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All Things Considered: New Revolution

New revolution


May 28, 2008
By Jim Knisley


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A couple of millennia ago Rome was at war with Carthage. The Romans kept winning the battles but couldn’t end the war.

A couple of millennia ago Rome was at war with Carthage. The Romans kept winning the battles but couldn’t end the war.

They settled on a simple, time-honoured tactic. After they won the next battle they destroyed the crops and salted the fields Carthage used to feed itself.

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They starved Carthage to ensure it would never rise again.

This column isn’t about Carthage or Rome and the long ago battles. It is, however, about food. Food is important. It is one of the big three with oxygen and water.
Without oxygen you die, without water you die, without food you riot, revolt, rebel, go to war and if those fail you die.

The French Revolution began because of the lack of food. The Russian Revolution began because of war-fuelled food shortages. Even in Britain democracy can trace itself to the aristocracy’s fear of “the mob” that had emerged because of food shortages.

In the past month we’ve seen a prime minister in Haiti toppled by food riots.

Governments in numerous countries are facing people in the street because of food prices and food shortages. They are worried, and they should be, because more governments over time have fallen because of food than for all ideologies combined.

Meanwhile in Canada and the United States politicians are fiddling while the world turns to flame.

Canada’s agriculture minister has thrown out simplistic numbers to support this country’s ethanol policy. Ethanol reduces CO2 and when Canada’s program is fully in place it will be the equivalent of taking one million cars off the road. This is impressive, except the CO2 reductions attributed to grain based ethanol are much in dispute in the scientific community with some studies showing no net CO2 reductions from grain-based ethanol. He also said, when fully implanted, grain to ethanol would only account for five per cent of Canadian acreage.

Five per cent sounds like a small number. If he had said millions of tonnes of grain, tens of millions of dollars in government subsidies and millions more in higher feed and food costs – which are the same as the five per cent cited – it wouldn’t have been defensible.

As for taking one million cars off the road, high fuel prices seem to be doing a pretty fair job of reducing driving and the shift to more fuel-efficient vehicles is having a bigger impact than ethanol.

Ontario’s premier also joined the fray defending his government’s ethanol subsidies and noted that while Ontario now imports ethanol that will change and the province will be an ethanol exporter in a few years.

What he didn’t say is that for Ontario to become an ethanol exporter it will either have to import massive volumes of high-priced corn and shatter the province’s livestock industry or plant virtually nothing but corn from the Great Lakes to the Canadian Shield year after year.

He also didn’t venture into the economics of this. Ontario, it appears, has a choice. It can import subsidized ethanol from the U.S., import low-cost ethanol from Brazil or spend hundreds of millions to subsidize the production of high-priced ethanol.

Internationally, proponents of ethanol argue that grain-based ethanol production is a small factor in current food shortages. They cite the growth of food consumption in China, India and elsewhere, drought in Australia, weather problems in Europe.
All of these are facts. They are also beyond control. Droughts and wet weather happen. We can, and have, developed more drought-resistant crops. We can, and have, developed better methods of irrigation.

But there are limits.

Droughts cut production, water is becoming less available in much of the world and fertilizers – which could make many of the poorest countries virtually self-sufficient in food – are unaffordable.

There is no instant solution. But North America and Europe could start by rolling back and eliminating their biofuel subsidies. This would result in freeing up corn for livestock feed and shifting acres to food grain production. It would even help rice production.

It’s little known that in the U.S. 600,000 acres that were traditionally devoted to rice production shifted to corn in the last three years.

When the ethanol boom began grain supplies were bountiful and turning it to fuel seemed a sensible solution for governments tired of directly subsidizing unprofitable production.

The situation has changed. The only sensible thing to do when a situation changes is to change what you are doing but our governments seem not to have recognized this.

They have a choice: kick the alcohol addiction or watch riots spread and people go hungry. The time for weak, bleak rationalizations is over.


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