· Ban Ki-moon speaks out amid global food shortage
· 33 countries facing unrest as families go hungry
This article appeared in the Guardian on Saturday April 05 2008 on p16
of the International section. It was last updated at 00:05 on April 05 2008.
The UN secretary-general, Ban Ki-moon, has called for a comprehensive
review of the policy on biofuels as a crisis in global food prices -
partly caused by the increasing use of crops for energy generation -
threatens to trigger global instability.
"We need to be concerned about the possibility of taking land or
replacing arable land because of these biofuels," Ban told the Guardian
in Bucharest while attending this week's Nato summit. But he added:
"While I am very much conscious and aware of these problems, at the same
time you need to constantly look at having creative sources of energy,
including biofuels. Therefore, at this time, just criticising biofuel
may not be a good solution. I would urge we need to address these issues
in a comprehensive manner."
Climate change has been a priority for Ban since he took over from Kofi
Annan, and he has embraced the potential of biofuels, derived from
plants, as a long-term substitute for fossil fuels. But as food prices
have soared - driven by rising demand, high fuel costs, and climate
change - the cultivation of biofuels has come under fire for diverting
fertile land from food production.
Some of the loudest criticism has come from within UN food agencies,
which are struggling to keep up with commodity prices. Last month the
World Food Programme issued an emergency $500m appeal to donors to help
it meet its existing commitments to the world's hungry.
WFP officials say 33 countries in Asia and Africa face political
instability as the urban poor struggle to feed their families.
There are also mounting concerns over the benefits of biofuels to the
environment. They generally burn cleaner than fossil fuels, but fuels
such as grain-based ethanol are energy-intensive to produce, and
tropical rainforests have been cleared to produce palm oil for use as a
The role of biofuels is under review in Britain pending an inquiry into
the indirect impact of their cultivation by the Renewable Fuels Agency.
Against this backdrop some senior UN officials are pushing for a change
of policy, and attack Ban in private. "Ban is just out of touch," one
said. "He doesn't know what is really going on in our agencies."
The UN's own special rapporteur on the right to food, Jean Ziegler,
called biofuels "a crime against humanity", and called for a five-year
Ban rejected that proposal. "At this time I wouldn't make any definitive
judgment or definitive plans, in particular vis-à-vis these biofuels,"
he said. "I know there are some concerns raised by certain quarters
about biofuels. But biofuels are a renewable source of energy when we
are experiencing extreme difficulties [with] resources."
But Ban conceded that there was a food supply problem and said the
primary Millenium Development Goal of halving global hunger by 2015
looked harder to reach than ever. "This steeply rising food price is a
new phenomenon," he said. "We have only seven years left to meet the
target of 2015. This is very serious."
He said he was overseeing a multi-agency investigation of the issue
involving the UN Energy Programme, the UN Development Programme, the
Department of Economic and Social Affairs and the World Food Programme.
"They are all working on this issue," the secretary-general said.
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