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Leading article The Week

Leader: Against the grain

In Britain, surging grocery prices are painful, but not life-threatening.

19 February 2011

12:00 AM

19 February 2011

12:00 AM

In Britain, surging grocery prices are painful, but not life-threatening. For much of the rest of the world, by contrast, food prices are a matter of life or death. China, the world’s largest wheat producer, is suffering a severe winter drought which looks likely to devastate this year’s harvest. It is setting aside a billion dollars to snap up supplies in the market, with the inevitable result that other, poorer countries will lose out. When global food costs surge, starvation usually follows.

At times like this, it is harder than ever to justify why we in the West are encouraging farmers to grow crops to fill car petrol tanks, rather than people’s stomachs. The biofuels fad is one of many expensive and woefully ineffective ways of replacing our dependence on fossil fuels. In the United States, a quarter of all grain harvested is sent to ethanol distilleries to produce fuel for cars — enough to feed 350 million people for a year. The British government has its orders from the European Union: biofuel must constitute 10 per cent of this country’s transport fuel by the end of this decade.

One of the greatest mistakes in politics is to judge a policy by its intentions rather than by its results (intended and unintended). The charity ActionAid estimates that 30 per cent of the last global fuel price hike was caused by the setting aside of farmland for biofuels. It is likely to be at least as much this time around. And for what? Converting land for inefficient crops is itself a carbon-intensive process. Factor in that, and the amount of carbon saved from switching to biofuels becomes embarrassingly small.

Moreover, Europe’s biofuels industry is not competitive. It needs heavy subsidy and protection from foreign competition. Taxpayer support to EU biofuels production has reached such absurd levels that, according to a study by the International Institute for Sustainable Development, it would be 20 times cheaper to continue using fossil fuels and buy carbon offsets instead.

A biofuels policy that already teetered on the verge of economic madness has been tipped over by new EU plans to slap tariffs on biofuel imports from emerging markets whose farmers can (unlike ours) grow it at a profit. This is typical of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), a deplorable racket which not only means we pay more for food, but ensures we keep African farmers on their knees by refusing to trade fairly with them. Under CAP, we refuse to buy from Mozambique sugar-beet sellers, so as to protect their rivals in Norfolk. And then our politicians fly off to Maputo to talk about curing poverty and promising state aid.

For all its pious intentions, the biofuels agenda has become yet another scam to create another subsidy. Brussels is writing a new chapter in the ongoing scandal of agricultural protectionism.

It was not increasing farm subsidies that made the Soviet bread queues disappear. It was opening up trade with the rest of the world. As Rod Liddle says on page 17, our politicians are good at giving away taxpayers’ money to show how much they care. But a real reform would be to scrap a Common Agricultural Policy, which is now economically, politically and morally indefensible.

Just say no

For Britain’s actors, it is no longer enough to hate fur and corporations. First-past-the-post elections are the new enemy of fashionable opinion — and the stars of stage and screen are queuing up to declare their enthusiasm for Alternative Voting ahead of the referendum in May. This week, in a neatly timed PR stunt ahead of the Academy Awards on Sunday, British Oscar hopefuls Colin Firth and Helena Bonham Carter declared their support for electoral reform. They joined an army of other ‘Say Yes to AV’ celebs, including Eddie Izzard, Joanna Lumley, John Cleese, and (of course) Stephen Fry.

It is easy to spot their hidden agenda. The AV system would turn British politicians into clones who are easy to play on stage or screen. Under AV, politicians would be elected by second- and third-preference votes, so successful candidates would have to appeal not only to their own supporters, but to those who vote for their opponents, too. Centrists who inspire neither admiration nor contempt would triumph and blandness would be the order of the day: the House of Commons would look and sound like 641 Nick Cleggs talking to each other.

Instead of having to master characters as diverse Thatcher and Tony Benn, our actors would simply learn how to play the British MP, a political cypher. The drawback to AV is obvious: Britain needs political personalities as different as they are impassioned. For lovers of real political drama — and progress — the only decent option is to vote No.

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