A few weeks ago on The Jew and the Carrot, I wondered if biofuels were actually the green mitzvah they were touted to be — an ethical alternative to greenhouse gas-belching fossil fuels — or if they were a mitzvah ha’ba b’aveirah, a “mitzvah” coming out of a sin, the sin of unchecked environmental havoc due to biofuels’ “non-toxic” by-products.
The new waves of global food riots, though, have made me much more concerned, and much more wary of entrenching myself in the pro-biofuel camp.
The 2007 “tortilla riots” in Mexico, where some 75,000 Mexicans protested the rising cost of tortillas in Mexico City, followed an astronomical increase in the price of corn — some 400% in a three month span. The cause for the price hike lay north of the border, farmers planting “industrial corn” to be processed into ethanol, replacing the lower-priced food staple relied upon by millions of Mexicans.
Cooking oil is also turning into the world’s “other” oil problem. In Mumbai, India, residents are forced “to ration every drop” of cooking oil, with the price of palm oil having risen 70 percent in the past year. One store in Chongqing, China saw three people killed in a stampede when it offered a “limited promotion” on cooking oil. Half of the increase in worldwide demand for vegetable oils, the New York Times says, is because of biofuel demand.

US farmers’ dedicating 20% of the American corn crop to ethanol-producing corn resulted in the price of the staple doubling in a year on the world market. And considering the EU goal of replacing 10% of all its gasoline with biofuels, the situation may get worse before it gets better. As of December 2007, 37 countries faced food price crises, and food riots claimed two lives in Egypt and, along with fuel prices, dozens of lives in Cameroon. 10,000 textile workers protested food prices this weekend in Bangladesh, and eighteen people were injured over the course of the week-long food riots in Haiti, which would culminate in the death of a UN peacekeeper and the ousting of the Prime Minister Jacques-Édouard Alexis.
Major rioting is occurring virtually every month somewhere in the world by an increasing populace unable to afford its staple foods, and increasingly, financial and environmental leaders are pointing the finger at Western economies’ love affair with biofuels as the reason:

“Turning food into fuel for cars is a major mistake on many fronts,” said Janet Larsen, director of research at the Earth Policy Institute, an environmental group based in Washington.
Indian Finance Minister P. Chidambaram last week criticized major grain producing nations of the world for diverting farm products to produce biofuels, saying this had led to soaring global food prices globally.
“It has been estimated that nearly 20 percent of corn grown in the United States is diverted for producing biofuels,” he said in his speech to academics, students and diplomats. “As citizens of the world, we ought to be concerned about the foolishness of growing food and converting it into fuel,”…Speaking at a forum after his speech, the Indian finance chief termed the approach to convert food into fuel, as very selfish. “I think it is the most foolish thing that humanity can do,” he said. “I think it’s outrageous and it must be condemned.”

Perhaps it is easy to speak highly of biofuels when one is in a rich economy not faced with the prospect of spending 73 percent of one’s income on food (as is the case in Nigeria), and where soybean production presents few people with a life-or-death dilemma. But we are, at the end of the day, “citizens of the world”, and a reduced carbon footprint gives no one carte blanche to contribute to the impoverishment of millions or the displacement of 5 million indigenous people (as in Borneo). Our social and ethical responsibilities do not stop at the earth, they must extend to its inhabitants.
(crossposted to JCarrot.)