Food for fuel, a sure way of creating a hunger crisis

Jean Ziegler at the salon du livre in Geneva in 2011

Jean Ziegler[1], in his recently published book ‘Massive Destruction—the Geopolitics of Hunger’[2], is denouncing the brutal arms the neoliberal masters of the world are using in order to annihilate resistance to their senseless attempt to run the world as they see fit.

Jean Ziegler is a tireless fighter for human rights and the right to food, stated in The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, as has been proven in his numerous earlier books on various subjects dealing with the extreme callousness of the Empire. His latest book is such an outspoken denunciation of the agro-industry in its various aspects that the huge land barons, the biofuel corporations and the GMO industry will certainly do everything in their power to keep this message from being spread worldwide. Professor Ziegler speaks out loud and clear in the United Nations and through his books and he is merciless in his denunciation of neoliberalism that breeds poverty worldwide. He has thus attracted numerous enemies, but also, most certainly, even more admirers. What is going on in the name of neoliberalism is nothing short of calculated murder, as the title of this book is clearly indicating.

Professor Ziegler is denouncing three major factors that contribute to the scarcity and the ever-increasing cost of food commodities .

Land grabbing for the cultivation of sugar cane and other plants, especially in the U.S., for the production of biofuels (ethanol), is one major cause of the scarcity of food since it deprives the small landowners of their land and reduces the amount of food for everybody. Also the loss of arable land for the production of biofuel has contributed to the scandalous increase in food prices. Less land, less food—so higher prices. Added to that is also the fact that biofuels even increase the damage to the earth that their advocates so loudly and dishonestly claim to reduce.

The speculation in food commodities as well as in arable land must also be forcefully denounced as a major contributing factor in the dramatic increases in basic food prices that we have seen since mid 2007. Thus, not only are the small farmers deprived of their land, often with no or very little compensation, but also, with the skyrocketing food prices, they can not even afford buying the food they need for survival.

The third cause is desertification of land and soil degradation which is only hastened by the increased replacement of biological farms by huge monocultures, for biofuel or for GMO cultures, that demand enormous amounts of water. Rivers and lakes are drying out and an ever increasing number of people in the world are lacking access to clean drinking water.

The following texts are excerpts from four chapters in ‘Massive Destruction,’ a summary of the powerful arguments Professor Ziegler raises against the monstrous attempts to starve the masses in order to increase the wealth and the power of the very few. And I would also add—in order to keep the masses at bay, ignorant and submissive.

The lie

“Green gold” has for several years been considered as a magic and profitable complement to black gold.

Food-production trusts that dominate the trade in biofuels, in support of new products, make an argument that might appear irrefutable: the substitution of fossil fuel by energy derived from plants would be the ultimate weapon in the fight against the rapid deterioration of the climate and the irreversible damage this does to the environment and humans.

Here are some figures.

Over 100 billion liters of bioethanol and biodiesel will be produced in 2011. The same year, 100 million hectares of agricultural crops will be used to produce biofuels. Global production of biofuels has doubled over the past five years, from 2006 to 2011.

Climate degradation is a reality.

Globally, desertification and land degradation now affect more than 1 billion people in over 100 countries. Dry areas—where arid and semi-arid regions are particularly susceptible to degradation—represent over 44% of arable land on the planet.

Destruction of ecosystems and degradation of large agricultural areas in the world, especially in Africa, is a tragedy for small farmers and animal breeders. In Africa, the UN estimates that there are 25 million “environmental refugees” or “environmental migrants,” that is to say human beings who have been forced to leave their homes because of natural disasters (floods, droughts, desertification ) and who eventually have to fight for survival in the slums of large cities. Land degradation fuels conflicts, especially between animal breeders and farmers.

Transcontinental companies producing biofuels have persuaded the majority of the world public opinion and substantially all of the Western states that energy produced from plants was the miracle weapon against climate degradation.

But their argument is a lie. It ignores the methods and the environmental costs of biofuel production, which requires both water and energy. [emphasis added]

However, all over the planet, clean water is becoming increasingly scarce. One out of three persons is reduced to drinking polluted water. 9000 children under ten are dying every day from drinking water unfit for consumption.

* * *

According to the WHO, one third of the world population still lacks access to safe water at an affordable price, and half of the world population has no access to clean water. Approximately 285 million people live in sub-Saharan Africa without regular access to clean water[3].

* * *

And, of course, it is the poor who suffer most severely from the lack of water.

* * *

However, when you consider the water reserves that exist in the world, the production every year of tens of billions of gallons of biofuel is a real disaster.

4,000 liters of water are actually required to produce 1 liter of bioethanol.

* * *

Also, a detailed study by the OECD, the organization of the industrial states, with headquarters in Paris, gives us the results of its calculations on the amount of fossil energy needed to produce 1 liter of bioethanol. It is simply enormous. The New York Times comments soberly on the high amount of energy that is required to produce ethanol, “biofuels are increasing the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere instead of contributing to its decline.”

Barack Obama’s obsession

Biofuel producers, by far the world’s most powerful multinational corporations, have their headquarters in the U.S.

Each year they receive billions of dollars of government aid. In the words of Barack Obama in his State of the Union Address in 2011: for the United States, the bioethanol and biodiesel program is “a national cause,” a cause of national security.

In 2011, subsidized by $ 6 billion of public funds, U.S trusts will burn 38.3 % of the national corn harvest, against 30.7 % in 2008. And since 2008, corn prices on the world market have increased by 48%.

The United States is by far the most dynamic industrial power and also the top producer in the world. Despite a relatively low number of inhabitants—300 million, compared with 1.3 billion and more in China and India—the United States produces just over 25% of all industrial goods manufactured in one year on the planet.

The raw material of this impressive machine is oil.

The U.S. on a daily average burns 20 million barrels, or about a quarter of the world production. 61% of this volume—slightly more than 12 million barrels per day—are imported.[4]

For the U.S. president, this dependence from abroad is obviously a concern. And most worrying is the fact that most of this imported oil comes from regions where political instability is endemic or Americans are not well seen—in short, where production and export to the United States are not guaranteed.

* * *

George W. Bush was the initiator of the biofuel program. In January 2007, he set the goal to be reached: in the next ten years, the U.S. had to reduce by 20% its consumption of fossil fuels and multiply by seven the production of biofuels.

Burning millions of tons of food on a planet where every five seconds a child under ten dies of hunger is obviously scandalous. (emphasis added)

The “communicators” for the food trusts are trying to disarm the critics. They do not deny that it is unethical to divert food from its primary use and instead make it a source of energy. But be reassured, they promise. There will soon be a “second generation” of biofuels, made ​​from agricultural waste, wood chips or plants such as jatropha, which only grows on arid land (where no food production is possible). And then, they add, the techniques already exist to allow the treatment of the stems of the corn plant without damaging the ear . . . But at what cost?

(And also, the fact still remains that the production of biofuel requires an enormous amount of water and energy.—Comment by SON)

The word “generation” suggests a logical and necessary biological succession. But the terminology is, in this case, misleading. Because if the agro-fuels’ so-called “second generation” actually does exist, the production will be far more expensive because of the screening and intermediate treatment it requires. And thus, in a market dominated by the principle of maximizing profits, they will only play a marginal role.

The tank of a midsize car holds 50 liters. To make 50 liters of bioethanol, 358 kg of corn have to be destroyed.

In Mexico and in Zambia, corn is the staple food. With 358 kg of corn, a Zambian or a Mexican child can get enough to eat for one year.

Amnesty International summarizes my point: “Biofuels—full tanks and empty stomachs. “

The curse of sugar cane

Not only do biofuels consume each year hundreds of millions of tons of corn, wheat and other foods, not only does their production release into the atmosphere millions of tons of carbon dioxide, but, in addition to this, they cause social disasters in the countries where the transcontinental companies that manufacture the biofuel become dominant.

Let us take the example of Brazil.

* * *

The struggle of the workers in the engenho[5] Trapiche is a suitable example. The vast lands that are barely visible in the evening mist were once state lands, Terra da União. They were, just a few years ago, agricultural plots of land, 1 to 2 hectares in size cultivated by small subsistence farmers. The families lived in poverty, but they were secure, enjoyed a certain degree of wellbeing and relative freedom.

Through their excellent relations with Brasilia and their significant capital, the financiers have obtained the “decommissioning,” that is to say the privatization of these lands. The small bean and cereal farmers who lived here were deported to the slums of Recife. Except those who agreed, for a pittance, to become sugar cane cutters. Today, those laborers are overexploited.

* * *

In Brazil, the biofuel production program is considered a priority. And sugar cane is one of the most profitable commodities for the production of bioethanol.

The Brazilian program for a rapid increase in the production of bioethanol has a curious name: the Pro-alcohol plan. It is the pride of the government. In 2009, Brazil consumed 14 billion liters of bioethanol (and biodiesel) and exported 4 billion.

The dream of the government is to export over 200 billion liters.

* * *

The Brasilia government wants to increase to 26 million hectares the cultivation of sugar cane. In the struggle against the bioethanol giants, the powerless cane cutters on the Trapiche plantation do not have a chance.

The Brazilian Pro-alcohol implementation plan has led to the rapid concentration of land in the hands of a few indigenous barons and of transnational corporations.

* * *

This monopolization increases inequalities and exacerbates rural poverty (as well as urban poverty, as a result of migration from rural areas). In addition, the exclusion of smallholders threatens the country’s food security, since they are the ones who can guarantee sustenance agriculture.

As for rural households headed by women, they have less access to land and suffer greater discrimination.

In short, the development of the production of the “green gold” on the agro-export model tremendously enriches the sugar barons but impoverishes the small farmers, the sharecroppers and the boiafrio[6] even further. It has actually signed the death warrant for small and medium family farms—and thus the country’s food sovereignty.

But aside from the Brazilian sugar barons, the Pro-Alcohol program naturally creates profits for the great transcontinental foreign companies that are named Louis Dreyfus, Bunge, Noble Group, Archer Daniels Midland, and for the financial groups belonging to Bill Gates and George Soros as well as the sovereign funds of China.

* * *

In a country like Brazil, where millions of people are demanding the right to own a piece of land, where food security is threatened, land grabbing by transnational corporations and sovereign wealth funds[7] is one additional scandal.

In the Council for Human Rights, in the UN General Assembly, I fought against the Pro-alcohol plan.[8]

Even President Luis Ignacio Lula da Silva, during his visit to the Council in 2007, attacked me by name from the top of the podium.

Vanucci and Lula had a powerful argument: “Why worry about the progress of the cultivation of sugar cane? Ziegler is the Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food. However, the Pro-alcohol plan has nothing to do with food. The cane is not edible. Unlike the Americans, Brazilians do not burn either corn or wheat. “[9]

* * *

To gain new grazing land, large landowners and managers of transcontinental companies burn the forest. Tens of thousands of hectares each year.

The destruction is final. The soils of the Amazon basin and of Mato Grosso[10], covered with primary forests, have only a thin layer of humus. Even in the unlikely event that the leaders of Brasilia would be seized by a sudden fit of lucidity, they could not recreate the Amazon rainforest, “the lungs of the planet.” According to a scenario accepted by the World Bank, at the current rate of burning, 40% of the Amazon rainforest will be gone in 2050.

To the extent that Brazil has gradually replaced the culture of food crops by sugar cane, it has entered the vicious circle of the international food market: forced to import food that it does not produce itself, the global demand has thus amplified . . . which in turn causes an increase in prices.

The food insecurity, of which a large part of the Brazilian population are the victims, is thus directly related to the Pro-alcohol program. This particularly affects the areas where sugar cane is cultivated, since the staple foods based almost exclusively on imported commodities are subject to significant price fluctuations. Many small farmers and agricultural workers are net buyers of food because they do not have enough land to produce a sufficient amount of food for their families. Thus in 2008 the peasants could not buy enough food due to the sudden explosion in prices.

* * *

In order to reduce costs, producers of biofuel exploit migrant workers by the millions, according to a model of ultra-liberal capitalist agriculture. They are not only paid low salaries, but work inhuman schedules, are offered almost no support infrastructure, and working conditions are bordering on slavery.

Postscript: The hell of Gujarat

The slavery conditions of sugar cane cutters are not unique to Brazil. Thousands of migrant cutters in many other countries, are being exploited in the same way.

The plantation of the Bardoli Sugar Factory is situated in Surat, in Gujarat, India. The vast majority of the men who work there belong to the indigenous people of the Adivasis, famous for their art in basket weaving and the manufacture of cane furniture.

Living conditions on the plantation are appalling: the food provided by the boss is infested with worms, clean water is lacking, as well as wood for cooking food. The Adivasis and their families live in shacks, huts made of branches that are open to scorpions, snakes, rats and stray dogs.

* * *

Going to court?

The Adivasis are too scared of Mukadam, the hiring agent of the plantation. Such is the extent of unemployment in Gujarat that, at the slightest protest, the recalcitrant cutter will be replaced in no time by a more docile worker.


During the XVIs session of the UN Council of Human Rights in March 2011, Via Campesina, together with two NGOs, the FIAN and CETIM, organized a side event, an informal consultation on the protection of farmers (rights to land, seeds, water, etc.).

The Ambassador of South Africa in charge of human rights, the intractable Pizo Moved, said on that occasion: “First they took the men, now they take our land—we are seeing the era of the recolonization of Africa.”

Actually, the curse of the “green gold” extends today to several countries in Asia, Latin America and Africa.

Almost everywhere, but especially in Asia and Latin America, the monopolizing of bioethanol production by land trusts is accompanied by violence.

The rainforest of Central Africa is the second largest in the world after the Amazon and it is a major “carbon sink”[11] in the world. We must also understand that many communities depend on this forest and its rich biodiversity for their livelihoods and rely on the products of hunting and gathering for subsistence. As a result, these communities are at risk of annihilation.


If the world is to be saved from the firm grip of neoliberalism, from the immense greed and the total callousness of the ‘new masters of the world’[12], we must act now. We have to see clearly with eyes and minds wide open how these predators are very fast taking the people and the world hostage in their absurd attempt to increase their own wealth and dominating the planet. We must come together and work tirelessly, not losing hope, not losing sight of the goal of saving the earth. We must not be deluded by the deafening screaming of the propaganda machines. We must stand firm and together. There may yet be a way out of the inferno.


[1] Jean Ziegler, a former professor of sociology at the University of Geneva and the Sorbonne, Paris, is member of the UN Human Rights Council’s Advisory Committee with an expertise on economic, social and cultural rights. For the period 2000–2008, Jean Ziegler was the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food. In March 2008, Jean Ziegler was elected Member of the UN Human Rights Council’s Advisory Committee. One year later, the Human Rights Council decided, by acclamation, to re-elect Jean Ziegler as a member of the Advisory Committee, a post he will now hold until 2012. In August 2009, the members of the Advisory Committee elected Jean Ziegler as Vice-President of the forum.


[3] 248 million in South Asia are in the same situation, 398 million in East Asia, 180 million in South Asia and the East Pacific, 92 million in Latin America and the Caribbean, and 67 million in Arab countries.

[4] Only 8 million barrels are produced from Texas, the Gulf of Mexico (offshore) and Alaska.

[5] Engenho is a colonial-era Portuguese term for a sugar mill and the associated facilities. The word engenho usually only referred to the mill, but it could also describe the area as a whole including land, a mill, the people who farmed it.

[6] Landless workers (boia = ox ; frio= cold) He’ll be working like an ox and he’ll be eating cold food

[7] A sovereign wealth fund (SWF) is a state-owned investment fund composed of financial assets such as stocks, bonds, property, precious metals or other financial instruments. Sovereign wealth funds invest globally.

[8] Sitting in front of me was the government minister Paulo Vanucci, a friend, a former guerrilla of the VAR-Palmarès (Vanguardia Armada Revolucionaria) and hero of the resistance against the dictatorship. He was sincerely sorry.

[9] This argument is not valid, since the agricultural frontier in Brazil moves continuously: the sugar cane moves toward the interior of the continental shelf and the cattle which for centuries have been grazing there, migrates to the west and the north.

[10] Mato Grosso is a state in the center-west of Brazil, bordering on Bolivia and Paraguay.

[11] A carbon sink is anything that absorbs more carbon that it releases, whilst a carbon source is anything that releases more carbon than it absorbs.

[12] See ‘Les Nouveaux maîtres du monde et ceux qui leur résistent’ de Jean Ziegler (Editions Fayards), 2005

Translation of excerpts from Jean Ziegler’s latest book ‘Destruction massive—Géopolitique de la faim by Siv O’Neall

Siv O’Neall is an Axis of Logic columnist, where this essay first appeared, and is based in France. Her insightful essays are republished and read worldwide. She can be reached at

3 Responses to Food for fuel, a sure way of creating a hunger crisis

  1. This is a really crucial article. Thanks, IR, for publishing this. I’m interested in the ongoing food crisis question, how elite transnationals are destroying food security on the planet, and this article, thanks to Siv O’Neall’s translation of Dr. Ziegler’s work, provides much needed insights into the ongoing devastation being wrought on the future of food. I am not sanguine that there will be much public resistance to the horrors of genetic modification, soil degradation and climate change until enough numbers of people have suffered greatly enough to distract us from the vastly more interesting topic of the latest celebrity divorce/rehab/anorexia/public breakdown, but for those few of us who derive a certain mournful satisfaction from watching the collapse and staying informed, this article is indeed useful.

  2. I.M. Crawford

    Instead of listening to the well-know David Blume 30 years ago and succeeding with ethanol fuel, America did every single thing he said would not work, and armchair quarterbacks like Monsier Ziegler here now say it’s the ethanol’s fault. It isn’t. It’s YOUR FAULT. YOU kill people for oil.
    YOU are the ones who allowed corporations to take over your country, and then ruin both your fuel systems and the system that you need to eat. If you refuse to read about a completely different way to operate both, do you really deserve anything but ruin, poverty, and bankruptcy?
    You need the rest of the story: You need, in short, to read (ALL! ) of the book ALCOHOL CAN BE A GAS! Yeah, there’s a website by its author, but what are you, a mental man or a mental mouse? ALCOHOL CAN BE A GAS! by David Blume. Ever hear of a library? Bet yours has a copy…

  3. I.M. Crawford

    Ooops…I misspelled a word in my post; should have written M-o-n-s-i-e-u-r. I’m not too proud to admit that something I wrote doesn’t seem to be right, check my facts, and publish a correction. Let’s see if Monsieur Zigler can do the same…by reading “Alcohol Can Be A Gas!”