Biofuels could lead to mass hunger deaths: U.N. envoy

GENEVA Thu Jun 14, 2007 12:26pm EDT

Workers are seen at the end of the day in Santa Elisa sugarcane farm in Sertaozinho, Brazil, April 21, 2007. Diverting sugar and maize for biofuels could lead to hundreds of thousands of deaths from hunger worldwide, the United Nations' food envoy warned on Thursday. REUTERS/Paulo Whitaker

Workers are seen at the end of the day in Santa Elisa sugarcane farm in Sertaozinho, Brazil, April 21, 2007. Diverting sugar and maize for biofuels could lead to hundreds of thousands of deaths from hunger worldwide, the United Nations' food envoy warned on Thursday.

Credit: Reuters/Paulo Whitaker

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GENEVA (Reuters) - Diverting sugar and maize for biofuels could lead to hundreds of thousands of deaths from hunger worldwide, the United Nations' food envoy warned on Thursday.

Jean Ziegler, U.N. special rapporteur on the right to food, accused the European Union (EU), Japan and the United States of "total hypocrisy" for promoting biofuels to cut their own dependency on imported oil.

Fears over climate change have boosted the demand for alternative fuels in wealthy countries, but the rise of biofuel has been criticized by some who say it will put a squeeze on land needed for food.

"There is a great danger for the right to food by the development of biofuels," Ziegler told a news briefing held on the sidelines of the U.N. Human Rights Council.

"It (the price) will be paid perhaps by hundreds of thousands of people who will die from hunger," he added.

However, a senior official at the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) said recently that biofuels were getting a bad press and that rather than being a threat to the poor, they could boost food production.

Ziegler said that more and more sugar cane plantations in northern and eastern Brazil were being used for biofuels, leaving less land for subsistence farmers.

Brazil is the world's biggest producer of cane-based fuel ethanol, most of which is destined for the domestic market to meet rapidly growing demand from flex-fuel motorists.

In some regions of Mexico, the price of maize rose by 16 percent last year, because of rising demand for use in biofuels, according to the independent U.N. envoy.

"I can understand the Brazilian and Mexican policies which as very indebted countries want to earn hard currency....But from the point of view of the right to food, which must be the decisive one, it is a catastrophe," Ziegler said.

Some 854 million people worldwide -- or one in six -- suffer from hunger, according to the sociologist and former Swiss parliamentarian who cited U.N. figures.

Ziegler said famine and chronic hunger were driving many in sub-Saharan Africa to risk their lives on rickety boats bound for Europe, often Spain's Canary Islands or Lampedusa, Italy.

An estimated 2 million people try to enter the European Union (EU) illegally every year, and about 2,000 of them drown in the Mediterranean Sea, he said.

"Nobody knows how many thousands of other people have died trying to make the journey, but bodies regularly wash up on the beaches or fishermen catch them in their nets," he said.

Ziegler called for Western countries to grant so-called "refugees from hunger" a temporary right of asylum. This would require amending a 1951 U.N. convention granting refugee status to people fleeing racial, political or religious persecution.

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