For all their virtues, environmental sustainability and carbon footprint reduction count for precious little on an empty stomach, and with dire food shortages in many parts of the developing world once again raising the ugly specter of widespread famine and desolation, there is plenty of ammunition for the critics of biofuel development with which to chastise the world’s richest nations for having their priorities tragically wrong.
By converting millions of acres of farmland worldwide to the production of corn, sugar cane, palm oil and other crops used to produce ethanol and other biofuels under the guise of reducing fossil fuel consumption, the industrialized world is in effect paying for its past sins at the expense of millions of impoverished Africans and Asians facing sharply-rising prices for corn, rice and other key food staples.
An unacceptable price, it is put forth, for the relatively marginal and gradual cuts in carbon-dioxide emissions expected to materialize from lessening our over-reliance on fossil fuels.
It is a hard argument to reject, especially with the full weight of the United Nations’ moral authority behind it.
“Biofuels have become a flash point through which a wide range of social and environmental issues are currently being played out,” Regan Suzuki of the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization noted earlier this year at a regional forum on bioenergy in Bangkok, Thailand.
“There are clear comparative advantages for tropical and subtropical countries in growing biofuel feedstocks, but it is often these same countries in which resource and land rights of vulnerable groups and protected forests are weakest.”
Closer to home, the anti-biofuel sentiment has even spilled over onto the opinion page of The Globe and Mail, with the daily’s April 15, 2008, editorial anguishing over how, “The subsidizing of ethanol diverts farmers from growing food and thus feeding human beings. Once depicted as a nonpolluting alternative to the world’s dependence on fossil fuels, ethanol has turned out to be full of hot air.”
While it’s hard to deny the logic with which this argument is pursued, we humbly take issue with the very premise on which it is based.
Given all the collective resources of science and technology at our disposal, we submit that not only is it possible to have both—enough food to go around and a more eco-friendly way of distributing it to those in need—but that it is absolutely imperative to do so for the sake of sustaining the progress in environmental sustainability over the long haul. No one ever said it was going to be easy, cheap or flawless, but backing away from truly noble goals at the first sign of opposition is simply not in the cards for anyone hoping to see a cleaner, greener and more prosperous planet in our lifetime.