world food shortages, is it time to rethink ethanol use?

Africa’s food security is under threat; and this time it is not the usual threat caused by poor planning and the use of pre-modern agrarian technologies. This new threat is a result of the continuing rise in world food prices. Already the world food program (WFP) is predicting that this year it will be US $ 500 million short in trying to meet the needs of tens of millions worldwide who depend on it for food. These new developments are especially bad for Africa.

Millions of Africans depend on food aid. And this is not restricted to areas of conflict like Somalia, Sudan and Chad. Even relatively stable countries like Kenya and Zambia regularly need international donors to fill the gap left by ever-declining national agricultural output. As food prices go up and the international donors cut budgets, these countries will be in for even greater shortages.

Which brings me to the topic of this post. It is apparent that the world’s obsession with ethanol might be driving up food prices. This situation has been exacerbated by the rising oil prices due to Chinese and Indian demand and middle Eastern politics. The end result is that expensive grain (brought about by the fact that stomachs are competing with fuel tanks) has become even more expensive due to high transportation costs.

While controlling the price of oil might be difficult (middle eastern politics remain as muddy as ever), I believe the world can control how much food is diverted to the production of fuels. I understand the noble objective of saving the planet through the use of green energy. But I am totally against the idea that this can be done at the expense of developing nations and their millions of hungry people.

It is common knowledge that food deficiency causes stuntedness – both physical and mental – in children and that this persists into adulthood. This is what we shall be doing to humanity if we do not prioritise between endangered animals and humans.

Therefore, before we go all out on ethanol, we should make sure that humans are fed and healthy. For what is the use of saving the planet only to leave it to stunted offspring whom we failed to feed when they were young? Also, I think that WFP should aim at coordinating world food production so that nations like the US which perennially produce excess food can sell grain, at subsidized prices, to poorer, less advanced nations instead of destroying it to keep prices steady.

Most importantly, African agriculture should be pushed into the 21st century. Food production in most of Africa remains pre-10,000 BC. Farmers depend on rain even in places with giant perennial rivers that could be harnessed for iriigation. While appreciating the value of metis and fork knowledge, I believe that more science is needed to improve food production.  Simple scientific agriculture is not rocket science and the knowledge can be disseminated at a reasonable cost in order to improve agricultural output on the continent.

Food production was one of the main drivers of human civilisation. We are thus only as civilised as we are able to feed ourselves.