Thursday, April 17, 2008

one more reason to hate (subsidized) ethanol

Thanks to Congress and President Bush for their contribution to world unrest-- in supporting alternative energy corporations and driving up the cost of food across the world.

The global poor thank you from the hearts of their bottom-- and are responding by venting a little frustration.

From the WSJ, Bob Davis and Douglas Belkin on rioting in a number of countries over skyrocketing food prices...

Finance ministers gathered this weekend to grapple with the global financial crisis also struggled with a problem that has plagued the world periodically since before the time of the Pharaohs: food shortages.

Surging commodity prices have pushed up global food prices 83% in the past three years, according to the World Bank — putting huge stress on some of the world’s poorest nations. Even as the ministers met, Haiti’s Prime Minister Jacques Edouard Alexis was resigning after a week in which that tiny country’s capital was racked by rioting over higher prices for staples like rice and beans.

Rioting in response to soaring food prices recently has broken out in Egypt, Cameroon, Ivory Coast, Senegal and Ethiopia. In Pakistan and Thailand, army troops have been deployed to deter food theft from fields and warehouses. World Bank President Robert Zoellick warned in a recent speech that 33 countries are at risk of social upheaval because of rising food prices. Those could include Indonesia, Yemen, Ghana, Uzbekistan and the Philippines. In countries where buying food requires half to three-quarters of a poor person’s income, “there is no margin for survival,” he said.

Many policy makers at the weekend meetings of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank agreed that the problem is severe. Among other targets, they singled out U.S. policies pushing corn-based ethanol and other biofuels as deepening the woes.

“When millions of people are going hungry, it’s a crime against humanity that food should be diverted to biofuels,” said India’s finance minister, Palaniappan Chidambaram, in an interview. Turkey’s finance minister, Mehmet Simsek, said the use of food for biofuels is “appalling.”

James Connaughton, chairman of the White House’s council on environmental quality, said biofuels are only one contributor to rising food prices. Rising prices for energy and electricity also contribute, as does strong demand for food from big developing countries like China....

Aggravating the problem, in some countries food inflation has prompted a wave of protectionism. Countries usually impose trade barriers to imports to protect local industries and try to boost exports. But food-trade protectionism works the opposite way. Recently at least a dozen of 58 countries surveyed by the World Bank have reduced tariffs to food imports and erected barriers to exports in hopes of restraining food prices domestically and moving toward “self-sufficiency.”...

The global effect of export barriers, however, is to drive food prices even higher than they would be otherwise....Arvind Subramanian, a former senior IMF researcher, said that when countries adopt restrictive trade policies regarding food, “it becomes a bizarre kind of beggar-thy-neighbor. You’re not trying to sell more to the other guy; you’re trying to keep more in your own country.”...

During informal conversations and interviews, ministers mainly agreed that the U.S. policies on biofuels were especially harmful. U.S. ethanol is made from corn, which, ministers said, could be exported to feed the hungry, and benefited from tariffs that block Brazilian ethanol, which is produced much more efficiently from sugar cane.

We not only subsidize corn-based ethanol; we also place tariffs on Brazilian sugar-based ethanol.

The White House’s Mr. Connaughton said the U.S. is working on developing “second generation” biofuels that would use varieties of grass or agricultural wastes — not food — as source material. “That’s where we need to get to go,” he said.

The World Bank also has blamed the boom in biofuels for the rise in global food prices. That has put Mr. Zoellick in a ticklish position. Before taking his job at the World Bank, he was U.S. Trade Representative, and defended U.S. agricultural positions. In his Thursday news briefing, he didn’t mention the U.S. by name, but he praised sugar-based ethanol of the sort made in Brazil and questioned whether tariffs to block the fuel — such as the U.S. uses — make “economic sense.”


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