August 30, 2016

“Hunger anywhere threatens peace everywhere,” said Professor Mankombu Sambasivan Swaminathan in his 1994 report of the International Commission on Peace and Food to the United Nations.

In recent years we’ve put further pressure on our food supply by increasing the amount of food that we use for fuel. Since 2007, for example, the U.S. Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) has required transportation fuel to contain a minimum volume of renewable fuels. These biofuels are overwhelmingly made from food-crops on farmland.

This mandate was intended to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels and reduce greenhouse gas emissions contributing to climate change. But unfortunately, producing these biofuels creates more emissions than initially expected. Not only have these mandates failed to deliver the environmental benefits, they have also created adverse impacts all over the world.

Today, much of the corn, sugarcane and soy, which once went to food or animal feed, is being used as fuel. Because of the RFS, ethanol consumption in the U.S. has increased. This, among other factors, pushed up the prices of corn and other agricultural products, hitting the world’s poorest people hardest. Between 2006 and 2011, poor countries spent an additional $6.6 billion in increased food costs. Since 2005, the production of ethanol has cost Mexican consumers $250 to $500 million per year in higher corn prices. For Guatemalans, the additional cost of importing corn during the trade year 2010-2011 was $28 million.

Our thirst for of biofuels has contributed to the expansion of industrial monocrops in Latin America, Africa and Asia, where local, local farmers are denied access land to feed themselves and their communities. Unable to grow their own food, local people are forced to buy what they need in the local markets. But increased demand and reduced supply often results in much higher food prices, which the world’s poorest people simply can’t afford. Losing land also means farmers lose their income. Faced with decreased incomes and higher food prices, local farmers and their families are increasingly going hungry.

But the impacts of this increase in the number of hungry people in the world don’t just stop there. War and famine, two of the four horsemen of the apocalypse, ride side by side.  Hunger and violent political conflicts in many developing countries are often linked. As more countries adopt similar biofuel mandates, more food will be turned into fuel around the world. If this continues, and the food prices spike again, it’s possible that we will see more violent conflicts in countries that are food insecure.

Hunger and violent political conflicts in many developing countries are often associated. This study is one of many that link a surge in food prices to political unrest, showing that the 2010 and 2011 food shortages was one of many triggers of the Arab Spring.

As competition for food increases, the greatest impacts are felt by women. Although women grow the majority of the world’s food, they also make up the majority of those affected by global hunger. Women and girls are particularly at risk as they are often fed last and the least. Food insecurity also exposes women to violence, sexual exploitation and disease.

A study of 2000 women in Botswana and Swaziland, two South African countries, showed that women who did not have enough to eat were twice as likely to become sex workers and be sexually exploited. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNCHR) and the UN World Food Program also reported in 2005 that when food rations were cut at refugee camps in Tanzania, violence against women increased. Not only were women at risk being arrested, beaten and raped when they ventured outside the camp to look for food or work, but, ration reductions also increased domestic violence against them.

Around 795 million people go to bed hungry every single night. There are many things we can and should do to decrease hunger and promote social justice, especially as we are confronting climate change. Reforming the RFS should be an easy one. If so many people around the world already go to bed hungry, why are we putting even more fuel made from food into our gas tanks? Corn ethanol and food-based biofuels are a false solution to climate change that do real harm for people and the environment.

We must take action and tell Congress and President Obama to reduce the impacts of biofuels on hunger and violence by reforming the RFS.

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