Millions face early death from hunger, thirst

More than 3 million people in the world are condemned to premature death from hunger and thirst.

That is not an exaggerated figure, but rather a cautious one. I have meditated a lot on that in the wake of President Bush’s recent meeting with U.S. automobile manufacturers.

The sinister idea of converting food into fuel was definitively established as an economic line in U.S. foreign policy on March 26.

A March 26 cable from The Associated Press states:

“President Bush touted the benefits of ‘flexible fuel’ vehicles running on ethanol and biodiesel on Monday, meeting with automakers to boost support for his energy plans. “Bush said a commitment by the leaders of the domestic auto industry to double their production of flex-fuel vehicles could help motorists shift away from gasoline and reduce the nation’s reliance on imported oil.

“Bush met with General Motors Corp. chairman and chief executive Rick Wagoner, Ford Motor Co. chief executive Alan Mulally and Daimler Chrysler AG’s Chrysler Group chief executive Tom LaSorda.

“They discussed support for flex-fuel vehicles, attempts to develop ethanol from alternative sources like switchgrass and wood chips and the administration’s proposal to reduce gas consumption by 20 percent in 10 years.

“The discussions came amid rising gasoline prices. The latest Lundberg Survey found the nationwide average for gasoline has risen 6 cents per gallon in the past two weeks to $2.61.”

I believe that reducing and, even more, recycling all motors that run on electricity and fuel is an elemental and urgent need for all humanity.

The tragedy does not lie in reducing energy costs, but in the idea of converting food into fuel.

One ton of corn can only produce 413 liters of ethanol on average. That is equivalent to 109 gallons.

The average price of corn in U.S. ports has risen to $167 per ton. Thus, 320 million tons of corn would be required to produce 35 billion gallons of ethanol.

According to United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization (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, these are phrases totally lacking in realism. Let’s be clear: 35 billion gallons translates into 35 followed by nine zeros!

Afterwards will come beautiful examples of what experienced and well-organized U.S. farmers can achieve in terms of human productivity: corn converted into ethanol; the chaff from that corn converted into animal feed containing 26 percent protein; cattle dung used as raw material for gas production.

But, this is after voluminous investments only within the reach of the most powerful enterprises, where everything moves on the basis of electricity and fuel. 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 ethanol based on corn or other food and not a single tree will be left to defend humanity from climate change.

Other countries in the rich world are planning to use not only corn but also wheat, sunflower seeds, rapeseed and other foods for fuel production. For the Europeans, for example, it would become a business to import all of the world’s soybeans with the aim of reducing the fuel costs for their automobiles and feeding their animals with the chaff from that legume, particularly rich in all types of essential amino acids.

In Cuba, alcohol used to be produced as a byproduct of the sugar industry. Climate change is already affecting our sugar production. Lengthy periods of drought alternating with record rainfall barely make it possible to produce sugar with an adequate yield during the 100 days of our very moderate winter. Hence, there is less sugar per ton of cane or less cane per acre due to prolonged drought in the months of planting and cultivation.

All the countries of the world, rich and poor, without any exception, could save millions and millions of dollars in investment and fuel simply by changing all the incandescent light bulbs for fluorescent ones, an exercise that Cuba has carried out in all homes throughout the country. That would provide a breathing space to resist climate change without killing the poor masses through hunger.

Today, we are seeing for the first time a really globalized economy and a dominant power in an economic, political and military terrain that in no way resembles that of Imperial Rome.

Some people will be asking themselves why I am talking of hunger and thirst. My response to that: the problem is not like a two-sided coin, but like dice with six sides, or a polyhedron with many more sides.

I refer in this case to a report by TELAM [Argentina’s official news agency], founded in 1945 and generally well informed about economic and social questions in the world. It said:

“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.’

“Over the last 100 years, the use of water has increased at a rate twice as fast as that of population growth.

“According to statistics from the World Water Council, it is estimated that by 2015, the number of inhabitants affected by this grave situation will rise by 3.5 billion people.

“The United Nations celebrated World Water Day on March 23, and called for beginning to confront, that very day, the international scarcity of water, under the coordination of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, with the goal of highlighting the increasing importance of water scarcity on a global scale, and the need for greater integration and cooperation that would make it possible to guarantee sustained and efficient management of water resources.

“Many regions on the planet are suffering from severe water shortages, living with less than 500 cubic meters per person per year. The number of regions suffering from chronic scarcity of this vital element is increasingly growing.

“The principal consequences of water scarcity are an insufficient amount of the precious liquid for producing food, the impossibility of industrial, urban and tourism development and health problems.”

I will refrain from mentioning other important facts, like the melting ice in Greenland and the Antarctic, damage to the ozone layer and the growing volume of mercury in many species of fish for common consumption.

There are other issues that could be addressed, but with these lines I am just commenting on President Bush’s meeting with the top executives of U.S. auto corporations.

Fidel Castro is president of Cuba. This article, slightly abridged here, is his first since his July 2006 surgery. It was originally published March 28 in the Cuban newspaper Granma.