Collier on biofuels


in Economics, Politics, The environment

Graffiti head in bowler hat

Paul Collier’s comment on this Financial Times article is one of the best examples I have seen of the value of letting members of the public contribute in that way. As is generally the case with him, the comment is engaging and very candid. He argues that the most important way to keep the poor from suffering because of the drive towards biofuels is to encourage more large-scale industrial agriculture in the developing world:

We laud the production style of the peasant: environmentally sustainable and human in scale. In respect of manufacturing and services we grew out of this fantasy years ago, but in agriculture it continues to contaminate our policies. In Europe and Japan huge public resources have been devoted to propping up small farms. The best that can be said for these policies is that we can afford them. In Africa, which cannot afford them, development agencies have oriented their entire efforts on agricultural development to peasant style production. As a result, Africa has less large-scale commercial agriculture than it had fifty years ago. Unfortunately, peasant farming is generally not well-suited to innovation and investment: the result has been that African agriculture has fallen further and further behind the advancing productivity frontier of the globalized commercial model.

It is definitely a comment at odds with the new fashion for the local within environmentalism. That being said, there is a strong argument to be made that the rich world is going to press on with biofuels regardless of how much suffering it creates in the poor world. If that is taken as true, an unfashionable but effective counter-strategy might be the most suitable response.

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{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

Anonymous May 5, 2008 at 9:34 am

It is definitely a comment at odds with the new fashion for the local within environmentalism.

The Michael Pollan ‘eat local and organic’ approach works well as an alternative to ‘get fat and diabetic off McNuggets and Coke.’

It works less well when the alternative is starving to death, or being severely malnourished.

. May 5, 2008 at 10:35 am

Bush remarks on food crisis spark anger in India



May 5, 2008 at 5:31 AM EDT

NEW DELHI — A remark by U.S. President George W. Bush saying India was partly responsible for rising global food prices has sparked a nationalistic storm across the political spectrum, with the Defence Minister calling it a “cruel joke”.

The Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), India’s main opposition party, threatened on Monday to force a parliamentary debate on Mr. Bush’s remarks that India’s increasingly prosperous middle classes were helping push up prices.

The political uproar highlighted how quickly a latent anti-U.S. nationalism in India could rear its head despite years of diplomatic rapprochement. It also underscored how food price rises have become a huge electoral issue in India.

Sarah May 5, 2008 at 2:05 pm

However, the Western large-scale monoculture agricultural approach is heavily reliant on fertilizer, irrigation, pesticides (because monocultures encourage pests) and on carbon-intensive mechanized farm equipment, thus it is not sustainable. Further, there is no reason to suppose that ‘industrial agriculture’ would do anything to alleviate poverty or food shortages amongst the poorest people – instead, it would likely involve driving them off the land to live in the expanding urban slums (as was required for large-scale agriculture in Europe).

The article you mention should probably be seen in the context of the UN’s recent IAASTD report, the Executive Summary of which is available here . The report calls for a focus on locally-focused agriculture that is sensitive to ecology & growing conditions, and as such has angered the industry associated with largescale ‘scientific’ approaches to agriculture, many of whom walked out of the talks. It is notable that Australia, Canada and the USA have not approved the Report’s Executive Summary – their reservations & proposed changes (complaining about the supposed bias in the ES’s discussion of trade liberalization etc) can be seen at the end of the document.

Milan May 5, 2008 at 3:38 pm

However, the Western large-scale monoculture agricultural approach is heavily reliant on fertilizer, irrigation, pesticides (because monocultures encourage pests) and on carbon-intensive mechanized farm equipment, thus it is not sustainable.

I agree completely. Industrial agriculture has lots of negative effects. The question here, however, is whether those effects are more serious – in terms of human welfare and moral importance – than the fact that increasing food prices are likely to starve people. If industrial agriculture is an effective way of preventing that, it might be very morally defensible, even if it is environmentally harmful and unsustainable in the long run.

. May 5, 2008 at 3:52 pm

Biofuels: Low Carbon Fuel Standard to the Rescue?
Thursday, May 1, 2008

Simultaneous with the intense food vs. fuel debate presently underway, biofuels advocates on the environmental front of the Green Energy War have faced forceful arguments over the greenhouse gas impact of current policies promoting ethanol and biodiesel. Their response has been to emphasize the benefits expected from “second generation” biofuels like cellulosic ethanol, and to advocate technology-neutral, performance-based policies like a Low Carbon Fuel Standard.

Biofuels: Confusion, Conflict Among Allies
Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Worldwide, there are three principal motivators — or fronts — in the accelerated move away from current methods of consuming fossil fuels that is known as the Green Energy War. As with most large scale endeavors attracting so many participants, communication and understanding across fronts can prove exceptionally difficult. It is by no means always clear that everyone is fighting the same war.

Biofuels: Wouldn’t We Miss 500,000 Barrels a Day?
Monday, April 28, 2008

As debate continues to rage over the role which biofuels policies have played in the extraordinary inflation in world food prices, a sobering awareness may spread. Crop-based fuels like ethanol and biodiesel may have already become an indispensable element of global supplies of liquid fuels. Their absence could have a significant impact on the price of oil.

Biofuels Smackdown: When Words Fail
Thursday, April 24, 2008

The Green Energy War, like every military campaign since the beginning of history, is fraught with unintended consequences. But strategy, once committed to, often takes on an irreversible momentum of its own. And secondary concerns, in the memorable words of the US Air Force Intelligence Targeting Guide, tend to be dismissed as “collateral damage”.

Sarah May 5, 2008 at 4:09 pm

There is very serious disagreement about whether industrial agriculture DOES lessen the likelihood of people starving, & without a reduction in inequality it seems highly unlikely that it would. This is made plain in the report I’ve linked to above.
Further, a focus on industrial production that reduces the range of crop breeds used (often in the attempt to increase yields) makes us hugely vulnerable to pests and diseases – hence the currently soaring costs of rice. This problem will be compounded by climate change effects and environmental degradation, meaning we need to use crops that work locally with features such as salt tolerance, drought tolerance, tolerance of unusually high temperatures etc. This means that there isn’t a tradeoff between people starving and locally-varied, small-scale farming – such farming practices are probably the best way to stop people starving in the future if we figure out how to make them work better (eg. by knowing which crop breeds work best where, crop rotation, complementary planting, reduced requirements for fertilizer & irrigation).

R.K. May 5, 2008 at 4:12 pm

When it comes to power plants and things, people frequently argue that the developing world can ‘learn from our mistakes’ and do better than we have.

The same basic argument can be applied to agriculture. Peasant farming doesn’t work, but industrial agriculture as practised in the West has problems too. Ideally, people will be able to learn from the flaws in both and develop systems that feed everyone without wrecking the planet.

. May 5, 2008 at 4:33 pm

How not to address the food crisis

By Free Exchange | Washington, DC

PAUL COLLIER, acclaimed author of The Bottom Billion, has surely written one of the most linked comments in recent blogospheric history. Posted on an entry at Martin Wolf’s quasi-blog, Mr Collier’s piece is a detailed and brilliant look at the causes of the ongoing food crunch and what might be done to provide relief. Felix Salmon helpfully sums up the text in bullet point form, saying that, “The main causes and solutions to the present food crisis, then, through Collier’s eyes:

* Chinese are eating cows which are eating grain which would otherwise have been eaten by Africa’s poor.
* Americans are turning grain into ethanol which would otherwise have been eaten by Africa’s poor.
* Europeans are banning genetically modified crops, which are Africa’s main hope of growing enough grain to feed its own poor.
* Policymakers everywhere romanticize small farmers, when what the world really needs, if it’s to feed a growing and ever-wealthier population, is Brazil-style high-technology Big Agriculture.”

Neal May 6, 2008 at 1:47 pm

What the world needs is Brazil-style agriculture? Is this some kind of sick joke? Slash and burn, graze cattle, monoculture farm until the soil is depleted, move on to virgin rainforest?

Or does “high-technology Big Agriculture” not include all the practices that are burning the world’s lungs for the sake of some productivity today?

. May 8, 2008 at 11:13 am

Can Tanzania reap bumper harvests?

To the untrained eye, the never-ending green of the maize, rice and sugar cane fields of northern Tanzania look lush and bountiful.

It is rice harvest time, and under the shadow of Mount Kilimanjaro the roads are jammed with tractors and bicycles stacked with bags of rice destined for market.

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