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The cost of green tinkering is in famine and starvation


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The cost of green tinkering is in famine and starvation

Biofuels threaten food supplies, rainforest and climate - yet our leaders push them in the name of the environment

Simon Jenkins

The Guardian,

Wednesday April 16 2008

Farewell the age of reason, welcome the idiocracy. Only George Orwell could have invented - and named - the government's Renewable Transport Fuel Obligation (RTFO) that came into operation yesterday. It is the latest in a long line of measures intended to ease the conscience of the rich while keeping the poor miserable, in this case spectacularly so.

The consequences of the RTFO have been much trumpeted on these pages. It says enough that one car tank of bio petrol needs as much grain as it takes to feed an African for a year, or that a reported one-third of American grain production is now subsidised for conversion into biofuel. Jeremy Paxman pleaded the cause of this latest green wheeze on Monday's Newsnight, while the United Nations food expert, Jean Ziegler, screamed for it to stop: "Children are dying ... It is a crime."

The transport secretary, Ruth Kelly, said this week: "The government has consistently stressed that biofuels are only worth supporting if they deliver genuine environmental benefits." Yet she must know that, at present, the opposite is the case. Kelly pleaded that rescinding her policy might impede investment and "weaken our influence over the direction of EU policy". She did not mention biofuels' threat to rainforests, food self-sufficiency and global warming generally, through needing costly fertiliser and road transport. Nor did she mention the role in her decision of such lobbies as the British Association for Biofuels and Oils, and the National Farmers' Union.

The RTFO is the latest in a series of policies, proselytised by the green movement and then commandeered by commercial lobbies, which fit a pattern of irrationality worthy of Moral Re-Armament. Until recently, most greenery has seemed no more than a feelgood parlour game. Now it is getting serious.

I have tried to follow the global warming debate, and will admit that it has changed my mind on occasions. I was once a sceptic on nuclear power and genetically modified foods. Security made the former expensive, and ignorance made the latter suspect, vulnerable to such greed-motivated cul-de-sacs as the "terminator gene" (increasing output but for just one harvest). I could also see the virtue of harnessing wind and waves, and seeking new ways of using the sun's rays, either directly or through plant photosynthesis.

I am wiser now. As the major premise of the debate has shifted to global warming, so has the balance of argument. Wherever one stands on the spectrum of climate complacency versus alarm, burning carbon should be discouraged. But as public money starts to flow, so financial interest pollutes debate.

The British government has been persuaded by the wind turbine manufacturers to commit a third of its annual renewables subsidy to this uniquely inefficient energy source, advertising over hill and dale the cabinet's horror of making a decision on nuclear power. When this was put to Tony Blair by a Commons committee early in his second parliament, he replied jokily: "Would you want a nuclear plant in your constituency?" This appeared to be the sum total of his thinking on the topic.

Ten years after Blair came to office, the government still lacks the courage to make a decision, scared of what the anti-nuclear lobby might say. Such Christian Science greenery implies that the world would be better dead than with one split atom on its surface. Nuclear power may be expensive but as the former chief scientist, Sir David King, wrote recently, "the dangers of climate change are far worse".

The same applies to genetically modified foods. It is clear that modification, which is as old as botany, has side-effects. But increased food productivity is so patently a good thing that to ban GM from European imports, and thus from Africa, is beyond perverse. Increased Indian and Chinese consumption is sucking the world dry of grain at just the time when the GM ban is denying the developing world the swiftest path to higher productivity - and at a time when supply is curbed by biofuel substitution.

These various green policies have established a lethal pincer movement on world food production. As the Oxford economist Paul Collier points out in his book The Bottom Billion, Africa has been subjected by European governments to one form of "befuddled romanticism" after another, from campaigns against GM foods and low-wage produce to "save the peasant" farm reform. Africa, says Collier, has less commercial agriculture than it did at the end of the age of empire, half a century ago.

While antagonism to science merely impedes progress, antagonism to economics is regressive. American subsidies to ethanol fuel are not just causing "tortilla riots" but costing American taxpayers a staggering $5.5bn a year. Biofuel tankers are circling the globe, burning gasoline and chasing subsidies. They have joined carbon emissions certificates among the world's greatest trading scams.

If I have changed my mind, I am not sure the same applies to many greens. I have rarely encountered so much fanaticism and blind faith. Did those demanding fuel subsidies not realise that palm oil would wipe out rainforests and that ethanol from corn would use as much carbon as it saved? Did those pleading for wind farms really think they could ever substitute for nuclear power; or those wanting eco-towns not realise they would just add to car emissions? Did they not understand that, once the tap of public money is turned on, lobbyists will ensure it is never turned off - however harmful?

If all these fancy subsidies and market manipulations were withdrawn tomorrow and government action confined to energy-saving regulation, I am convinced the world would be a cheaper and a safer place, and the poor would not be threatened with starvation.

Just now, for reasons not all of which are "green", commodity prices are soaring. Leave them. Send food parcels to the starving, but let demand evoke supply and stop curbing trade. The marketplace is never perfect, but in this matter it could not be worse than government action. Playing these games has so far made a few people very rich at the cost of the taxpayer. Now the cost is in famine and starvation. This is no longer a game.



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