.

It is a crime against humanity to convert agricultural productive soil into soil which produces food stuff that will be burned into biofuel.

—Jean Ziegler

While the arguments for biofuels is legitimate in terms of energy efficiency and combating climate change the effect of transforming food crops such as wheat and maize into agricultural fuel is “absolutely catastrophic” for hungry people and will negatively impact the realization of the right to food, he said.

In a press conference, Ziegler pointed to the use of non-food agricultural products that could grow in soil unfit for food production as an alternative source of biofuels, citing jatropha for biodiesel grown in arid land as an example. Following a moratorium, such projects could be evaluated and new fuels produced, he said.

Ziegler argued that biofuels will only lead to further hunger in a world where an estimated 854 million people—1 out of 6—already suffer from it; 100,000 people die from hunger or its immediate consequences every day; and every five seconds, a child dies from hunger.

All of this takes place, he added, in a world that already produces enough food to feed every child, woman and man and could feed 12 billion people, double the current world population, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

The position of Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food was established in 2000 by the former Human Rights Commission, as a human rights mechanism of the United Nations. Mr. Ziegler was appointed in September of that year.



The issue is not whether biofuels are perfect but whether they are less harmful to the planet than fossil fuel. Biofuels are good because they replace the even more destructive fossil fuels.

First generation biofuels are doing a good job of optimizing processes that will be needed for second generation biofuels as well such as the distillation processes and they create a market with adapted vehicles and a distribution system for biofuels. We need to go full speed ahead with grain ethanol and soybean biodiesel to pave the way for cellulosic ethanol, etc.

And we need to be prepared to lose nearly all of our foreign oil imports because of increasing risk of global war. Global war is more likely now because of religious extremism that could cause the Middle East to collapse or because of global warming that will make it increasingly difficult to cultivate land and produce food and fuel and this will lead to mass migration and war over resources.

It is a crime against this planet’s species including man to halt the development of alternatives to fossil fuels. Jean Ziegler got it totally wrong and his motives for doing so are either greed (a paid fossil fuel lobbyist) or simply stupidity.


Given that the world already produces enough food to feed 12 billion people, and given also that less than half of the world's food is presently used to create biofuels (see http://www.ers.usda.gov/Publications/FDS/2007/05May/FDS07D01/fds07D01.pdf for a discussion of corn and ethanol in the U.S.), the problem is not lack of supply. Artificially increasing supply by curbing industrial uses will not solve the problem, when absolute supply does not need to be increased. Simply put, there is enough food in the world to feed the entire population, and have plenty left over for industrial uses.

Why are people starving? My impression is: 1) Famines caused by civil war and violence, leading to the inability of food supplies to reach affected areas.
2) Poverty caused by above, such that people have to rely on unsteady handouts, instead of being able to induce supply by offering money.
3) Poverty and supply problems caused by rampant corruption and mismanagement, leading to problems even in ostensibly quiet areas.
4) All of the above leading to vulnerability to natural disasters, making imports in times of need difficult.
5) Etc.

Increasing the amount of corn sitting in silos in the midwest will not help remote villagers cut of by mudslides in the Andes, or help refugees who a fled Darfur due to the violence there. It will help the poor in places like Cameroon only slightly, and at great expense to the rest of the world, relative to a program of encouraging local reform to encourage some modicum of economic growth and prosperity.

Even at $5 / bushel, midwestern corn would be very cheap relative to the number of people it could sustain. Given anything better than a war-torn situation, a hungry person will be able to economically outcompete a thirsty SUV for his daily ration of corn or wheat, or (worst case) an aid agency will do so on his behalf if he is disabled or unable to work. And if he does find himself in a war-torn place, the fact that corn is trading a buck lower on the Chicago Merc isn't going to make much difference.

If Mr. Ziegler wants to argue that biofuels are increasing starvation, have him show that increasing grain prices are straining the budgets of food-aid agencies around the world, and that donor nations are unable or unwilling to step up for the difference. Then he at least has something coherent to say. Until then...

Green Destiny

If North and South Americans ate half as much beef as they currently do, there would be more food available for the poor and more biofuels available at a much lower cost.

I believe the ratio is 1 pound of beef to 22 pounds of grain.

The reduction of greenhouse gases (notably methane) would be great, we would be healthier and have stable food prices.


One of you is stupid and a lobbyist, and it ain't Jean Ziegler ! One of you is offensive and cynical beyond belief, and it ain't Jean Ziegler either !

1) If corn ethanol is so great why is it being subsidized by $6 billion per year ($36B now proposed) in the US alone ?

2) In fact, why are the subsidies per gallon of corn ethanol 90 - NINETY - times the subsidies for a
gallon of gasoline ? I am not for any subsidies.

3) 20% of U.S. corn is being converted into 5 billion gallons of ethanol and that represents
only 1% of U.S. gas use ! If 100% of U.S. corn, ie, ALL our corn were converted
into ethanol, this would represent only 7% of U.S. gas use. What are your plans to reduce
daily gas use by 93% ? Are you prepared to tell everyone that there will be no corn left
for food never mind whatever happens to you ?

4) Why are the enormous environmental impacts of corn ethanol production not being taken into
account ? What do you plan to do to a completely dead algae bloom sea the size of the state of New Jersey
off the coast of Texas ? Eat it yourself ?

5) Why do you keep ignoring that corn production causes more soil erosion than any other crop grown ?

6) Why do you consistently ignore that corn production uses more nitrogen fertilizer than
any other crop grown ?

7 Why do you ignore that nitrogen runoff from the corn fields is the prime cause of the
dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico ?

8) Why do you ignore that corn production uses more insecticides than any other crop
grown ?

9) Why do you blatantly ignore that corn production uses more herbicides than any other
crop grown ?

10) Why do you ignore that more than 1,700 gallons of water are required to produce 1 gallon of ethanol ?
Where do you think water comes from ? Because
you pee a lot ?

11) Why do you ignore that 6 to 12 gallons of sewage effluent are released per gallon of
corn ethanol produced ?

12) Why do you ignore that enormous quantities of carbon dioxide are produced, including
the large quantity of fossil energy used in production, large quantities of carbon
dioxide are released during fermentation, and when the soil is tilled organic matter
is exposed to air and oxidized ?

13) Why do you irresponsibly ignore that all the above speeds global warming instead of
reducing it ?

14)Why do you ignore that related to the total operation, including the burning of the
ethanol, the air, water & soil pollution problem are significant ?

15) Why do you ignore that several published scientific papers form UC Berkeley & Cornell
University (not pamphlets printed by the DOE, USDA or corn lobby pundits after taxpayers money)
show that one burns 1 gallon of gasoline equivalent in fossil fuels to produce 1 gallon of gasoline
equivalent as ethanol from corn ?

16) Why do you ignore that when this corn ethanol is burned as a gasoline additive or
fuel, its use amounts to burning the same amount of fuel twice to drive a car once ?

17) Why do you ignore that the fuel efficiency of those cars that burn corn ethanol is
effectively halved ?

18) Why do you ignore that the widespread
use of corn ethanol will cause manifold damage to air, surface water, soil and aquifers ?

19) Why do you ignore that the overall energy balance of corn conversion to ethanol
demonstrates that 65% of the input energy is lost during the conversion ?

20) Why do you ignore that carbon dioxide sequestration by corn is nullified when corn
ethanol is burned, and there will be additional carbon dioxide, nitrous oxides, and
sulfur oxide emissions from the fossil fuels used to produce the ethanol ?

21) What part of the above is not clear ?

22) Why do you ignore that the scenario for switchgrass, biodiesel & other biofuels is similar, if not worse when the total energy cycle is accounted for(switchgrass & biomass) ?

23) If you dont' understand 16) & 17) above, please mail me a $1,000 bill,
and I'll mail back $500 and a free explanation of the laws of thermodynamics
(with no guarantee that you will ever understand them).

24) If the exhaust smells sooooo good and you like it so much, why dont' you stick your head in there
for a good while and let us know what happens ? The research on bioexhaust biofumes hasn't been even started, the first results are
barely in, and - you did not guess - the carcinogens are there. Are you surprised or were you bush-sleeping during chemistry school ?

Green Destiny


"The creation of “pure fuels” or biofuels to protect the environment and reduce oil dependence was not a bad idea, but its negative impact on hunger would be catastrophic, Mr. Ziegler said. When tons of maize, wheat, beans and other food staples were converted to fuel, food prices rose and arable land was lost to food production. Last year, the price of wheat doubled and of maize quadrupled.

He said that, currently, 31 of 53 African States had to import food. As prices rose, the poorest countries could not pay, and the poorest people, generally living without access to subsistence farming, could not purchase more expensive foodstuffs. The amount of corn that needed to be burned to make enough ethanol to fill a single car’s fuel tank could fill a child for an entire year."


This was from Ziegler's U.N. press conference, linked to in the story above.

Harvey D


Should a higher priority be given to the production of second generation biofuels, specially the processes using non-food stocks from non-food production land areas?

Using high quality food stocks such as corn, wheat, sugar canes, palm oil etc to feed our 4000+ lbs fuel guzzlers, while millions are starving, is rather futile.

We all know that first generation agrofuel massive production has already put pressure on food price and will to so more aggressivly in 2008 and for years to come.

An oversized fuel guzzler, when driven about 24 000 Km/year, consumes up to 33 times the energy required to feed one human. Assuming that earth can produce enough food for 12 billion people, can it also produce enough biofuel for 2+ billion fuel guzzlers without severe affordable food restrictions for humans?

A more sustainable solution would be the accellerated electrification of our tranportation vehicles to reduce liquid fuel consumption by up to 5% per year. Agrofuel production should be from non-food feed stocks and limited to meet special applications only.

Harvey D

One big hand for Laura.



Ethanol from corn does NOT pave the way to cellulosic ethanol, such an inefficient process as corn ethanol should have NEVER being developped in large scale and should be stopped immediately. The only good thing it demonstrates is that it is NOT the way to go. By the way all the financial analysts have downgraded the stocks value of corn ethanol plant or companies because they start to understand that corn ethanol is just a scam.

Don't put your money in company that process corn ethanol, believe me you will get burned


This is not a choice between good and bad. This is a choice between bad (biofuels) and very bad (fossil fuel). Continued use of fossils will kill many more humans in the long-term than the current shift to biofuels will kill. And biofuels may just be temporary while we gain time to mature and convert to other alternatives such as battery electricity and hydrogen fuel cells. Yes at some point biofuels will raise prices for food and some people may die of hunger because of that. However, food prices will and are already rising faster mostly because of fossil fuel global warming that makes it more difficult to produce food because of increased drought at some places and increased flooding at other places. Plus there are many things that kill humans and that are caused only by a lack of will to do otherwise not because of the lack of resources. An example is people who smoke or take drugs. But a more prevalent thread is the billions of people who suffer from overconsumption of food. This is a BBC article on the issue that shows that 60% of all people in Africa eat more than is good for their health. Obesity is a bigger killer than starvation. Also don’t forget that people have died of hunger throughout the history of man and that it is a necessary mechanism to preserve our long-term ability to survive. It is not natural that everybody should survive all of the time no matter what. We would eventually degenerate if we tried such a policy and then this degeneration would kill us anyway. With fewer human on this planet there would also be more space for other species to survive. Higher food prices would also be good for the hundreds of millions of really poor people that produce food in the third world.

It is important to create a sustainable world. It is not important or even desirable to create a world where everybody survives. The latter is an utopian dream anyway.



==The issue is not whether biofuels are perfect but whether they are less harmful to the planet than fossil fuel.==

However BioFuels certainly ARE more harmful than the fossil fuels they replace.





====This is not a choice between good and bad. This is a choice between bad (biofuels) and very bad (fossil fuel).====

And what if the biofuels are actually worse than the fossil fuels they replace?



What's the connexion between your last post and the topics here. Are you trying to insinuate that Corn Ethanol is survival strategy ? are you kidding ? given it's notorious inefficiency it is precisely the opposite, quite suicidal indeed, better to shoot a bullet in our right feet than corn ethanol. Or maybe I misundertood, are you bringing up the fact that corn ethanol is a solution to obesity problem ? well welcome to america then. Survival strategy would means prioritising actions according to their effectivness : 1st most efficient vehicle, 2nd less driving, 3rd less obesity, 4th biofuels.
Anyway your philantropy is just disguting


Put it this way.

It's like asking for unmitigated coal-to-liquids right now.

For sometime in the vague and distant future to switch to coal-to-liquids with carbon sequestration.

All with the argument that we have to do the heavily polluting method now if we ever want to do the relatively less polluting method.


Harvey and others

Yes second generation biofuels should be given a priority. I believe it already is prioritized with a subsidy of about $1 per gallon of cellulosic ethanol and about 50 cents for corn ethanol. But we could do better by letting the subsidy depend even more on the environmental impact of each biofuels plant. For instance, the newest grain ethanol plants use far less water and energy than the oldest plants. Differentiate this subsidy so that old plants are replaced more quickly with new and more environmentally defendable plants.

It should also be noted that the current subsidy for ethanol is cheap compared to the combined direct and indirect subsidies for fossil fuels. Also increasing food prices has decreased farm subsidies by about the same as the cost of the new ethanol subsidy. So it makes good sense in many regards. Still biofuels are bad and much more can be done to make them better.

The best thing about biofuels is that they are important already (7 billion gallons in the US) and fairly easy to expand. EVs and PHEVs and full cell vehicles are not for sale yet and it will take many years before they make an important difference with regard to reducing CO2 emissions. We do not have time to wait that long and most people will be really angry if they wake up one morning and can’t buy fuel for their cars. This is very possible with looming peak oil and Middle East war.


Henrik, here's a question for you.

Which issue is more important:
1. Dealing with Global Warming
2. Dealing with Peak Oil

And why?



Your belief that corn ethanol can do anything agaisnt america foreign oil dependancy is both naive and dangerous. The process of ethanol requires tremendous amount of natural gaz that is more and more imported since america natural gaz production has already peaked in the mid 90s.



I think both issues are important but Global Warming is by far the most important issue because it is life threatening of epic proportions in our time and peak oil is not. After all we did quite well before we started to drill oil and we can do well again without it.

I do not favor a solution to Global Warming that implies that we say goodbye to cars and start to walk and bike. This would be a great step backward and I believe there are time and enough resources to make a transition away from fossils that see much more use of biofuels now and then a gradual increased use of EVs and PHEVs and finally fuel cell cars. Such a scenario will solve both of problems of peak oil and Global Warming. But we have to be realistic. At this website most are very pro green but most people aren’t and we still need their votes to change the world. By being too ambitious we may risk not to achieve anything because we scare away the majority.


In Brazil, ethanol has pushed down inflation, including food prices.

Ethanol and sugar there are now so cheap that many investors are delaying further projects.

So I think Mr Ziegler should have made a difference between biofuels that push down prices, and those that push them up.

Sugar prices are low, despite a massive conversion into ethanol (Brazil is the largest producer of both).

Ziegler should have said: "NOT investing in sugarcane ethanol is a crime against humanity", while investing in corn ethanol is one too.


Henrik: Many people are already angry when they wake up and can not afford to buy food for themselves and their families.



I am not naïve. I am fully aware that right now ethanol is produced with energy mostly from natural gas. The newest plants use less though. I want to stop all future use of oil, coal and natural gas and replace it with renewable energy. Differentiate the ethanol subsidy so that ethanol plants that uses renewable energy for their production get more money and in 5 years from now the entire US ethanol production is run on wind turbine energy. I think we agree on the basics.


For years, many countries have been complaining that EU and US export-subsidies kill the farmers in poorer countries, because they can not compete with our wheat prices.
Now that we are burning our over-produced corn ourselves (and consequently export less to poorer countries), they complain because we don't sell them our 'too cheap' wheat anymore.
It seems to me they always complain
I would like to know : what is it they actually want : high wheat prices or low wheat prices ?



Everything you say is true, but it has nothing to do with food-scarcity.



Ethanol from sugarcane is the only acceptable biofuel along with oil from palm tree (as long as you don't destroy the rain forest to grow it). Brazil is successul in biofuel but the problem right now is that a lot of countries want to repeat Brazil biofuel miracle forgetting that Brazzil have a best 30 millions cars when US have 200 millions cars, climate of brazil is tropical with both sun and water so that sugarcane can grow efficiently, Brazil has huge amount of land (and cheap labor). The situation of Brazil is very unique in that sense and it is dangerous to extrapolate brazil example to others cases.



Biofuels will do nothing to protect us from peak oil as long as peoples keep driving gaz guzzlers (which they don't need by the way). Promoting efficient cars like in europe is possible right now and without need of technological breathrough (like cellulosic ethanol which still need to be demonstrated at industrial scale, and we are probably still decades of this) The only problem is to break the "big three" and "oil" lobbies in this country and that what you should focus on rather than saying that biofuels is the solution to everything.


What people forget about Brazil:

Brazil consumes 4 barrels of oil per capita per year.
America consumes 27 barrels of oil per capita per year.
(11 of which are drilled domestically)

If Americans consumed as much oil as Brazilians.
Then we would produce nearly 3x as much oil as we consume. (!)


Also less than 10% of Brazil's transportation fuel actually comes from (10% by energy content, 13% by volume).


Given that more Americans die from the effect of over-eating, a better UN position would be a five year ban on procreation in the US.

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