01.08.2008

Food or Fuel?

Perhaps the name Suzuki is telling us something. Certainly,the passion and uncompromising sense of environmentalstewardship speak of a proud family heritage.

Maybe you've seen her too - when I logged onto YouTube, more than a million and a half "hits"had been there before me! I'm speaking about an extraordinarilycomposed and thoughtful 12 year old from Vancouver,Canada called Severn Suzuki addressing the United NationsEarth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992.

What struck me and, seemingly, the delegates from differentcontinents and cultures who looked on, certainly withrespect and maybe a certain awe, was her sense of urgency.Together with other 12 to 13 year olds, all paying theirown way, Severn had travelled "5,000 miles"from her comfortable Canadian home to impress upon thisinfluential assembly that action to avert the worsteffects of climate change needed to be taken immediately.As she put it so directly with no hint of sugaring thebitter pill that we adults need to soften most unpalatabletruths, "We act as if we have all the time we wantand all the solutions." The reality of desertification,air and water pollution, loss of biodiversity, and soaringglobal food prices leading to the spectre of mass starvationwould suggest otherwise. And what is really soberingis the realisation that Severn was speaking 16 yearsago. She, influenced no doubt by her parents, environmentalistDavid Suzuki and writer Tara Elizabeth Cullis, alreadyknew that attitudinal change was essential, but herwords speak to the crisis that grips us even tightertoday. It seems we've done so very little in the interim.We're still acting as if "we have all the timewe want and all the solutions".

Severn then, and I suspect a great many of our morethoughtful young people now, are acutely aware theyare facing a future of doubt, uncertainty and fear.In fact, all young people are, it's just that some cangive a voice to the nameless angst they carry withinthem. I felt a shiver up my spine when she told thisinternational assembly, "I am fighting for my future."There's just no arguing with that.

She'd already worked out that too many others of uswho live in privilege - and, in relative terms, anyeducated middle class Australian, Canadian, German orAmerican lives a life that's the envy of billions ofothers - "are afraid to let go of some of our wealth".

And maybe that's the crux of the matter. It's as ifthis 12 year old (now an impressively credentialed environmentalactivist in her late 20s) could see the truth that'sstaring us all in the face when we refuse to let gojust a few of our comforts, something as simple as settingthe heater to 22C instead of a "warm as toast"25C or more, or arguing that it's pointless gettingrid of our four wheel drive as we cruise around thecity streets "because China will just build anotherpower station anyway".

It's a cop out and Severn and her fellow Gen Xers andtheir younger siblings would agree.

It's deeply disappointing to see that the Federal Government'smuch hyped carbon emissions trading scheme, now dubbedthe "carbon pollution reduction scheme" tomake it easier for us to grasp, has effectively exemptedpetrol prices because of the overriding fear of electoralfallout. Or, to be more accurate, we just won't feelthe pain because any extra cost of a carbon price puton petrol will be offset by a cut in excise for at leastthe first three years of the scheme. Where's the leadfrom government in that decision? Where's the imperativethat we get out of our cars, or at the very least ourimmensely thirsty 4WDs, and take the first hesitantsteps towards a life that's less dependent on fossilfuels and all the problems they bring, now and intothe future? The government's own ETS adviser, ProfessorRoss Garnaut, was unequivocal in his view that cuttingthe fuel excise would not act as a deterrent to reducingemissions. When it comes to car usage, it's simply encouragingan attitude of "business as usual".

Where's the realisation that we must change our lifestyleswith their absolute dependence on non renewable fuelsso that we can at least slow the progress of climatechange, so that Severn's generation and those cominglater have hope for their future? Once again, she seesclearly what our leaders (and most of us, most of thetime) hide under a cloak of apathy: "I am onlya child but I know that we are all in this together."

As a Western Australian, with my roots firmly dug inthis ancient land of space and freedom, I'm guiltilyconscious of just how much we sacrifice to our shinymetal God, the car. Freeways extend their tentaclesaround our beautiful capital, Perth and separate usfrom a river without equal in any other Australian capital,arterial roads are clogged at peak hour with singleperson vehicles, our public transport services are stillsub standard because we don't use them enough to demandan improvement, bike riders dodge parked cars and iratemotorists who demand through clenched teeth, "What'she doing on the road anyway?"

We rationalise our slavish devotion as the only wayto cope with our State's vast distances. Around thesuburbs? From home to work? Who are we kidding?

Other states share many of our worst excesses, butthere are some local authorities who are definitelydoing it better and that's where we should be settingour sights. In parts of Victoria, for instance, thosedaring bike riders actually have their own designatedlane between the footpath and vehicle lanes, followingthe lead of cities like Copenhagen (I've seen them ininner city Carlton and the regional centre of Bendigo);people ride their bikes out to dinner and find a "park"at a bike rack nearby (perfect for balmy Perth eveningscome to think of it); schemes like Flexicar allow youto reserve a car when you need it for local travel aroundparts of Melbourne and Sydney and drop it off closeto home. No more car repayments, insurance, servicing,let alone the weekly assault on the hip pocket nerveas you top up at the service station. And that's justthe start of the benefits.

It's when we realise the remorseless global impactof our love affair with the car - and all the otherenergy guzzling comforts we take for granted - in thosewealthy countries that Severn Suzuki speaks of, thatit really begins to hit home.

It really has got to the stage where it's a choicebetween fuel and food - and on rapidly accumulatingevidence, fuel is winning hands down. In the Westernworld, we complain bitterly about rapidly rising foodcosts, with higher freight charges shouldering muchof the blame. But in the developing world, mass starvationis now a real threat as staple food crops are divertedinto ethanol production to replace that dwindling commodity,oil, upon which we base so much of our lives.

A report released in late June by international aidagency Oxfam accuses the biofuel policies of developedcountries like the US and those of the European Unionof dragging 30 million extra people into poverty. This,it says, is on the back of a 30 per cent increase inglobal food prices.

The report, called, doffing its hat to Al Gore, "AnotherInconvenient Truth" also contains damning evidencethat not only have biofuels added this enormous extraburden to already marginal lives, but are actually acceleratingclimate change. Oxfam Australia spokesman Jeff Atkinsonstated that the cultivation of biofuel products calledfor mass land clearing that took over agricultural landand forced farming to expand into forests and wetlands,in the process triggering the release of " excessiveand damaging" carbon into the atmosphere. He citedone example in Indonesia, where peatland tropical rainforestwas being cleared to make way for palm oil used in biodiesel."It would take approximately 420 years of biofuelproduction to pay back the carbon debt accrued fromthis destruction of the rainforest's carbon stores,"said Mr Atkinson.

And, continues Oxfam, it's not as if this headlongrush to embrace the perceived saviour of biofuels willeven address the West's need for fuel security. Evenif the entire world's supply of grains and sugars wereconverted into ethanol tomorrow, surely a recipe formass starvation, it would only replace 40 per cent ofglobal petrol and diesel consumption.

Oxfam's spokesman is blunt: "Rich country governmentsshould not use biofuels as an excuse to avoid urgentdecisions about how to reduce their unfettered demandfor petrol and diesel."

Unlike the US and the EU where mandatory targets aredriving the biofuel juggernaut, Australia still hastime on its side. Thankfully, opposition is rising aroundthe world and, for once, the, literally, starving millionsof Africa, Asia and South America have some powerfulallies in the West. In June, global food and drink companiesincluding Unilever, Nestle, Cadbury and Heineken askedthe European Commission to review its policy encouragingbiofuel production. They argued that they believed itwould drive agricultural commodity prices to even furtherrecord highs.

Despite pressure from farming lobbies and the usualsuspects in government and bureaucracy, Australia hasnot yet set such mandatory standards. And before wesuccumb, (the parallels with the GM debate are worthyof note) maybe we should take on board the commentsof others in government and bureaucracy who can seethe devastation that is being reaped in their own countries- instead of crops of maize and corn to feed their ownpopulations as they have done since time immemorial.In May, India's Minister for Finance was quoted as describingthe conversion of food crops to biofuels as " acrime against humanity". Mr P. Chidambaram saidthe conversion to biofuels was the biggest single reasonbehind the world's food crisis.

In the same month, economist and special adviser tothe UN, Jeffrey Sachs, urged the US and the EU to reconsidertheir support for biofuels because they "no longermade sense". Plans for one third of the UnitedStates's maize crop to end up in the gas tank wouldbe "a huge blow to the world food supply, so theseprograms should be cut back significantly," saidMr Sachs. Currently, the US uses about 18 billion litresof ethanol a year, a figure set to treble by 2022.

To put the whole equation into sharp perspective, thecorn needed to produce enough ethanol fill a 95 litretank of a large 4WD vehicle could feed one person fora year.

So while our elected lawmakers deliberate, what canwe do, according to Mahatma Gandhi's much quoted butnever more needed maxim, to "be the change we wantto see in the world"?

Obviously, we need to get out of our cars. Downsizingfrom two bigger cars to one small, energy efficientmodel has its moments of inconvenience, certainly, butthe cost savings are fantastic (I know). It really isa great feeling to look at your petrol gauge at theend of the week and see it half full!

We really do need to consider what we buy and why.There's no doubt that you get what you pay for and ifit's cheap, we need to ask why. And that covers everythingfrom electrical goods (we have to have them, but surelywe should be buying according to energy efficiency,not that outmoded standard of "cheap is best"),to clothing (we have to have that, too, but maybe weshould ask under what conditions it was made), to travel(is there any such thing as a "cheap" airfare when you factor in the carbon emissions from airtravel, particularly short haul flights), to food.

And there's no better example of getting what you payfor. Even – especially - at a time where foodcosts are soaring, I feel strongly that we should besupporting choice and locally grown produce, both becauseit's better for us and cheaper in the long run. Whenwe look at the dwindling choices available on our supermarketshelves (think back 10 years to all the favourites youjust can't get anymore because generics have swampedthe market), we're entitled to wonder exactly what we'repaying for when we know so many prepared foods havebeen imported from low wage countries. We should askourselves what is the energy cost of bringing thesefoods to our shelves - and one thing's for certain,it's only going to get higher.

Fresh seasonal food, preferably organic because ofits greater nutritional value and negligible toxic load,has to be our only option. If we succumb to price pressureand fill our families up on fast, cheap (for now), conveniencefood, we are not only compromising our health, but turningour back on small local producers who are our only hopefor choice and quality and integrity in food in thefuture. Making an effort to cook a real meal for yourselfor your family, as distinct from throwing somethingfrom a packet into the microwave, makes for some latemeals. Again, I know. But I also know there's somethingdeeply satisfying in cooking good food, with intent,to nourish on every level.

As Severn Suzuki realised a decade and a half ago,our world is at a turning, or perhaps, a tipping point.I think she deserves the last word: "My dad alwayssays, 'You are what you do, not what you say.' I challengeyou, please make your actions reflect your words."

Advertisement