Food crops for fuel a crime

Food prices on the North Coast and elsewhere could soar if agricultural land competes more and more for the production of ethanol or biofuels, according to a local MP.

Meanwhile, a United Nations expert has condemned the growing use of crops to produce biofuels as a replacement for petrol as a crime against humanity.

Greens MLC Ian Cohen said the states worst harvest in more than a decade meant that Richmond Valley Council cannot avoid the food versus fuel debate when considering whether to approve a proposed plant at Casino to produce ethanol from food crops in Casino.

Deputy prime minister Mark Vaile last month visited Casino to announce the federal government would spend $2.2 million under the Sustainable Regions program to fund the planning of the $90 million plant, saying it would create 85 new jobs, pump millions of dollars into the Casino economy and produce 80 million litres of ethanol each year

The company developing the plant, Bio-En Australia, wants to make ethanol from corn, wheat, sorghum and barley from local sources.

But Labors federal regional development spokesman Simon Crean, during his visit to Casino three weeks ago, cast doubt on the project, refusing to guarantee Labor would honour the $2.2 million commitment for the plant.

Mr Crean said he wanted to know if the project was viable first, saying that another NSW ethanol plant funded under the controversial Regional Partnerships program at Gunnedah had failed.

A spokesperson for Mr Vaile refuted this, saying the Gunnedah plant was currently going through the environmental impact study process.

Mr Cohen said the proposal for the Casino plant comes at a time when food producers were contemplating importing grains from overseas to meet demand not met by drought affected farms.

He said the forecast for Australias wheat, barley and canola crops had almost halved in the last few months.

With the shrinking size of agricultural output for domestic and export food markets, its puzzling that the deputy prime minister Mark Vaile is giving $2.2 million to a project that will rely on food crops as feedstock for ethanol production.

There are very real concerns that first generation biofuels competing for agricultural output will see food prices rise to new and permanently higher levels.

Meanwhile, Jean Ziegler, the UN special rapporteur on the right to food, said he feared biofuels would bring more hunger.

Mr Ziegler complained of an ill-conceived dash to convert foodstuffs such as maize and sugar into fuel, which he said created a recipe for disaster.

He told reporters at the UN in New York that it was a crime against humanity to divert arable land to the production of crops which were then burned for fuel.

He called for a five-year ban on the practice in which time technological advances could enable the use of agricultural waste, such as corn cobs and banana leaves, rather than crops themselves, to produce fuel.

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