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Tuesday, April 03, 2007


Fill 'er up!

"Give me two tons of special corn"

Fidel Castro's first major return to the political scene since last July received a lot of press, much of it misleading. Most of the headlines were like this one from BBC: "Castro hits out at US biofuel use," and proceeded to make this claim: "He said George W Bush's support for the use of food crops in fuel production would cause 3bn deaths from hunger."

But that's not what the article says at all. Read the headline from Granma carefully:

More than three billion people in the world condemned to premature death from hunger and thirst
See that last word in the headline - thirst? That's there because this article isn't just about biofuels, although it starts there, but about the entire environmental situation facing the world, described by Fidel thusly:
"Some people will be asking themselves why I am talking of hunger and thirst. My response to that: it is not about the other side of the coin, but about several sides of something else, like a die with six sides, or a polyhedron with many more sides."
The article doesn't really quantify the "three billion" number in its headline, although if anything, this paragraph suggests it refers almost entirely to the water issue:
"In just 18 years, close to 2 billion people will be living in countries and regions where water will be a distant memory. Two-thirds of the world’s population could be living in places where that scarcity produces social and economic tensions of such a magnitude that it could lead nations to wars for the precious 'blue gold.'"
Back to biofuels, which got all the attention and is certainly the focus of the article. Fidel does the math:
It is known very precisely today that one ton of corn can only produce 413 liters of ethanol on average, according to densities. That is equivalent to 109 gallons...Thus, 320 million tons of corn would be required to produce 35 billion gallons of ethanol.

According to FAO figures, the U.S. corn harvest rose to 280.2 million tons in the year 2005.

Although the president is talking of producing fuel derived from grass or wood shavings, anyone can understand that these are phrases totally lacking in realism. Let’s be clear: 35 billion gallons translates into 35 followed by nine zeros!
On Democracy Now! this morning, New York Times reporter Andrew Revkin talks about how, to a certain extent, rich Western countries are able to adapt to climate change, while the brunt of the effect is felt by the poorer countries who are unable to do so. This point is actually made much better, with far greater clarity about the consequences of that "adaptation," by Fidel:
Afterwards will come beautiful examples of what experienced and well-organized U.S. farmers can achieve in terms of human productivity by hectare: corn converted into ethanol; the chaff from that corn converted into animal feed containing 26% protein; cattle dung used as raw material for gas production. Of course, this is after voluminous investments only within the reach of the most powerful enterprises, in which everything has to be moved on the basis of electricity and fuel consumption. Apply that recipe to the countries of the Third World and you will see that people among the hungry masses of the Earth will no longer eat corn. Or something worse: lend funding to poor countries to produce corn ethanol based on corn or any other food and not a single tree will be left to defend humanity from climate change.
The other day, Al Gore testified in Congress. A general trend in both the questions and answers was about how "technology" can save us from the global warming crisis. Certainly not the Congresspeople, and not even for the most part Al Gore, wanted to deal with the possibility that we might have to actually change our lifestyles in order to deal with the problem. For example, responding to a question about automobiles, Gore's answer dealt solely with hybrids, fuel cells, etc. Not one word was spoken about mass transit! (At least in that answer; I didn't listen to the entire hearing and can't find a transcript online)

Some people may think that Fidel is being an alarmist, raising the idea that the U.S. wants to raid (in a purely economic way, at least at first!) the third world for its food resources to convert to fuel to keep its Hummers humming. Yes, what a preposterous idea. Kind of like killing hundreds of thousands of people in order to secure real fuel for the same purpose. Now who on earth would do something like that?

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