Biofuels, a threat to the South? Jean Ziegler calls for a moratorium

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Far beyond the simple left/right split, biofuels keep dividing politicians, economists, and NGOs. There are those for biofuels, lead by the odd Lula-Bush American-Brazilian alliance, and the coalition against them, which brings together many NGOs, worried about the consequences of this agricultural diversification both on deforestation (especially in Indonesia) and the right to food; Jean Ziegler is clearly on the opposing side.

Thursday, you are going to defend the possibility of a five-year moratorium on biofuels in front of the United Nations General Assembly. Why?

Because we must avoid a disaster. Let me give you a few figures from 2006 that are probably identical today: 100,000 people die of hunger or its immediate consequences every day; every five seconds, a child under ten dies of hunger; 854 million people throughout the world suffer from malnutrition. Knowing this, if Lula and Bush’s plan materializes, 26 million hectares of land currently used for food crops will be used for bioethanol and biofuel production. Starvation will increase drastically. To fill a 50-liter tank with bioethanol, 232 kilograms of corn have to be burned. A child in Zambia or Mexico can live for a whole year on that amount. For all of these reasons, I am asking that the United Nations ban the replacing of food crop cultivations by industrial biofuel cultivations for a period of five years.

Why five years?

Within that period, science will advance and it will be possible to use agricultural waste or non-usable parts of plants to make cars run. Mercedes already has an advanced program that consists of growing jatropha, a bush that grows on arid soil and does not compete with food plants.

So, you are not completely against biofuels…

I don’t want to be dogmatic; global warming is indeed a serious and legitimate problem. One of the major difficulties that countries are coping with is trying to prevent an increase of CO2 emissions in the atmosphere. The hundreds of millions of cars, trucks, and buses are polluting the air we breathe every day in an increasingly alarming manner.

To fight against climate deterioration, substituting green fuels for fossil fuels is not enough.

That’s true; producing bioethanol creates more issues than just the food safety of millions of people. It is an agricultural business that handles billions of dollars, reserved for big industrial groups. In the end, the energy might be cleaner but when the life cycle of biofuel is assessed, so much water and energy is required to produce it that the advantages are diminished. There are many other criticisms against biofuels, but I am concentrating on what is absolutely disastrous, threatening part of humanity, and already taking place.


The price of wheat worldwide doubled in a few months and that of corn in Mexico more than quadrupled in two years. The cost of food and land is increasing dramatically, and therefore the rate at which farmers are forced to move off their land is increasing. In Brazil, there is real opposition between the Landless Workers’ Movement and the Lula government, which is rather pathetic since Lula was one of the founders of the movement. The “landless” accuse him of not respecting the right to food, while he justifies the craze for biofuels by arguing that the country’s debt must be reduced by bringing money into the country. In addition, 38 of the 53 African countries must import food to offset their food deficit. Last year, Burkina Faso imported 230,000 tons of foodstuffs. If food prices continue to soar, as is the case today, these countries will no longer be able to afford basics goods. Millions of people will die, while Westerners drive around in their cars.

Last week, in Africa, Lula urged African countries to start producing biofuels. What are your thoughts on that?

I think that President Lula is making a serious strategic error.

Do you think you will be able to obtain the majority at the United Nations?

People are becoming conscious that hunger is not inevitable. In the Western world, civil society is mobilizing more and more against multinational corporations who dominate a large part of food production and distribution. People must know that an opposition to biofuels exists and that they must support it. Everyone is responsible for everything to everyone. During the length of this interview, dozens of children have died. Everyone is responsible in the face of this crime again humanity.

Laure NOUALHAT, , 22 october 2007

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