Food & Drink » Glenda Bartosh on Food

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Off on the wrong track: May the current ‘food for fuel’ strategy get no traction

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Okay, okay, so I can be bit of a smart alec these days because I drive a Smart car. But believe me, three years ago when I first got the thing, I felt more like an eco-evangelist, touting its safety, its fun factor, its low emissions and fuel efficiency to anyone within ear-range, but not really convincing them.

In 2005, when I got Smart, the Stern report on climate change and the costs to the economy and the report released by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which won the Nobel Peace Prize by basically stating that human-caused climate change was irrefutable — at least according to 280 of the world’s top scientists, and hey, I’m not one to argue with them — had not been released.

So three years ago, those of us non-scientists who ascribed to the fact of climate change and were desperate for something to be done about it felt like hands on the deck of the Titanic before it tilted, trying to get everybody out of their cabins and to safety. Anything to keep the planet afloat, in tact, on course, solid-state, stable as a maple table — even biofuels.

I confess: Before the huge increase in fuel prices we are seeing today, before the food riots in the streets of Haiti and Bangladesh, I thought the idea of making fuel out of veggie material was a good thing. Reduction in carbon emissions? Yes. Five per cent biofuels in every Canadian gas pump? Bring it on. Those prairie farmers will be lovin’ it and lord knows I’ve got more than a few relatives back there.

Boy, was I a sucker. And not the only one.

Fast-forward to today, and, ironically, the two inextricably intertwined issues — food and fuel — culminated in high level international talks held separately but almost simultaneously over the past two weeks, namely the UN climate change talks in Bonn, Germany (where 2,400 negotiators are trying to hammer out an agreement to be signed by the end of next year to replace the Kyoto plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions), and the UN food summit held in Rome (to which Canada, embarrassingly but tellingly, only managed to send its ambassador to Italy to represent us amidst the presidents and prime ministers of major world players).

The jury is still out on exactly how much negative impact biofuels are having on food supply. For instance, the president of Egypt, where food riots have also spilled to the streets, called for an end to biofuel production, Predictably, the president of Brazil, where biofuels are produced from sugar cane, not corn, which has so many critics up in arms, said it was an over-simplification to tie food shortages and rising food costs to biofuel production.

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