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LATIN AMERICA: Food or Fuel – That Is the Burning Question

Walter Sotomayor

BRASILIA, Apr 15 2008 (IPS) - The difficult balancing act between fighting hunger, producing biofuels and defending the environment is at the centre of the debate at the 30th Regional Conference of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) in the Brazilian capital.

Experts from 33 Latin American and Caribbean countries, international agencies and non- governmental organisations began their technical meetings Monday at the Brazilian Foreign Ministry in Brasilia.

The aim of the conference is to assess conditions in the region, especially in the light of concerns caused by rising food prices.

"We must find a balance between fighting hunger, energy security and protecting the environment," said José Antonio Marcondes, spokesman for the Brazilian delegation at the conference, where meetings at ministerial level are to be inaugurated Wednesday by President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.

"Brazil believes that biofuels have the potential to combat poverty," said the Brazilian representative, who stressed the importance of including family farms in the production chain.

In Brazil, the region’s largest food producer, the government is carrying out a number of programmes to fight poverty.

At the same time, the Brazilian government advocates the use of biodiesel and ethanol as fuels, an idea that is rejected by countries like Bolivia, Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela, which fear that ever larger agricultural areas will be devoted to producing biofuels rather than food.

"It is ethically unacceptable to convert areas of food production to energy production," said José Arsenio Quintero, the head of the Cuban delegation.

However, Quintero supported a suggestion from Argentina and Brazil that a voluntary regional code of conduct be adopted to prevent environmental damage or reduction of food production.

The Brasilia meeting debated a report prepared by Guilherme Schuetz, an official at the FAO regional office. Schuetz, a Brazilian expert, pointed out the risks of biofuel production, but suggested that they could be minimised through the use of different technologies and commitments on the environment.

But a message sent to the conference by U.N. Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, Jean Ziegler, Monday heated up the debate.

Ziegler called production of biofuels "a crime against humanity," because a large proportion of food grains is now used for this purpose.

Critics agree that staple food prices have risen because of shrinking production and the use of cereals like maize, or oilseeds like soybeans, for making biofuels.

The World Bank warned that violent uprisings might occur in an estimated 33 countries due to increased food prices.

But such criticism was rejected by Carlos Porto, an international adviser to the Brazilian Agriculture Ministry. "It is the United States and the European Union that use foods like maize, wheat and edible oils to make biofuels," he said.

FAO reported that extreme poverty and malnutrition had fallen in most countries of the region, but said that there are still 81 million people living in extreme poverty.

Hunger persists in the region even when there is a 31 percent excess in the supply of calories, which means that there is enough food for all the population, says a FAO study that was distributed to the press.

Helping countries combat hunger is FAO’s principal mission.

This week’s conference will analyse regional progress towards meeting the United Nations Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), agreed by the international community in 2000. One of them is to halve the proportion of the world’s people who suffer from hunger by 2015, with respect to the 1990 baseline.

FAO’s regional director for Latin America and the Caribbean, José Graziano, proposed that the state should resume a regulatory role in the agricultural sector as a means of confronting the crises that periodically affect producers, and especially small farmers.

The FAO Conference, which ends on Friday, will consider other issues related to food security, including cooperation to prevent the cross-border spreading of pests and diseases that affect food production.

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