Wed, Sep 05, 2012 - Page 9 News List

The era of cheap food may be over

A spike in prices caused by poor harvests and rising demand is an apt moment for the West to reassess the wisdom of biofuels

By Larry Elliott  /  The Guardian, LONDON

This seems to be an apt moment for the West to reassess the wisdom of biofuels. The US ethanol distilleries used 120 million tonnes of maize last year, and there have already been calls from the UN Food and Agriculture Organization for the reduced maize crop to be used for human food.

There is also growing political opposition in the US to the country’s Renewable Fuel Standard, which mandates 57.5 billion liters of biofuels for this year, of which 50.7 billion liters can come from corn-based ethanol.

Unsurprisingly, livestock and poultry producers have been at the forefront of calls for the mandate to be suspended. The whole point about biofuels was that they were supposed to be a cost-free and a pain-free way for developed nations to show that they were responding to climate change. Rising crop yields meant there would be enough grain left over each year to turn into ethanol, and this would mean Western consumers could do their bit to save the planet without in any way compromising their living patterns. That now looks like a highly questionable assumption.

So what happens next? A lasting solution to the food question will require either action on the demand side, action on the supply side, or more likely both. The two obvious ways of limiting demand are to check population growth or to change dietary habits so that meat consumption is reduced. Neither is going to be easy to achieve.

On the supply side, the short-term response should be to find alternatives to biofuels. Longer term, the hope is that the pressures of a rising population, coupled with the incentives provided by rising food prices, lead to a second green revolution that will dramatically increase yields in those parts of the world — such as sub-Saharan Africa — where they are currently low. One of the few beneficial impacts of high commodity prices is that farmers will be able to afford to buy fertilizers for their land.

A recent study by Fidelity looked at some of the other recent developments to boost food supply, including precision agriculture — the use of high technology to apply the optimum amounts of seed, water and fertilizer for maximum efficiency — and a wider use of biotechnology and genetically modified crops. The report also highlighted what is known as “fast food” from animal cells, a process by which scientists “create artificial meat by delivering an electric charge to the animal muscle cells in a mixture of amino acids, which causes the cells to multiply.”

Given the predicted growth in consumption in developing countries, Fidelity says this could become an “environmentally acceptable option” as traditional meat becomes more expensive.

Whether this approach is “environmentally acceptable” remains to be seen. The Fidelity report does, however, clarify one point, namely that hard choices have to be made.

The current assumption seems to be that the world can have a rising population, ever-higher per capita meat consumption, devote less land to food production to help hit climate change targets and eschew the advances in science that might increase yields. This is the stuff of fantasy.

It is possible to have more intensive farming using the full range of technological breakthroughs in order to feed a bigger, meat-hungry population. Or it is possible to have lower yields from a more organic approach to feed a smaller population eating less meat. But not both.

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