Must the poor go hungry just so the rich can drive?
Sports stars like Mo Farah at No 10 will not change a simple fact: people are starving because of the west’s thirst for biofuels
I don’t blame Mo Farah, Pele and Haile Gebrselassie, who lined up, all hugs and smiles, outside Downing Street for a photocall at the prime minister’s hunger summit. Perhaps they were unaware of the way in which they were being used to promote David Cameron’s corporate and paternalistic approach to overseas aid. Perhaps they were also unaware of the crime against humanity over which he presides. Perhaps Cameron himself is unaware of it.
You should by now have heard about the famine developing in the Sahel region of west Africa. Poor harvests and high food prices threaten the lives of some 18 million people. The global price of food is likely to rise still further, as a result of low crop yields in the United States, caused by the worst drought in 50 years. World cereal prices, in response to this disaster, climbed 17% last month.
We have been cautious about attributing such events to climate change: perhaps too cautious. A new paper by James Hansen, head of Nasa’sGoddard Institute for Space Studies, shows that there has been a sharp increase in the frequency of extremely hot summers. Between 1951 and 1980 these events affected between 0.1 and 0.2% of the world’s land surface each year. Now, on average, they affect 10%. Hansen explains that “the odds that natural variability created these extremes are minuscule, vanishingly small”. Both the droughts in the Sahel and the US crop failures are likely to be the result of climate change.
But this is not the only sense in which the rich world’s use of fuel is causing the poor to starve. In the United Kingdom, in the rest of the European Union and in the United States, governments have chosen to deploy a cure as bad as the disease. Despite overwhelming evidence of the harm their policy is causing, none of them will change course.
Biofuels are the means by which governments in the rich world avoid hard choices. Rather than raise fuel economy standards as far as technology allows, rather than promoting a shift from driving to public transport, walking and cycling, rather than insisting on better town planning to reduce the need to travel, they have chosen to exchange our wild overconsumption of petroleum for the wild overconsumption of fuel made from crops. No one has to drive less or make a better car: everything remains the same except the source of fuel. The result is a competition between the world’s richest and poorest consumers, a contest between overconsumption and survival.
There was never any doubt about which side would win.
I’ve been banging on about this since 2004, and everything I warned of then has happened. The US and the European Union have both set targets and created generous financial incentives for the use of biofuels. The results have been a disaster for people and the planet.
Already, 40% of US corn (maize) production is used to feed cars. The proportion will rise this year as a result of the smaller harvest.
Though the market for biodiesel is largely confined to the European Union, it has already captured 7% of the world’s output of vegetable oil. The European commission admits that its target (10% of transport fuels by 2020) will raise world cereal prices by between 3% and 6%. Oxfam estimates that with every 1% increase in the price of food, another 16 million people go hungry.
By 2021, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development says that 14% of the world’s maize and other coarse grains, 16% of its vegetable oil and 34% of its sugarcane will be used to make people in the gas-guzzling nations feel better about themselves. The demand for biofuel will be met, it reports, partly through an increase in production; partly through a “reduction in human consumption”. The poor will starve so that the rich can drive.
The rich world’s demand for biofuels is already causing a global land grab. ActionAid estimates that European companies have now seized 5m hectares of farmland – an area the size of Denmark – in developing countries for industrial biofuel production. Small farmers, growing food for themselves and local markets, have been thrown off their land and destituted. Tropical forests, savannahs and grasslands have been cleared to plant what the industry still calls “green fuels”.
When the impacts of land clearance and the use of nitrogen fertilisers are taken into account, biofuels produce more greenhouse gases than fossil fuels do. The UK, which claims that half the biofuel sold here meets its sustainability criteria, solves this problem by excluding the greenhouse gas emissions caused by changes in land use. Its sustainability criteria are, as a result, worthless.
Even second-generation biofuels, made from crop wastes or wood, are an environmental disaster, either extending the cultivated area or removing the straw and stovers which protect the soil from erosion and keep carbon and nutrients in the ground. The combination of first- and second-generation biofuels – encouraging farmers to plough up grasslands and to leave the soil bare – and hot summers could create the perfect conditions for a new dust bowl.
Our government knows all this. One of its own studies shows that if the European Union stopped producing biofuels, the amount of vegetable oils it exported to world markets would rise by 20% and the amount of wheat by 33%, reducing world prices.
Preparing for the prime minister’s hunger summit on Sunday, the international development department argued that, with a rising population, “the food production system will need to be radically overhauled, not just to produce more food but to produce it sustainably and fairly to ensure that the poorest people have the access to food that they need”. But another government department – transport – boasts on its website that, thanks to its policies, drivers in this country have now used 4.4bn litres of biofuel.
Of this 30% was produced from recycled cooking oil. The rest consists of 3bn litres of refined energy snatched from the mouths of the people that Cameron claims to be helping.
Some of those to whom the government is now extending its “nutrition interventions” may have been starved by its own policies. In this and other ways, David Cameron, with the unwitting support of various sporting heroes, is offering charity, not justice. And that is no basis for liberating the poor.
• For a fully referenced version of this article, visit George Monbiot’s website
Briefly but gloriously, London 2012 bridged the divide
From Kenya’s 800m world record to Uganda’s first gold since 1972, it was an Olympics with the power to alter perceptions
There is normally a profound disconnect between the worlds of elite sport and international development. But the past fortnight has been far from normal. For once, the Games have lived up to the rhetorical idealism synonymous with the Olympic movement: gloriously, if fleetingly, there has been an almost tangible sense of the divide between the developed and developing worlds being bridged.
We felt it when David Rudisha, of Kenya, shattered his own world record to claim an electrifying win in the men’s 800m final. We felt it in the performances of Botswanan teenager Nijel Amos and Kenya’s Timothy Kitum, who respectively claimed silver (Botswana’s first Olympic medal of any colour) and bronze in the same race. And we felt it in the exhilarating display of talent paraded by Burundi’s Francine Niyonsaba, who – fresh from winning the African Championships in only the third competitive race of her life – set a new national record in qualifying for the women’s 800m final.
Such moments matter. They demonstrate sport’s power not only to transfix, but to transcend negative stereotypes and transform perceptions. To look atKenya in development terms can prompt a focus on poverty, unemployment, political unrest, food security issues. Contemplate the country through the prism of Rudisha’s performance – one of the great moments of this or any other Olympics – and you can only doff your cap to one of the world’s major distance running powers.
Ruby Prakta, from Iwacu, a news website, said of Niyonsaba’s progress: “It brings pride to Burundians, wherever they are, to see the tricoloured flag of Burundi waving in the world’s business capital. Some people have learned that Burundi exists, and others have said: ‘Finally, Burundi is over its fratricidal quarrels’.” Some 81% of the population in Burundi lives below the poverty line, and the country lies third from bottom of the human development index.
We also witnessed a narrowing of the gap between rich and poor countries in less obvious ways. Niger rower Hamadou Djibo Issaka might have finished last in the men’s singles sculls, but you would never have guessed it from the rapturous applause he received from the predominantly British crowd at Eton Dorney. No back-story was more powerful than that of Adrien Niyonshuti, the mountain biker who lost most of his family in the 1994 Rwandan genocide . And Stephen Kiprotich’s victory in the men’s marathonensured Uganda’s national anthem featured at Sunday’s closing ceremony, and was therefore heard around the world – a rarity for a country whose only previous Olympic gold was in 1972.
It was likewise a good Olympics for gender equality. Neither the hijab controversy that threatened Wojdan Shaherkani’s participation in the judo event, nor the brevity of her stay once she got there, could overshadow the potential significance of her becoming the first Saudi Arabian woman to compete at the Olympics. Ditto Sarah Attar, the 800m runner who became the country’s first female track athlete. Given the cultural constraints faced by Saudi women, not least when it comes to participating in sport, it was heartening to see a derogatory Arabic Twitter hashtag successfully turned around by activists to convey a more positive message. With Qatar andBrunei likewise breaking with historical precedent by fielding female athletes, it was the first Games where women have featured for every participating country.
The caveat, as always with the Olympics, is what will change in the longer term.
The efforts of Shaherkani and Attar will not alone have a transformative effect on gender equality in Saudi Arabia; only fundamental social, political and cultural change can achieve that. Issaka’s moment in the spotlight is not going to solve Niger’s food crisis, just as Niyonsaba’s burgeoning talent cannot address the issues of poverty, conflict and displacement facingBurundi. Great Britain’s double gold medallist Mo Farah deserves huge credit for urging action on child malnutrition, but a long, hard road lies ahead (not that he, of all people, will be daunted).
That’s not to say sport can’t effect positive long-term change. It’s no coincidence that Rudisha’s dash into the history books coincided with an announcement by Kenya’s prime minister, Raila Odinga, that the country will bid for the 2024 Games. “Kenya had the confidence as far back as 1968 to consider bidding for the Olympics,” said Odinga . “That is the spirit we need to recapture. We need to bring back that confidence and say we can do it. It is necessary to take a look back at where we are coming from and where we want to go, because we have been drifting for too long.”
A successful bid would mark a significant coup for Kenya, making it the first African country to host the Games. At the same time, staging a major sporting event is hardly a development panacea. South Africa perhaps discovered as much in staging the 2010 football World Cup, and stories are already emerging from Rio de Janeiro, host city of the 2014 tournament and the next Olympics, of poor communities being forced to make way for improved infrastructure. Similarly, while no one would deny the 2008 Beijing Olympics were a resounding success as a sporting spectacle, there is little evidence of a development legacy in areas such as social infrastructure,progress on human rights or environmental change.
Nonetheless, if Nairobi were to host a successful 2024 Games – if the developing world was showcased at first hand, rather than being mediated through the displays of a clutch of athletes performing in a developed host city – attitudes might be altered in a more lasting way.
Talk point: what role can sport play in development?
Sport can be a useful tool for development: we’ve all heard as much. But how can it be harnessed – and should it be seen simply as a means to an end? Contribute to this month’s Global development podcast and let us know what you think
Can we use sport as a development tool – and, if so, how? How can the revenues and energy of major sporting events be harnessed to help achieve development objectives? Or is it better to consider sport a development end in itself? In a month of global sporting celebrations, we’ll examine these issues in our Global development podcast and would appreciate your comments to help shape the discussion.
Many groups say sport has great potential as a vehicle to raise awareness and spread messages in areas such as health and education. Others point to cases where sport has played a role in peace and reconciliation. In Sierra Leone, for instance, a programme called Fambul Tok – Krio for “family talk” – has incorporated football into its efforts to help reconcile divided communities after the civil war. In Fiji, rugby is used as a tool to help alter the perception of people living with disabilities. And, as wereported in April, the Street Child World Cup initiative aims to give marginalised and frequently criminalised street kids greater protection and better opportunities.
Of course, sport is also big business, with the potential to generate huge revenues from ticketing, merchandising, screening rights and tourism. Not to mention great wealth for individual athletes, some of whom go on to become major philanthropists and development advocates.
Current and former English Premier League footballers Craig Bellamy,Didier Drogba and Nwankwo Kanu all have Africa-based charitable foundations championing development causes. John Smit, the captain of South Africa’s rugby team, is one of several high-profile sportsmen to take a stand on HIV prevention and gender violence. And the UN’s list of goodwill ambassadors, which reads like a who’s who of world sport, includes not only former world heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali but also stellar names from the worlds of athletics (Carl Lewis, Sergey Bubka), football (Zinédine Zidane, David Beckham, Paolo Maldini) and cricket (Sachin Tendulkar). What role can they play in the development process?
Some argue that sport is not simply a development tool – a means to other ends – but should rather be seen as a development goal in its own right. Children, for example, need opportunities to play sport because having recreational time is a fundamental part of growing up.
Let us know what you think. What questions should we be asking about sport and development? Post your thoughts, questions and suggestions below. We’re recording the podcast on Tuesday, and, as always, we’ll aim to incorporate a selection of your comments into the discussion.
If you have any problems posting, or if you would prefer to comment anonymously, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll add your thoughts.
UK hunger summit’s focus on global malnutrition receives cautious welcome
Campaigners impressed by level of substance to emerge from meeting, but some want more fundamental change
- guardian.co.uk, Monday 13 August 2012 16.02 BST
The UK prime minister, David Cameron, has committed himself to reducing child malnutrition rates in poor countries as Britain takes over the presidency of the G8 group of leading industrialised countries next year.
A “hunger summit” at No 10 Downing Street on Sunday announced measures to reduce the number of children left stunted by malnourishment worldwide by as much as 25 million by 2016, when Rio de Janeiro stages the next Olympics. The intitiative will contribute to a UN target to reduce the number of stunted children by 70 million by 2025.
Malnutrition is an underlying cause of more than a third of children’s deaths – 2.6 million a year. But it is not always recognised or recorded on death certificates, which is in part why it has not been effectively addressed.
Britain said it would back research into creating drought-resistant and vitamin-enriched crops that could help feed 45 million people for a year in Asia and Africa, as well supporting the development of nutrition-rich seeds and tubers to benefit 3 million people in African and India. The private sector will play a role, with companies such as Unilever, Syngenta and GSK working to find ways to make nutritious food available to poor families at affordable prices.
It is estimated that long-term exposure to a poor and inadequate diet and repeated infections have left 170 million children in the world suffering from stunting, a condition that stops children’s bodies from growing and developing properly.
The hunger summit, co-hosted by Michel Temer, Brazil’s vice-president, and attended by Mo Farah, the double Olympic champion, was born out of the G8 summit in the US in May, when President Barack Obama announced a food security initiative with African leaders and the private sector. British NGOs, particularly One and Save the Children, wanted to maintain the momentum on tackling hunger and particularly nutrition. Given that Britain takes over the G8 presidency next year, while Ireland assumes the presidency of the EU, it was felt that David Cameron and Irish Taoiseach Enda Kenny, who attended the hunger summit, would be ideally placed to keep hunger on the international agenda.
Cameron has also been appointed to a UN high-level panel to consider what should follow the millennium development goals (MDGs), which are set to expire in 2015, while Andrew Mitchell, the international development secretary, is on another high-level panel on development effectiveness.
“Cameron has a real opportunity to shape the agenda by 2015,” said Molly Kinder, One’s director for agriculture and Europe policy.
Kinder said she was impressed by the level of substance that came out of the hunger summit, and particularly by the EU’s specific pledge to take responsibility for reducing the number of stunted children in the world by 7 million by 2025.
“The UK is very results-focused, the EU less so, [so] it signals a strong commitment from the EU,” she said.
Kinder added that India’s decision to double its budget for improving the health and nutrition of 100 million women and children was also encouraging.
“India is the elephant in the room, a low-level performer in nutrition despite its strong economic growth,” she said.
Other campaigners welcomed the high-level focus on global hunger, but said more fundamental change was needed. War on Want pointed to evidence from its recent food sovereignty report that sustainable farming under the alternative framework of agroecology – which minimises external inputs, such as fertilisers – has proved its worth in tackling both hunger and environmental degradation.
“The real issue is that the global food system is set up to allow for the maximum control of big agricultural companies like Cargill,” said executive director John Hilary. “As long as enormous control of the food system lies within the hands of companies, power is removed from small farmers.”
Hilary argued that China and Brazil made strides in reducing hunger and helped move the world towards the MDGs by returning power to smallholder farmers.
“Where it’s happened, we’ve seen massive gains,” he said. “In Brazil, hunger was reduced following a huge increase in family farming and the resettlement of the homeless on land. China in the 1980s built a post-Mao settlement by returning power to small farmers and rural communities.”
Sam Dryden, the Gates Foundation’s head of agriculture, who attended the hunger summit, acknowledged the pressure of large corporations – as well as agricultural subsidies in the west – in squeezing out smallholder farmers in Africa.
“If you let them [large corporations] dictate what gets grown, that can happen,” he said. “Agriculture is a local experience, eating is a local experience. It is important that African countries develop their own systems and that smallholder farmers grow the crops they want to grow.”
Action must be taken now to prevent an ever-worsening cycle of hunger
As the UK hunger summit nears, the Africa Progress Panel calls for policies that support Africa’s farmers and protect its land
David Cameron’s hunger summit focuses on an issue of critical importance for Africa. The crises in the Sahel and the Horn of Africa mean more than 200 million people in sub-Saharan Africa are food insecure. Hunger, combined with a powerful mix of rapidly growing populations, rising food prices, and climate change, is cause for serious concern. To prevent an ever-worsening cycle of hunger, the Africa Progress Panel calls on African governments and international agencies to adopt a number of policies.
First, put Africa’s smallholder farmers and agricultural productivity at the centre of national food security and nutrition strategies. Using minimal energy for heating, transport and production, smallholders are among the world’s smallest contributors to climate change. Yet, as the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) found, they are paying the highest price for other people’s emissions.
Climate change is likely to hit food security harder in sub-Saharan Africa than any other region. Smallholder farmers face the prospect of increased drought, unpredictable rainfall, water shortages and desertification. These farmers need support with water management and irrigation, drought-resistant seed strains, soil conservation, and climate-resilient cropping to manage the mounting challenge of climate change.
Second, create stronger social safety nets and focus more attention on the issue of inequality. When food prices rocket or harvests are poor, social protection programmes can help rural producers cope. Initiatives such asEthiopia’s productive safety net programme assist farmers to keep their children in school during difficult times without compromising their long-term productivity.
Africa may have some of the world’s fastest-growing economies, but such headlines conceal major inequalities. We want to see donor and public spending target disadvantaged and marginalised populations.
Third, create greater protection for Africans from increasingly common “land grabs”. Of an estimated 2,000 land deals around the world between 2000 and 2011, Africa accounted for 948 acquisitions covering 124m hectares (306m acres), an area larger than France, Germany and the UK combined. These acquisitions were initially triggered by sharp rises in food prices in 2007. Other factors include increases in the price of oil and growing European demand for biofuels.
For Africans, the benefits of such large-scale land acquisitions can be questionable. Foreign investments have resulted in the eviction of many thousands of smallholder farmers from their land, sometimes by force, and typically with minimal compensation. In western Uganda, for example, 20,000 farmers were allegedly evicted, with no compensation, to make way for pine and eucalyptus plantations.
We do not question Africa’s need for foreign investment. But Africa cannot afford policies that transfer land to investors motivated primarily by profit, to feed populations in other countries or to supply biofuel markets across the globe.
Fourth, world leaders need to intensify their commitment to reducing hunger. The G8 agreement on food security and nutrition was a welcome commitment to tackling hunger, but much more needs to be done. Undernutrition still contributes to a third of all child deaths each year. Poor nutrition is undermining the development of many millions more and, with them, the development of societies and economies.
• Caroline Kende-Robb is executive director of the Africa Progress Panel
Global Hunger Summit Held in London
As the Olympic Games wrapped up on Sunday, a global hunger summit was held in London. The summit was attended by world leaders, as well as several Olympic athletes. British Prime Minister David Cameron hosted the meeting.
Prime Minister David Cameron: “The figures are truly shocking. One in three child deaths are linked to malnutrition, and 171 million children are so malnourished by the age of two that they can never physically recover. That is the terrible thing about this, what we would call a ‘silent crisis,’ because it harms for life.”