A UN expert yesterday called the growing practice of turning crops into biofuel "a crime against humanity" because it has created food shortages and sent food prices soaring, leaving millions of poor people hungry.
Jean Ziegler, who has been the UN's independent expert on the right to food since the position was established in 2000, called for a five-year moratorium on biofuel production to halt the growing "catastrophe" for poor people.
Scientific research is progressing very quickly, he said, "and in five years it will be possible to make biofuel and biodiesel from agricultural waste" — not from wheat, maize, sugar cane and other food crops.
Using biofuels instead of gasoline in cars is generally considered to cut carbon dioxide emissions, which cause global warming, although some scientists say greenhouse gases released during the production of biofuel crops can offset those gains.
The use of crops for biofuel has become especially predominant in Brazil and the United States.
In March 2007, US President George W. Bush and President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva of Brazil signed an agreement committing their countries to increased ethanol production. Bush and Silva said increasing alternative fuel use will lead to more jobs, a cleaner environment and greater independence from the whims of the oil market.
Ziegler called their motives legitimate — "it's not cynicism" — but he said "the effect of transforming hundreds and hundreds of thousands of tons of maize, of wheat, of beans, of palm oil, into agricultural fuel is absolutely catastrophic for the hungry people."
The world price of wheat doubled in one year and the price of maize quadrupled, leaving poor countries, especially in Africa, unable to pay for the imported food they need to feed their people — and the poor people in those countries unable to pay the soaring prices for food, he said.
"So it's a crime against humanity — it's a crime against humanity to convert agricultural productive soil into soil ... which will be burned into biofuel," Ziegler told a news conference. "What has to be stopped is ... the growing catastrophe of the massacre (by) hunger in the world."
Benjamin Chang, a spokesman for the US Mission to the United Nations, said: "It's clear we have a commitment to the development of biofuels. It's also clear that we are committed to combating poverty and supporting economic development around the world as the leading contributor of overseas development assistance in the world."
As an example, Ziegler said, it takes 232 kilograms of maize to produce 50 liters of ethanol. That maize could feed a child in Zambia or Mexico, where maize is the staple crop, for a year, he said.
Ziegler, a sociology professor at the University of Geneva and at the University of the Sorbonne in Paris, presented a report Thursday to the UN General Assembly's human rights committee in which he said a five-year moratorium on current biofuel production methods would allow time for new technologies to reduce the competition between food and fuel.
Researchers are looking at crop residues including maize cobs, sugar cane bagasse, rice husks and banana leaves, he said. "The cultivation of Jatropha Curcas, a shrub that produces large oil-bearing seeds, appears to offer a good solution as it can be grown in arid lands that are not normally suitable for food crops."
Mercedes already has a pilot tree-planting project in northern India's arid state of Rajasthan, and the oil-bearing seeds are being used for biodiesel for their new type of cars, Ziegler said.
On a broader level, Ziegler said, the right to food "is gravely violated in many, many parts of the world and the situation becomes worse and worse."
The UN goal of reducing extreme poverty by half by 2015 "will never be met because hunger in the world goes up instead of coming down," he said.
According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization's latest report, 100,000 people are dying from hunger or its immediate consequences every day, 854 million people are chronically undernourished, and every four seconds somebody loses their eyesight because of the lack of vitamins, he said.
Yet, Ziegler said, the same FAO report says 12 billion people — almost double the current world population — could be normally nourished, so those dying of hunger are being killed as a result of man-made causes.
He called on the United Nations to create a new human right protecting refugees fleeing hunger which, at a minimum, would prevent them from being sent back to a country where their lives would be threatened because of the lack of food.
Currently, he said, thousands of African refugees trying to get to Europe to save their lives are met by battleships and patrol boats and sent home "to situations of hunger that threaten their lives."
"The cynicism of the European Community is terrible," Ziegler said. "Their only response is military."
He told the committee "the increasing criminalization of migration will simply lead to further violations of the right to life and the right to food."