Joachim von Braun: ‘Biofuel policies undermine the food situation of the poor in the world’

The emerging link between the world’s food and fuel economies means higher food prices – and more hunger for the poor – while creating some opportunities for some farmers. That’s acccording to Joachim von Braun of the International Food Policy Research Institute in Washington, DC.

Joachim von Braun: We currently take quite a bit of food out of the food system and put it over into the energy system where it ends up in our cars.

That’s Joachim von Braun, Director-General of the International Food Policy Research Institute, which tries to provide sustainable solutions based on science for ending global hunger. Von Braun served on a panel on food and fuel at the 2008 meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Boston.

Von Braun said that – in the developing world – the emerging link between the world’s food and fuel economies means higher food prices – and more hunger for the poor – while creating some opportunities for some farmers.

Joachim von Braun: Let’s not forget most of the energy consumption in the world is by rich people. Whereas food is really, absolutely critical for the poorer 2 billion people.

Von Braun’s computer models show that for every 1 percent increase in the price of food, the poor spend three-fourths of a percent less on food. And he said that biofuels – now made mostly from corn, sugar, and oilseeds – are driving food prices up.

Joachim von Braun: The current biofuel policy is a mess, in North America and the U.S. and in Europe. It undermines the food situation of the poor in the world. Whereas it is good that we have entered this sector of biofuels with the current technology, it’s not fair and it’s not productive. So scale up science and go slow on the expansion of this technology is my take-home message.

Von Braun added that he’s optimistic about the potential for new biofuel technologies and materials. They could boost the economies of developing countries, where much of the biomass will be grown.

Joachim von Braun: Once we have good technology, over the next ten years or so, I expect we will have a vibrant biofuels/ biomass sector, and that will be good for them. I find it important that these new ideas are also accessible to developing countries where the problems of both energy scarcity and food scarcity are most severe.

Von Braun based his remarks in part on a new report from the International Food Policy Research Institute, which was released December 3, 2007 at the annual general meeting of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR). The report – “The World Food Situation: New Driving Forces and Required Actions” – suggested that income growth, climate change, high energy prices, globalization, and urbanization are all converging to transform food production, markets, and consumption.

In a January article in Science Daily, von Braun was quoted as saying, “Food prices have been steadily decreasing since the Green Revolution, but the days of falling food prices may be over.

“Surging demand for feed, food, and fuel have recently led to drastic price increases, which are not likely to fall in the foreseeable future, due to low stocks and slow-growing supplies of agricultural outputs. Climate change will also have a negative impact on food production, compounding the challenge of meeting global food demand, and potentially exacerbating hunger and malnutrition among the world’s poorest people,” he said.

Our thanks to:

Joachim von Braun
Director-General
International Food Policy Research Institute
Washington, DC

Lindsay Patterson