About two weeks ago, the New York Times published an expose of sorts, on the impact that biofuels (and the demand for them) have on food production and food security in developing countries — aptly titled “As Biofuel Demand Grows, So Do Guatemala’s Hunger Pangs“. The story is not dissimilar from others told before: as demand for new technology grows in higher-income countries (the ‘global north’ or the ‘West’), the costs of producing those technologies are off-loaded onto poorer countries in the Global South. In this case, the technology in demand is biofuel — an ‘environmentally friendly’ alternative fuel source for cars and other vehicles — and the cost is increased production of the raw materials needed for biofuel instead of staple food crops.
The story gets more complicated as international trade regulations come into play. The United States subsidizes the price of its staple crops (like rice, corn, and soy) and dumps those crops into foreign markets. Poorer countries like Guatemala can no longer afford to grow their own food…and the fields that were used for corn production have now become lucrative investments for multinational corporations, who plant the African palm and sugar cane that ‘fuel’ biofuel production.
The article sparked a variety of responses — outrage at the injustice and poverty faced by Guatemalan campesinos and indigenous peoples, outrage at the villainization of biofuels and other environmentally friendly technologies. But who is the real victim and who is the real perpetrator here? There’s no denying the suffering of the Guatemalan people — as the NYT article cites, “families must spend two thirds of their income on food”, nearly 50% of children under 5 are undernourished (according to the WFP), and many groups, including women and indigenous peoples, face systemic discrimination and barriers to economic entry.
It’s easy to blame a new alternative (and not universally accepted) technology like biofuels for the worsening of poverty in Guatemala, and this blogger doesn’t suggest that the system of biofuel production is free from blame. However, it’s equally important to consider those larger systems at play — international trade rules that continually favor rich countries at the expense of poorer ones and prevent lower-income countries from developing their own industries for profit. Many see the dichotomy between ‘human security’ (including food security) and environmental security as a zero-sum game: we cannot afford to invest in costly environmentally-friendly technologies at the expense of hampering local and regional development in poorer countries. Eventually, we must realize that long-term sustainable development for countries like Guatemala must take the environment into account.
But above all, stories like this one illustrate the extreme power imbalance on the international stage, where countries like the United States have a larger and more important voice than countries like Guatemala. The biofuel that a Californian needs to run her hybrid car is more important than the corn needed to make tortillas in a small village near Pasac, Guatemala. This is the crux of the matter, and something that must be addressed if we truly want to create a world without hunger.